What are the unique needs of the emerging generation of young people? And how do we as the church uniquely reach and engage them today? In this podcast, Sean and Scott interview youth culture guru Chap Clark about his recent book Adoptive Church. Chap brings a lifetime of experience and research, as well as Scriptural insight, to help churches effectively nurture young people today.

More About Our Guest

Chap Clark

Chap Clark is lead pastor at St Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA. He has been a professor of Practical Theology and Youth, Family, and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. Dr. Clark is also the author of over 25 books including the award-winning Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers and Adoptive Church.

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically, Conversations on Faith & Culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of Christian apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

Scott Rae: And I'm your cohost, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics also at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

Sean McDowell: We're here with a special guest, Dr Chap Clark, who's been working with students for years. Now he's a senior pastor, written a number of books. And I got a chance to read his book, Adoptive Church, and have been looking forward to having him on for a long time just talking about what would it mean to have a church that engages this emerging generation, but even just ask him some questions about what is going on with students and with this new generation today. So, Dr. Clark, thanks for joining us.

Chap Clark: Thank you. To be with you two, what a gift. And I don't get called Dr. Clark all that often unless they want a, if they want a grade change, maybe that's when they pull out the title. I appreciate being with you guys. Thank you.

Sean McDowell: Well, let me start off by asking you this, in your book, Adoptive Church, you say it's focused on reaching emerging generations. You've worked with students for a long time. What would you say are some distinctives or characteristics that describe what people have dubbed iGen or Gen Z?

Chap Clark: I kind of have a theory that emerged over many years. You and your dad especially and a lot of folks helped me to think more deeply about the life that young people were growing up in and their culture. And I know you guys have done a lot of work with apologetics and that side of it. I've looked more at the kind of sociology and the psychology of kids as they've grown up. And through the decades, kind of my understanding of how life has worked for them is adults have been less and less present over the years, and therefore they've had fewer and fewer actual models who shared life with them, people to sit on the curb with them after a game, parents that'll sit down and just engage young people in a way that's trusting and allows them to open up.

Chap Clark: So, therefore they've been more and more on their own. And I see that, I'm old enough to remember when Gen X was the great enemies and you know, now they're in the middle age folks all complaining about their kids. So, the Gen Xers were these awful generation of these rebels there. Their problem was they just didn't have adults that seemed to care enough to slow down their own agenda to actually listen to the younger generation.

Chap Clark: Well, you know, as Gen x has come through and now millennials are coming through and the following generations, I kind of don't see these as waves of unique populations. I see these as products of previous generations where what they receive from the people that are ahead of them, whether they're 10 years ahead of them like teachers or parents or grandparents, less and less actual engagement and support.

Chap Clark: And therefore, every generation feels a little more lonely, a little more distressed, a little more incomplete. And therefore, they look like they're entitled and they look like they're self-centered, and we go after them with selfies and all kinds of things. But what they really want is somebody to come alongside of them and to actually take them seriously while they help protect them and interpret their pain.

Chap Clark: So my take is this generation of, I mean, all the way from children all the way through I would say late 20s early 30s it's a whole huge vast population of people that have had very few mature godly adults who don't have a hardcore agenda to judge young people but are willing to care, surround , empower, and I think it's really taken a toll on them. So I see today's 15 year old as in great pain, but trying to figure out how to survive in a culture that just goes so fast and so filled the superficiality. I could talk more and more on that but that's plenty.

Scott Rae: Dr. Clark, I'll get into the respect thing too and call you doctor.

Chap Clark: Oh my God. Okay, I'm going to soak it in.

Scott Rae: But I think that may be the last time for both of us.

Chap Clark: That's totally okay.

Scott Rae: Let me follow up on that just briefly. What do you think accounts for this sort of absence of adults in the lives of this emerging generation? Why are adults so non-present with kids today?

Chap Clark: My take is more complicated than we have time for here. But my take is in the, when I was, I was a Fuller professor for 21 years. And kind of like you guys, I did a lot on youth, family and culture and media and film and development and a lot of these kinds of things. And through those years, I came to the conclusion that as modern society really became more complicated and as kind of a lack of a meta-narrative, which I know you guys talk about some, more and more people became isolated and fragmented into smaller and smaller groups.

Chap Clark: There's a guy named Robert Putnam, he's a sociologist and Harvard. I think he's a closet Christian, I don't know. But he has done some really interesting work on how what we think community is as he wrote it so significantly in the last 40 or 50 years and he documents it so well, and there's a lot of other corroborating evidence on that, that people have become more and more isolated. And then when you grow up when you've been isolated, you have this inner need to make your mark.

