Several facts suggest that many congregations need to invest significant attention, energy and creativity in reaching the next generations of persons in our community:
- Today, 17.5% of Americans attend church on any given Sunday.
- In 1940, the average age of United Methodist members is estimated to be 40; to day it is around 60 years of age.
- The fastest growing religious group in America today is the “nones: no religious preference.” Almost 1 in 5 Americans marked “none” on the U.S. Census.
- 1/3 of Americans under 30 maked “none,” compared with 9% of those over 65.
In this first part of a two part series, I will share five common – and often unintended! -- roadblocks to the next generations being part of your congregation.
Roadblock #1: Perpetuate strategies that served well older generations, but no longer effectively serve the next generations.
Jesus said, “No one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.” (Mark 2:22) It is often difficult for us to separate the wineskins from the new wine in our experience. They easily get confused. We have felt our spiritual lives nourished through a certain style of worship and come to believe that only this style is proper. We were enriched by certain ministries in the past and come to assume that those ministries will enrich the lives of future generations. But persons from those generations don’t seem to have our same experience.
Roadblock #2: Lose sight of our missional goal: making world-changing disciples.
Younger generations are generally not interested in being entertained or in church administration. If we do not offer them spiritual guidance and ways to make a difference in the world, we have nothing to offer them that they cannot get just as well – and often better -- elsewhere. Focus: The Top Ten Things People Want and Need from You and Your Church, published by the Willow Creek Association in 2009, reports findings from a major study involving thousands of congregations across the country. According to Focus, the top four things that people want from congregations are (1) spiritual guidance, (2) help understanding the Bible, (3) leaders who both embody and teach how to live faithfully as disciples of Jesus Christ, and (4) help in identifying next steps in their spiritual journey and to be challenged to take them.
Roadblock #3: Separate youth from the adult members of the church programmatically and relationally.
If children and youth are segregated from adults in church activities and relationships, when they graduate from high school or college, they will have no community with which to connect or avenues to make their contributions. Thom Rainer observes that most youth leave the church. In previous generations, they cycled back when they got married and had children. That isn’t happening so much today. Interestingly, the youth and young adults who don’t leave are those that are connected relationally with adult members of the church and who play a role in the larger congregation. Sadly, many youth ministries are connected to the main body of the church like Mickey Mouse’s ears – almost as separate spheres all together.
Roadblock #4: Hang onto proven, older leadership without mentoring younger leaders and offering opportunities of leadership to them.
Visualize the leaders in your congregation. Are there leaders in their 40’s and 30’s? Have you intentionally welcomed younger generations into your leadership? “Hospitality” usually involves making room for others. If younger persons do not see persons “like them” in leadership, they will assume that there is no place for them here.
Roadblock #5: Respond fearfully or judgmentally to younger generations unless they act like us, look like us, think like us, live like us and speak like us.
While different generations can be just as committed to the mission of the church, they usually express that commitment in different styles and strategies. When we circle the wagons defensively against a changing world and community in order to protect “us” from “them,” we eventually find ourselves with fewer and fewer “us.”
Each of these roadblocks makes it more likely that the average age in our congregation will rise above the average age of our community. How would you rate your congregation at avoiding these roadblocks? In the next CE Blog post, I’ll share seven ways in which congregations can effectively reach out to younger generations.
Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Office of Congregational Transformation