A few days ago I posted an article about small churches and asked if they could effectively reach a younger generation. This post continues my thoughts on the subject.
When I assist a church seeking a pastor I begin by asking what the church needs in their next pastor. In almost every case, the smaller churches will say they need a pastor who can reach young people because "the youth are the future of our church." Basically, what they are saying is that if they do not figure out how to reach young people their church will close down in a few years when the current membership is no longer able to support the church. Unfortunately, this attitude almost guarantees that the smaller church will not reach young people.
As my friend, Terry Dorsett, writes in his book Mission Possible: Reaching the Next Generation through the Small Church, "While church leaders mean well when they say things like this, what they are actually communicating to the next generation is that young people have no current value to the church. Young adults hear that message and decide that if they are not valued in church, they will go somewhere that does value them. Churches that do not value young people as the church of today should not be surprised when young people are not around tomorrow."
In the years I've written this blog I have tried to be both honest and gentle, but today I need to be very honest and report on what I've seen in three decades of ministry. Most of the churches that claim they want to reach young people really don't. These churches are not willing to make the hard decisions that it would take to reach youth and young adults. In many cases, they are not willing to consider changes in worship that might better appeal to younger generations. They may claim they want a pastor who can reach younger people, but not if that will take away from his or her pastoral care of the current flock. Many of these churches are not willing to share leadership with younger people. My personal theory is that if these churches cared enough about reaching a younger generation, their own children and grandchildren would be attending the church. If they can't keep their own family members why would they think their church would appeal to people who have no ties to the congregation?
Young people today think differently than the generations that make up much of our current church membership. I will soon be 64 years old, and sometimes I don't understand some of the things they do, but who says I'm supposed to? Whether I understand their thinking or not is immaterial; it's the way they think. If I'm going to be serious about introducing them to Jesus Christ I've got to do it on their terms, not on mine. Let me share just a few quick things about how the younger generation is different and how that impacts our ability to reach them with the gospel.
The younger generation is very visual. They grew up on MTV and television which has made visual images important to them. I once witnessed an interesting thing at a seminar held on a university campus. The auditorium was not large. Many of the students were sitting close to the front. The speaker pointed out something he was observing. Most of the older attendees, such as myself, were watching him on the stage. Many of the students, even though they were sitting closer to the stage than we were, were watching him on the screens behind the platform. Video projectors and screens will be as important to reaching younger people as hymn books were in reaching the older generations.
Young people are less likely to join an organization. This is not only true for religious organizations but most other ones as well. However, they do want to be involved in projects in which they believe. They may never become a member of your church, but if your church is involved in a ministry that appeals to them they would like to be involved in that ministry. In many smaller churches that could not happen. Churches need to take a serious look at their requirements regarding who can be involved in what activities in their churches. If younger people can't be involved in meaningful ministries within your church because they are not a member, they won't be around for long.
Most younger people have little, if any, loyalty to a specific denomination. Neither of my two children attend churches of the denomination in which I pastored. Some will have little loyalty to a specific church. We already see some young people attend one church on Sunday morning because they enjoy the worship and messages there, attend another church perhaps on Sunday evening because of the youth ministry that church offers, and yet another church's small groups because of something they offer that appeals to them. Many believe this trend will increase.
Much has been written about the postmodern rejection of absolute truth and how each person must be free to decide for himself or herself what truth claims they will accept and which ones they will deny. Gone are the days when one could just say, "The Bible says..." and that would settle the argument. Many in the younger generation don't believe the Bible is any more authoritative than any other religious book or even their own personal opinions. Churches that effectively reach younger people must develop a new apologetic that can respond to their questions and doubts, and those churches must become comfortable with those questions and doubts.
There are far more differences than we can cover in a blog post, but even the few I've mentioned should be enough to make most people realize that smaller churches will have to change much of what they do in order to reach younger people. While I've seen a few churches willing to make some of these changes, my experience has been that most smaller churches are not willing to do so. They want the young people, but they want those young people on their terms, and they don't want to have to change anything in order to reach them.
Youth and young adults are not the future of your church. You need these folks in your churches now because they will bring value to your church now. They will bring new life to your church now. They will provide important leadership and ministry in your church now. Young people are the hope of our churches now. It is time we become serious about reaching this younger generation now.