Chap Clark: Tom, you've heard me say from the pulpit before when you used to be at St Andrew's that we have to, we've got to perform our way into blessing now. We've got to create some reason why somebody would take us seriously. I don't think 100 years ago, 500 years ago, 2000 years ago, the average person would grow up believing that nobody cared unless I prove myself. And I think that's the biggest issue, competition and comparison is really the name of the game. So when the name of the game is competition and comparison, internally, you really feel on your own. And when you feel on your own, you're going to do a lot of crazy goofy things. And it's affected marriages, it's affected friendships. Very few people know how to really engage with each other in deep levels.

Sean McDowell: Chap, let me ask you this question.

Chap Clark: Thank you Sean, way to go.

Sean McDowell: I knew you were going to say something. You've been in youth ministry for a while, and I was tempted to call you kind of a youth ministry father with all the genuine respect that comes from that because of your experience.

Chap Clark: [inaudible 00:07:17] grandfather, which is even worse.

Sean McDowell: Well I think my dad gets that grandfather motif.

Chap Clark: Yeah, there you go.

Sean McDowell: So, whatever motif you want, you have a unique perspective of seeing youth ministry change over really two, three decades or so. How have you seen it change? You talk about moving from being programmatic to more adoptive. Can you give us a 30,000 foot view of how you've seen youth ministry change and some things you think are good and maybe some things you're concerned about?

Chap Clark: That's the great question. Thanks. Let me be, uncharacteristic of me, let me try to be brief. Youth ministry really as we see it now really began to take shape in the late 60s, early 70s. And in those days, it was a whole bunch of people that said, doggone it, we're losing kids, kids don't like church. We care about them, nobody else seems to. So we're just gonna grab a few of each other. We're going to love kids in the name of Jesus and we're going to help them to fall in love with Christ.

Chap Clark: And developmentally in the late 60s and 70s, you were really an adult developmentally right around the time you graduated from high school or shortly thereafter. So you were ready to take on the demands and call of the Gospel at that time. And so, working with high school kids which was the primary mode of youth ministry in those days was to convince them that Jesus is real and they could in an adult like way as a junior or senior in high school could say, I'm going to give my life to him.

Chap Clark: The Jesus Movement of the early 70s, the proliferation of the early Christian music, all of a Southern California stuff that happened with Chuck Smith. That's helped spawn and the new specialties and others, helped spawn this kind of commitment to Jesus in kids working with you for Christ and Young Life and the kind of the integration of all of us getting on board, yay, Focus Ministry.

Chap Clark: But then as the 70s took off and the 80s and more and more of the things I was talking about earlier, more and more adults moved into programmatizing and codifying how we do ministry. And we started spreading that out across the church. The early 70s it was just youth ministry and then normal church life as a community. Then in the early 80s, children's ministry became a big deal. Then in the late 80s, women's ministry, Promise Keepers, worship ministry through the mid 80s, late 80s, 90s, and all these different aspects of church ministry became kind of bifurcated and fragmented and every little pocket had their own programmatic deal.

Chap Clark: So youth ministry became about we're the big dog, we're the ones that bring in kids, we know how to do it "sunsety" the beginning of Willow Creek was this, out of Moody and some and some other folks with a big deal to programmatize and codify this is how you do youth ministry. And then Fields and Jim Burns through Saddleback, and I mean, we can go through a whole lot of different litanies of these things. But basically, youth ministry in the mid 80s became about running programs to love kids in the name of Christ. It used to be entrepreneurs out there in the streets, going to games, hanging out with kids. Then it became we're going to build it and they're going to come. And we built programs and we programmatize youth ministries.

Chap Clark: Then in the early 90s Mike Yaconelli and four couples went to spend a week with Henri Nouwen, and Dee and I were one of those couples.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Chap Clark: And I've been preaching on that actually the last six weeks on [inaudible 00:11:06]. But that changed, I don't know if you remember that Sean, but all of a sudden, we started thinking, wait a minute, let's get back to what does it really mean to lead kids to love Jesus instead of loving youth ministry. We want them to love youth ministry, now, let's let them love Jesus. And let's think about spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines. And then youth ministry took off in the 90s and early 2000s in the academy, Biola, Talbot, Fuller, Moody, Dallas. I mean, you just go down the list.

