Pastor Rick Warren made a brief appearance during the Groundswell online conference on Thursday, but he wasn't the keynote speaker. In fact, many of the speakers who were featured aren't even out of high school yet.
Teenagers from across America poured out their hearts in front of an international Internet audience during the event, titled "Groundswell: The Church of Tomorrow Speaks Today." The three-hour long conference was made up primarily of video clips in which teenage Christians shared their thoughts on the future of the church and on how churches can better reach their generation for Christ.
Hope Rangle, a teenager from Alabama, said churches aren't capturing the attention of most teens, and she believes they should encourage more young people to serve others in the church.
"Teenagers are often pushed aside as if they're not there, but I think the teenagers should be taken advantage of," said Rangle. "[Serving] takes you from going to a church to actually being a part of a church."
As the pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., Warren said he realized several years ago that young people often stopped attending services once they outgrew the church's student ministries. Young people stopped coming because "they had no connection to the bigger body," but he is now taking steps to better integrate them into the life of the church as a whole.
"The bottom line is teenagers are not the church of tomorrow ... they are the church now," said Warren.
David Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group, also offered his insights during the event. He shared with viewers some of the research that appeared in his book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church...and Rethinking Faith, which focuses on the overwhelming number of young people who stop attending church after their teen years.
According to Barna Group research, 59 percent of teenagers who are active in their youth groups today will stop attending church at some point between the ages of 18 and 29. Kinnaman said Christian teens want more opportunities to contribute and express their views in the church, but adults aren't pushing them to reach their potential.
"This generation is more interested in being challenged than we are in challenging them," he stated.
Many of the student speakers also discussed the issue of the cultural relevance of churches during the event. One speaker, Nick Ertel, said entering some churches is like walking into a "timewarp," because the church's methodology hasn't changed in 30 years.
Still, while many of the teens agreed that churches need to change to become more relevant to their generation, they also said the basic message should stay the same.
"Don't water down the Gospel. Be real ... You're not showing that the Gospel can be relevant by watering it down," Ertel said.
Ford Garner, a high school senior, indicated that his generation is just waiting for an invitation from the church. The prayer group at his high school jumped from 15 people to over 100 people after he encouraged other members of the group to invite their peers to join them.
"The kids are hungry, and they want to know Christ, they just need someone to invite them ... and they really will take to it," said Garner.
There were several other issues that were mentioned by multiple teens during the conference. Several of them said churches need to make better use of modern technology. They also stated that church leaders need to talk more about sexuality issues, and many of them said a major turn-off to their generation is the lack of Christian unity displayed by different pastors, churches and denominations.
At the end of the webcast, Kinnaman also spoke on the importance of getting churches to teach teens about the Bible and how it applies to their lives.
"The use of Scriptures in our lives and in our ministries is to get us to think correctly about ourselves," said Kinnaman. "It's to get ... this next generation to think correctly about themselves. And so often we need to do a better job of getting our perceptions in line with what Scripture says about us. That to me is a hard challenge, but it's the work that's worth doing."