In virtually every meeting he attended, a kind, sensitive and beloved pillar of the church pleaded, “What can we do to attract younger adults and younger families?” His concern was well-intentioned. North American churches have been in decline since the late 1950’s; and, he has worked hard all his life to build his congregation and keep it strong. Now advanced in age, he continues to do more than most church members do; but his energy and strength are fading and he’s concerned about seeing all his work go down the drain. Much church energy over the last few decades has been devoted to “attracting younger adults and younger families.”
It will be 55 years this August since I preached my first sermon at Hickory Tree Baptist Church in Balch Springs, Texas. I was 18. During the years of my undergraduate schooling and military service I preached now and then, doing youth revivals and filling the pulpit when pastors were away.
In August, 1968 I returned from Vietnam, was released from active duty and began work on my Master of Divinity at the Graduate Seminary of Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma. I also was called as Student Pastor to First Christian Church of Waynoka, Oklahoma (almost in the panhandle; go to the end of the world and turn left).
From then until October of 2005, I was a parish minister. That was the time of decline in the North American church, and not even the emergence of entrepreneurial mega-churches slowed down the decline. By the time I retired no denomination or association of churches had escaped the slide.
Strangely, while church membership and participation decreased, surveys and polls in the 90s began to indicate that 95% of North Americans (plus or minus, depending upon the poll) believed in God. Religious emphasis weeks on college and university campuses attracted crowds, especially if featured speakers were celebrities or practitioners of magic, eastern mysticism, witchcraft, Satanism or other fringe religion.
Around the turn of the 21st century phrases began to emerge, like, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” and Canadian churchman, Thomas G. Bandy collected and assimilated related data and identified what he called the largest and fastest growing spiritual population in North America: “the spiritually yearning, institutionally disillusioned public.” The majority of that population, he observed, was under 40 years of age.
When one observes the typical church in North America, the overwhelming majority of those participating will older than 60, it will be in a survival mode and its oft-repeated mantra is, “What can we do to attract younger adults and younger families?”
About that same time the 1991 landmark work of William Strauss and Neil Howe, Generations, was making an impact on those who studied spiritual, religious and ecclesiastical components of society. During my work as Transitional Minister I have focused, with observable effect, on what my parents and grandparents called “the generation gap;” except that today that gap is a multiple one, separating six generations!
What I have discovered is that the primary strategy by which the church struggles to survive is precisely what’s strangling it to death: cutting expenses—and therefore ministries—across the board. In my estimation, it would be better to narrow a congregation’s focus and to adequately fund one or two meaningful ministries, than to try to keep the entire traditional slate of seven (or however many) functional committees operating on shoestrings. There’s just not enough mayonnaise left in the jar to spread the whole loaf!
That economic strategy is one symptom of the church’s death rattle that has been heard for several decades: “We never did it that way before.”
My favorite definition of insanity is “doing the same thing again and expecting a different result.” Try this: if you want to attract young adults and young families, ask them what they want from a spiritual experience, and do that. You probably will discover that you don’t have to replace the organ and the choir with drums, guitar and video screens, although you may end up using both.
Theologian Walter Wink writes: “American culture is presently in the first stages of a spiritual renaissance. To the degree that this renaissance is Christian at all, it will be the human figure of Jesus that galvanizes hearts to belief and action, and not the Christ of the creeds or the Pauline doctrine of justification by grace through faith.”
Everything I hear and read regarding the spirituality of millennial generations affirms the accuracy of Wink’s statement. Millennials care little about doctrines or denominations or congregational polity. They want know how to follow Jesus—to be more like Jesus. My nephew, a Millennial and a prolific writer, has embarked on a one-year project to discover through study, prayer and praxis what it means to follow Jesus (myjesusproject.com).
And so, when I came across a book whose subtitle includes the phrase, “Why We All Need to Learn to Read Scripture Like Jesus Did,” I was interested. It’s been challenging, as you can discover by reading my previous seven blogs. It’s also enlightening and inspiring, and I believe it points us in the right direction.
I’m with the Millennials in that I really am not vested in the survival of any church or congregation unless that church or congregation has a passion to follow Jesus. I agree with Walter Wink that American Culture is in the first stages of a spiritual renaissance, and I want to be in on it.
That’s how I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,