Chap Clark: And all of a sudden, we started doing, training people to think theologically about youth ministry and we became more thoughtful. So we became more spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation. We became more theological. And programs became more an expression of theology and spiritual formation until about 10 years ago. And about 10 years ago, for a lot of reasons, we started going back to saying, that's too much work, doggone it. We got a 23 year old with a guitar, come on, and a video machine and a great computer.

Chap Clark: And we went back to programmatizing youth ministry and that's where we are again. I think we're back in the mid 80s where we run programs, we play cool worship music, we give a talk, we try to get kids to be student leaders, but we don't give them our lives anymore. And therefore kids are disconnected from the church in unprecedented numbers, which is why we're losing so many, I know that's so long, I'm sorry, but that's a very complicated question. I feel like we're missing spiritual formation, we're missing the core theology of what we're doing. And that's what I've been fighting for in the last five years and that's why Adoptive Church is kind of my pinnacle book of my youth ministry career.

Scott Rae: Chap, that's really insightful stuff. I appreciate that big picture overview of that. Because I grew up and came to faith in the 60s and 70s through Young Life where people just hung out with us. They did exactly what you described. They went to games, they hung out with us. And by their presence, they showed that they actually cared about us and thought we had something to offer. Tracing that change I think is really, that's really an insightful set of comments.

Scott Rae: Tell us what you mean. Let's get into your idea of the adoptive church a little more specifically. What exactly do you mean by that concept and how would we notice an adoptive church if we actually saw one?

Chap Clark: The word comes from the Bible, which anybody that knows me well knows that I am a Bible thumper, even though I taught at fuller. Thank you for laughing, that's so awesome. I love people that would label themselves as conservative and me as sort of not because I taught at Fuller. And I just go, okay, grab your Bible, here we go, baby. Let's have some fun in the scriptures.

Chap Clark: And I got to tell you, I used to teach assimilation for years. In 2000, there's a book called Starting Right: A Path to Theology of Youth Ministry, something like that, with Kenda Dean and Dave Rahn. And in that book, I wrote about, our job is to assimilate kids in the church. Don't just get them to love Christ, but get them to find and express love for Christ in the body of Christ.

Chap Clark: And that sounded good. Anybody that's kind of a thoughtful youth ministry person [inaudible 00:14:42] church. The problem is I had an African American doctoral student once who really challenged me on that and said that's a horrible word because what assimilate means is you get to be with us kids. You get to be with big church people, but you got to become us in order to join us. That's what assimilate means. To assimilate from a fringe culture into a dominant culture, the fringe culture has to adapt to the power of the dominant culture. Meaning if a kid is going to end up in the church that they assimilate, they got to like the sermons, they got to like the music, they got to dress the right way. They got to become their parents.

Chap Clark: Well, the problem with that is it's horribly offensive to the fringe group if they have any sense of self. And it took an African American doctoral student to help me to understand that one. And so I was with this doctoral cohort where we started going, okay, what's a better word? And we ended up going to the scriptures that when the church was in greatest conflict, the apostle Paul appeals to who we are in Christ by saying, don't you realize, five times he uses a single Greek word which is translated adopted to sonship. Three times in Romans, once in Galatians, once in Ephesians. And he said, don't you realize that you were adopted by Christ.

Chap Clark: John 1:12, "To all who received him, to all who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." Theologically, after the fall, we've all been orphaned in function. We're still eminent children because God still loves us and stamps us with his image, but we're wandering lost. John, I mean, Luke 19, "The son of man came to seek and save the lost." In Christ, we are found, and when we're found, we're called children of God, we live into that reality. That's plural. That means we are siblings in the body of Christ. And Paul uses the word adoption.

Chap Clark: So, adoptive ministry, adoptive church means we live into the reality of our mutual adoption in Christ, that's the bottom line. And I don't see any church, I haven't seen any church really fully thoroughly living that way, at least in our context. I see it in other parts of the world some but not here.

Sean McDowell: So what are the barriers keeping people from seeing the church this way? Is it a lack of knowledge? Is it busyness? Is it priorities? So let me ask you that, what are the barriers? And then second, how do you motivate adults to buy into the model of seeing youth as part of the church when every other institution seems to be pushing this endless adolescence and don't grow up until you absolutely have to? So what are the barriers and what do we do to motivate people to see the importance of [inaudible 00:17:44]

Chap Clark: Okay, this is going to get me in trouble. That's okay, I'm used to that. Welcome to my career.

Scott Rae: We can edit things out if we need to.

