The Local Church: Reaching a Youth Culture
Editor’s Note: This interview is the second installment of Evangelical Action’s series “How Does Your Church Grow?” and is your opportunity to meet the pastors of the local church plants, hear their stories, and understand why in a city filled with empty churches, theirs is flourishing. To learn more about the goal of this interview journey, please click here.
McLean Bible Church (MBC) was among the first churches in the Washington D.C. area to welcome the area’s vibrant youth culture. But one MBC campus, Arlington, intentionally outreaches to the city’s Millennial generation without compromising on conviction and Christian teaching.
Pastor Nathan Keeler serves as head pastor of MBC Arlington, which uniquely ministers to Georgetown University college students and early 20-something young professions living and working in the D.C. Metro area.
CV: How long have you been in DC and involved with McLean Bible Church Arlington?
NK: I’ve been in DC for nine years. I’ve been on staff as McLean Bible Church (MBC) for about seven years. And I’ve been working with Arlington for just one year, but I’ve been involved with Young Adult Ministries pretty much since I started working with McLean Bible Church seven years ago. [MBC] started the Arlington campus right around the time I got on staff at McLean. However, I was not involved in the startup at all. I was working at the Tyson’s campus; it wasn’t till later that I got more involved. The Arlington campus is about seven years old.
CV: What was the motivation for MBC to start Arlington?
NK: Well let’s back up and talk about our campuses as a whole. The Church has been in existence for about 50 years, under Lon Solomon’s leadership over the past 30 plus years and the church has really grown, by the grace of God. Not just in numbers of people who come to church but also in the number of people who have given their lives to Christ and the number of missionaries sent around the world. Those kinds of numbers have just been incredible. But we got to a place at the Tyson’s campus where:
(1) We were at capacity. Basically we filled out every service. A lot of people come in the church that were suburban, there was a whole set of people who live around DC who we were missing and we weren’t able to get them. Particularly think of Arlington, there’s a good percentage of people in Arlington that don’t drive or have a car. They take the Metro every day to go everywhere. So for them to come out on a Sunday to Tyson’s, it was a little challenging.
(2) Our vision to build a spiritual beltway around the DC metro area started 7-8 years ago and then into DC in order to reach more people more communities, impact more aspects of DC. So the vision was to bring different versions of McLean Bible Church around the city that reflected environment and look like the culture they are in.
And even the staffs of each church reflect the culture of the environment of the church campus. For instance, Arlington is a young, vibrant, go-getter campus with majority of them single professionals.
CV: How does MBC Arlington reflect Washington D.C.’s youth professional culture?
NK: We launched MBC Arlington because we felt that that is a very unique, very influential, young adult professional population that we think we can have a large impact on. So we started up Arlington with that in mind, we wanted to reach young politicians, we wanted to start-up business people, we wanted to reach the government contractors that are all 20 and 30-something years old living in Arlington.
CV: Statistics and data tells us that Millennials are departing in mass exodus from churches. What do you think when you hear these claims based on what you see every Sunday morning?
NK: It is interesting. I think nationally speaking — after reading through research forums, books and [thinkers] like Gabe Lyons, Ed Stetzer — the statistics is true. Millennials are less likely to go to church. They are less likely to be religious. They are more likely to be liberal in their theology but also in their politics, they are more likely to take issues on more of a liberal stance morally speaking, like on same sex marriage, abortion issues. They are also more likely to be categorized as non-affiliates- about 30 percent of Millennials say that they are not religious, they have no religious affiliation. So I think nationally, that is a true statement.
What I found is evangelical church, particularly church plants and younger leaning churches are doing a better job than they’ve ever done at reaching young adult populations. For example, a statics I read said that there are more church plants by 20- 30 year olds then there has ever been in the history of America. It’s because we are more intentional about reaching that population then we have ever been before. When [MBC’s] Front Line started, 17-18 years ago, no one was doing a church to reach young adults. The issues that they were talking about weren’t really geared to the single person — dealing with the issues of purity and all those kinds of things—dealing with first career and all those kinds of things. We saw how successful Front Line was, it was because no one else was doing that; but you look at Arlington, Fairfax, and the District (DC), Front Line is being replicated everywhere. Those churches didn’t exist 10-15 years ago. So what we are seeing is young evangelicals who are very passionate about having an authentic expression of church in our city.
CV: You mentioned purity, but do you talk about other hot button issues?
KN: We don’t shy away from it. At the same time, we don’t harp on issues just to be political, where you enter into the political world in some kind of hokey kind of way or manipulative kind of way. I think Lon Solomon would say “we preach the Bible, we preach what the Bible has to say, and if we are coming in a particular passage of Scripture that talks on issues— homosexuality, on issues of sanctity of life, the role of the Christian within their government, the role of government as a whole—when we get to those issues in scripture, we preach what the [Scriptures] say and then we’ll move on.
I would say, adding on to that, I think we need to equip young adults to be able to think biblically, with a biblical worldview, not just in their own personal piety. We need to teach them to have their own biblical worldview and how to relate to an increasingly more secular environment, an increasingly more post-Christian society. How do you address those issues? So what we do, on those hot-button issues (stewardship, dating life, sexuality, marriage, drinking etc.), is we host workshops where we get to look at a particular issue and address it from a Biblical worldview in a deeper way where we are engaging in the discussion more than we would from the pulpit.
Typically from the pulpit, we are not driving at those issues on purpose. We do it as it comes up in a sermon series or scriptural study that we’re doing. But in workshops we’ll go into those issues and expound on them, look at them from a biblical worldview. We also try to train up leaders so we are constantly filling in our own leaders how to looking at issues about life from a biblical worldview.
Our small group leaders even have more influence on typical person in our congregation, more than we have, because they get to see them once a week for a couple of hours and they are teaching through issues. So we want to make sure our leaders are equipped so that they address these issues and they are not always like “oh, I don’t know.”
CV: Have you faced challenges trying to adapt to youth culture in Arlington and balancing it with Christian teachings?
NK: Oh, yeah. Finding new, refreshing ways to say the same thing is always the challenge in our culture. Sometimes we have to take the approach of “Ok, we are not going to shy away from this word or this topic because even though culture might not like the idea, might not like the word.” Sometime we have to go “Ok, we are going to take this word and redeem it –we are going to tell people what that word actually means and this particular passage of Scripture.” I think we always want to find fresh ways of connecting ancient principles, ancient Truth, to a new culture that uses a different language and different way of expressing itself. So when we are talking about sharing the gospel, we are using the word “evangelize.” Evangelize now is almost a dirty word, like “oh, evangelize the city”? People are like you just cursed them if you use that word. Are we trying to evangelize? Absolutely! Are we trying to convert people? You bet!