How Pharrell Williams and Malcolm Gladwell Helped Me Figure Out What Emerging Generations Are REALLY Looking For.

“By embracing the diversity of human beings, we will find a sure way to true happiness.” – Howard Moscowitz

Ever since I left the world of education for professional Christianity I have been consumed with a desire to find a way to create a worshipping community that young people would love to attend. I have discovered over the last 11 years that this is not only a passion of mine, but one that many people around the country are interested in trying to figure out as well.

Recently, I have read several articles and blog posts about what it will take to reach emerging generations. From worship style, to program development, to social justice initiatives, everyone seems to have an answer to the problem.

And I appreciate their attempts.

But the problem with all of these “solutions” lies in something that I have learned recently from two unlikely sources: Pharrell Williams and Malcolm Gladwell.

Here is what I have learned.

Young people want to be happy; and young people want choice.

The Pharrell Williams song “Happy” is the most popular song in America right now. Why? Because people are tired of hearing depressing news about the economy, foreign affairs, global warming, mass murders, natural disasters, pain and suffering. Of course, all of these things are a part of the reality of life on planet earth, but for the love of God must we hear about it 24-7-365? Where are the happy stories? Yesterday a video of a family’s pet cat saving a toddler from a dog attack went viral. Why? Because it’s positive. It’s something good that happened in our world of seemingly unending bad!

People want to be happy.

Particularly young people who are being told over and over again that the world they will be inheriting is unstable in every way.

Welcome to adulthood children, you may not be able to get a job, the world may be at war, crime may be rampant, and the planet may explode before you reach middle age. But look on the bright side …

Interestingly, the Church has the answer to all of this.

The Church has a counter-cultural message of hope and joy that promises all of humanity that no matter what happens in this life all will be well.

Jesus put it this way: “In the world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the world.” – John 16.33

God, through Jesus, has conquered the world. That’s freaking good news man! That’s something to be happy about.

And yet, young people are somehow not getting that message from the Church. Why not? What is the Church doing that is unintentionally inhibiting young people from hearing the Good News of Jesus’ message?

Malcolm Gladwell has helped me with this one.

In this excellent TED Talk from 10 years ago, Malcolm tells the story of Howard Moscowitz. Moscowitz helped companies like Prego and Campbell’s Soup discover that there is no “one” spaghetti sauce or soup. He helped Pepsi see that while they were trying to create the perfect Pepsi they should have instead been trying to create the perfect Pepsis!

Choice. Variety. Give people options.

Here’s how this relates to the Church in my mind: we have been working real hard to discover the “one” way to reach young people. Young people want liturgical, high church experiences; no, young people are looking for missional, social justice oriented congregations; actually if we just provide good, contemporary worship with relevant teaching, excellent music, and the arts they’ll come; young people need community, we need to create more opportunities for them to connect in small groups.

Nothing wrong with any of these things. In fact, all of them are true and necessary.

All of them.

That’s the key.

Gladwell’s talk helped me realize the value of choice.

People don’t know what they want. If we ask young people what they want they may tell us what they think they want, but until they experience options, they won’t really know.

A third of Americans didn’t realize they really wanted chunky spaghetti sauce until chunky spaghetti sauce was made available to them.

The point: what if we quit spending so much time trying to figure out what style of worship or what programs we need to offer in order to draw young people to our churches and simply offer a variety of choices and options? What if we spent more time focusing on how to communicate a message of faith, hope and love at our traditional service and our contemporary service and our emergent service and in our missional communities and in our house churches and in our Sunday School classes and at our outreach events and during our mission projects, our prayer groups, our youth gatherings, at men’s breakfast and mom’s night out, at our staff retreats and at Wednesday Night Supper?

You may say, “But we’re a small church. We can’t do all of those things!”

But you can do something. You can start something. You can encourage folks in your church to take some leadership and create something. And pretty soon you’ve got some options. And pretty soon a young family shows up. And pretty soon a few youth straggle in and plop down in the back row. And pretty soon you’re not all that worried about what is was about your worship service that got them there, you’re more concerned about what they need to hear in order to change their lives and trust in this Savior that we claim to serve.

Variety is the spice of life.

It’s also the key to welcoming young people into the church.

And when they come, we must be ready to offer them something different than what they hear every day in the classrooms, on their TV’s, at the movies and on the internet.

Something like:

“As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete.” – John 15.9-11

As Bill Hybel’s has always been fond of saying: “The Church is the hope of the world.”

If we would simply believe that and act like it, I don’t think we’d need to spend any more time trying the figure out how to get young people to come to church.


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