Chap Clark: Good. Well, unfortunately, I actually mean it. Two things. Pain, which translates into arrogance is one of the barriers. The other barrier is power. I believe with all my heart that millennials are not the entitled generation. Senior adults and older adults who are in power are the entitled generation.

Scott Rae: Wow.

Chap Clark: Yes. See why get in trouble?

Sean McDowell: I think you're right. Keep going though.

Chap Clark: It doesn't play anything, but the point of, I think our holding on the power and dominance is the way we deal with our sense of loss and pain as the culture changes. I'm pretty old now too. I'm a granddaddy of three granddaughters. But I got to tell you, just part of the deal is the culture changes. I feel like I'm losing my grip on what's important to me. And the one place I can exert power is in my church. I've been here for 40 years, it's my church.

Chap Clark: Now pastors are culpable for this because I think pastors have also bought into it because we have not allowed ourselves to realize the church is never to be a fixed dominant institutionalized culture. The church is an open organism where the Holy Spirit is guiding us to constantly reinvent ourselves in that local context, meaning, the older I get, the more responsibility I have to adapt so new people can join me. My pain and my power are the two things that keep others from joining me in the church.

Chap Clark: And it's not, young people's job is not to try to weasel their way into the dominance of the church. It's the older generation and those in power, senior leadership that must open up our hearts and our lives so we receive young people, whether it's a 15 year old or a 30 year old into the center of our fellowship. When it's about music, it's about style, when it's about money, it is sin, bottom line. And we are the body of Christ, we must live as siblings where the Holy Spirit is moving us to love one another so we're capable of following him and participate in his kingdom.

Scott Rae: Again, that's really insightful stuff and, you know, I think for someone at my age who is basically sort of where you are, those are particularly convicting words to try and choke down.

Chap Clark: See why I get in trouble? I got to tell you, me too, I'm chief of sinners. I mean, I'm the worst.

Scott Rae: I confess, that's really insightful stuff. I admit, it is hard to choke down. But that doesn't mean it's not true. Let me ask you something sort of related to that. In your book you discuss, you spend a lot of time talking about welcoming the outsider and hospitality. I've actually heard you preach quite a bit on Christian hospitality. We talk about that a lot but incorporating that into the DNA of the local church is a whole nother matter. How do you see that as part of becoming an adopted church and how does that become sort of part of the fabric of what a church is about?

Chap Clark: That's really good. And you know what, I've been a consultant and a writer and a teacher all these years. It's a way different ballgame to actually be the guy, and how the Lord actually orchestrated this, we never even want, you know that Ton, I didn't apply for that job. Senior pastor of a pretty big church, a pretty traditional church with a lot of powerful people. To get them to honestly look at the Scriptures and the Gospel and their own propensities and biases is not an easy thing.

Chap Clark: But what's key is, I have to start with me and senior leadership, senior staff, senior lay leadership, and get them to recognize, get all of us to recognize we have to change ourselves first, bottom line, any dominant culture for it to change, ut must be the leaders that humble themselves and change first. So that's where we've been, what I've been working on in my first year, I'm now into my second year.

Chap Clark: Second thing is then you create stories and narratives and a lexicon and language that reflects what the Gospel actually teaches, so that everybody gets infused and swims in this pond of one in Christ, we are a family, we are all siblings. All of us must open our hearts to first each other and then the world. And it is slow going, man, especially in this culture. I've been around a long time. I have never seen the Christian community as divided as they are today in my lifetime that I've noticed. This is just like the civil rights movement. I mean, we're worrying about so many of the things that ultimately are killing us. When we got to just come and look at the Bible again. So my take is, leaders have to be on board and have courage to lead.

Sean McDowell: I think that's great and I appreciate you not only saying that but really doing that in a real world setting and just kind of owning your own journey. I think that's, I think that's great. I commend you for that and I appreciate it. Let me ask you this question Chap, just kind of push back a little bit and see what you think. I read on page 26 you mentioned three crises facing youth ministry today. And you said one, losing kids. Everybody agrees with that. Statistics are clear, kids are disengaged in the church primarily and many their faith. And then second you said this encroaching secularized worldview. And then third, kids are hurting.

Sean McDowell: Now when I look at that, I go, okay, this secular worldview is coming and that's a belief truth kind of realm, a kid's worldview. Kids are hurting is a relational realm, it's both. And I saw the same in your Sticky Faith book you did with Kara Powell, the top questions kids asked were like does God love me, relational. And then the other one was does God even exist, which is more of an apologetic question. And my question for you, if I can frame it this way, sometimes I see my apologetic friends saying, all we got to do is teach truth to this generation. And I'm like, you're nuts. We have to teach them truth but it must be in relationships.

