Friday, November 30, 2012

What is the church to do to reach the next generation?

It's a call I receive nearly every week from a pastor or lay leader in a smaller church.  "Our congregation is growing smaller every year.  We have no young people attending our services any more.  If we don't start reaching more young people I'm afraid our church will soon close.  What can we do?"  Many of those who call are hoping I can give them a special secret that will fill the church the next Sunday with young people and youth.  They are sincere enough to be concerned, but many of them are not sincere enough to do what it takes to reach those younger people.

Marketing people know if they want to successfully market their product or brand they have to know as much as possible about their target audience.  They want to know what need their target has that their product or service will meet and how best to get than information to that audience.  Those churches that call me with the concerns  mentioned above have indicated they want to reach young people and youth.  How well do they know that target group?  Why have so many in that age range chosen to avoid church and have serious questions about God as He is presented in so many churches?  Few churches that claim they want to reach the younger generation have made any attempt to understand why they have been unable to do so.  They assume that what they have done in the past that worked then should be just as effective today as it was back in the past.  That is a very poor assumption.  The first thing these churches need to do is to better understand the people they want to reach.

With a little research they would learn that nearly one-fourth of young people 18-29 years of age with a Christian background have "significant intellectual doubts about their faith."  These are people who were raised in a church atmosphere but have serious questions about what they were taught about God and Christianity that no one has answered to their satisfaction.  That tells me we need to take a serious look at our educational systems within our churches.  Personally, for the last several years of my pastorate I felt the Sunday school curriculum had been "dumbed down" so much that it really wasn't very useful.  I think we need a more rigorous curriculum that will stimulate people's thinking that also includes more apologetics.  Rather than just giving our young people facts about the Bible to learn we need to help them understand why what we are teaching them is true and how it can be applied to their lives.  We also need to give them opportunities to put into practice what they are learning.  As I have stated elsewhere, discipleship is not just the sharing of information but giving people an opportunity to do something with that information.

Such research would also show that many young people have very negative views about the church.  This is true of about 20 percent of the young people raised in the church and a much higher percentage of those who have little or no church history.  Young people want to be involved in things that make a difference in people's lives.  Many of them see church as a place where people come once a week for an hour or so and then return to their homes and careers to live out the remainder of their week.  They hear about the wonderful ways Jesus touched people's lives during His time here on earth, and they wonder why the church isn't doing more of that.  Some who grew up in the church saw too much of church politics to trust the church.  They saw the smiling faces sitting in the pews on Sunday morning and then heard the comments around the dinner table when the family returned home, and they don't want to be part of that.  Many see the church as too judgmental towards others who are different.  They wonder why more women are not involved in leadership in many of our churches.  They see women serving in some of the highest positions of leadership in government, in academia, and in business and can't understand why they are not allowed to teach men in a Sunday school class in many churches much less serve as pastor.  The fact is, many of the young people we have lost from the church walked away because they didn't want to become like the people they saw growing up in church.

Young people have many questions about God and the church, and they want honest answers to those questions.  "Because the Bible says so" isn't going to cut it with this generation.  "Because this is what the church has always taught" is also not an acceptable answer.  They want to know why something is true and why alternative possibilities are not true.  They also want to know that it's OK to have questions and doubts and that there are people willing to walk with them as they seek answers to those questions and doubts.  Many of our existing churches are going to find it challenging to reach the younger generation, but those who are successful in doing so will find a new energy pulsating within their churches.

I repeat, if you are serious about wanting to reach the next generation for Christ you need to learn as much as possible about them and what their spiritual needs are.  Let me recommend some books I've found especially helpful on this topic.  You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church...and Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman.  They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations by Dan Kimball.    Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them by Ed Stetzer. Jim and Casper Go to Church: Frank Conversation about Faith, Churches, and Well-Meaning Christians by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper.  You should know if you click on one these books and purchase it I will receive a small referral fee, but that is not the reason I recommend you read these books.  They will help you better understand the younger generations and how they view faith and the church.  These books will also provide you with some insights on how to reach out to them, and, frankly, if your church is even ready to do so.  Quite honestly, not every church is ready to reach out to the younger generation and may never be ready, but that is a topic for another post.

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