Sean McDowell: On the flip side, when I read your book, it's about adoption, it's about relationships, and I'm going, yes, yes, yes. But does an adoptive church also systematically and thoughtfully and carefully teach a young person how to think Christianly because can't Mormons do an adoptive church if all we're talking about is relationships?

Chap Clark: That's so good, Sean, that's a great question. And you guys have both done this. When you write, you got to pick and choose how far you go into different concepts when you're trying to build an argument. But you're absolutely correct. If we don't have the core gospel that's infusing our relationships with kids, we can model love, but if we don't model love that emanates from who Jesus Christ is and who he calls us to be, then that is really an empty kind of love and it's not the fullness of the Gospel.

Chap Clark: And so, like one of the chapters that has most guided me in discipleship is Galatians Five. In Galatians 5:6 there's this incredible phrase that was so offensive to the Jewish Christians at the time. "For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value." We can talk about that all day about empty devotional duties that we think are going to heal us because devotional duties don't heal us. Spiritual disciplines don't heal us, faith in Christ heals us. Disciplines get our hearts ready to receive his healing.

Chap Clark: But the second half of Galatians 5:6 is your answer to your question. "The only thing that counts," I love when Paul says that, because as soon as Paul says, the only thing that counts, you go, oh my gosh, he's about to say the only thing that counts. I mean that's like, wow. Okay. "Is faith expressing itself through love." That word, faith, he's already unpacked in that chapter where it means my entire life is centered on the person and work, revelation, lordship, reign of Jesus Christ. So, the only thing that counts is my faith, my trust in Christ, expressing itself through love.

Chap Clark: So, loving relationships are the environmental laboratory where kids explore the truth of Christ. And the truth of Christ is embedded within the relationships. The one place that I, I never got to be invited to any conversations with apologetics friends like you guys because they've always seen me as way too Young Lifey, the way to relationships and just good old Jesus instead of worldview stuff.

Chap Clark: I come from a place, even my doctorate had a lot to do with human development, where it's really tough as the brain develops to present any kind of cognitive content disassociated from the reality of where that content is already taken root. In other words, content of worldview training of ideas is crucial and important, but it's got to be embedded within where people are actually living it and expressing it while they teach it.

Chap Clark: And my take on the church is, we're way better at offering cognitive content to kids than we are letting them actually see how that content has transformed us. So therefore, an adoptive church is where we are really committed to making a safe space for kids while we are at the same time living out authentic biblical worldview faith. Really fun to have a topic on that and a panel. That's all I can say for now.

Sean McDowell: Chap, I think that's fantastic. In fact, interestingly enough, my father's written a lot of books on relationships and purity and parenting and also in the world of apologetics.

Chap Clark: And I've grown up on that. I mean your dad is older than me. And yes, I've learned so much from him and you. Absolutely. I mean, in both of those arenas, your dad's been a key player in my thinking.

Sean McDowell: Well, I appreciate you saying that. And one things he's always said to me is like truth is meant for relationships and we learn truth best in relationships. And that's what I hear you saying which I think is just a beautiful balance, both sides of the conversation need to hear and remember. So thanks for bringing that out. And your book does bring out that balance I think. So, thanks for clarifying. I think that's awesome.

Sean McDowell: We want to thank you for taking the time to come on and personally just, you know, the older I get, I have kids, I don't have grandkids yet, but when I look at people like my dad, you, yes, he's older than you and you've had a consistent message, you've had a consistent ministry, you stayed faithful, especially to a generation that really judges our words by whether we're authentic or not. I just want to say thanks for living such a consistent life with this message. That means a ton today.

Sean McDowell: And I want to encourage our listeners, your book Adoptive Church is written for church workers. So if you work in a church in any setting, even if you volunteer or if you're a pastor, youth pastor, pick it up. If you're a parent and you're listening, this would be a wonderful gift for your youth pastor in particular. And not with any hidden agenda, just say, hey, I heard this podcast, Chap Clark, he's been in ministry for 30 some years, here's kind of his life message. And they need to wrestle through that on the staff. So, thanks for coming on, we really appreciate your time.

Chap Clark: Thank you so much, Sean. Both of you guys, I appreciate you both so much, and what a joy to walk with you on this journey.

Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, Conversations on Faith & Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Dr. Chap Clark, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.