United Metholdist

We’re not getting older; we’re getting better.  Well, actually we are getting older, but this doesn’t mean we can’t get better as well.  The graying of our church — a subject of great concern and incredible misplaced anxiety — is worth looking into, but as an opportunity, not a problem to solve.  Youth culture is troughing again for the next generation or so, and in many parts of our country the age trend will be at the upper end of the spectrum — more old people, with more resources (translated “disposable income”), more time, more energy, and more productive years.  In demographers eyes, a golden opportunity to exploit a market.  But will the church pay attention?

See, the problem is that most in the church refuse to use common sense when it comes to planning.  Research shows that over 8-out-of-10 United Methodist churches are pinning their hopes for the future on “young families with children.”  Congregation after congregation nostalgically pines for the glory days when their Sunday schools were packed to bursting, and when twenty- and thirty-somethings sat shoulder to shoulder with mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, and Aunt Flo.  The vision for the future looks like a rerun from 1959.  In a day when the average length of membership for young adults is less than two years, die-hards in the church look to rebuild their congregations on the shoulders of today’s young.  Good luck with that.  Hey, if you have a lot of young people to draw from, go for it; but this is not the reality for a significant number of UMCs.  Younger families are heading to newer evangelical congregations with plenty of comfort resources and technology, where demands and expectations are VERY modest.  And these growing independent churches have no delusions that the young will pay their own way.  The trend in drawing young is in providing ministry “to” and “for” them, not “with” them (or expecting them to pony up to cash to pay for it).  A tiny number of United Methodist congregations have the resources or leadership to go toe-to-toe with the “big guns.”  And when I visit a small congregation with one 9-year-old and one 14-year-old (generally brother and sister) and they are envisioning revitalization through an active Sunday school and youth program, I have to scratch my head and wonder what they’re thinking.  Most assuredly we need to do everything in our power to provide spiritual support, education and guidance to people of all ages — but real people, not mythical wish-people who don’t exist, and even if they did they probably wouldn’t come to our church.

But who would come to our church?  Well, there is ample evidence that people who connect with a congregation connect through building relationships, and as important as multi-generational relationships are, these tend to succeed best in families.  The relationships that bond people to churches are relationships between peers — social, educational, cultural equals who reach out and invite each other into relationships.  We tend to cross bridges into familiar territory — so if our landscape is middle-age on up, then that’s who we are most likely to attract.  And how nice for us that 55-and-older will be the largest growing demographic over the next 25 years… and that over 40% of this Boomer demographic has no church affiliation.  The harvest has never been so ripe in the last sixty years!  Boomers (born between 1946-1964 — our current 46-64 year olds ) LOVE relationships.  This generation wants to be active, engaged in things that help others and that make themselves more comfortable.  This age group spends more money on themselves than any other, and they are the easiest touch for charity.  According to some, there have never been more people entering retirement who are looking for something worthwhile to do.  Churches that are paying attention are going to start growing — not with young adults, but with middle adults, retirees, and older adults.  And the wonderful thing about older adults is that we’re constantly making more!  Culturally, interest in church and religion is hitting later in life — just like about everything else.  When I did the spiritual seeker study for the denomination in 2003-2006, “spirituality” became a high priority for the majority of 41-60 year olds as they approached 50.  Also, the largest segment of “lapsed” church members — inactives, those who have drifted away, those who relocated and never reconnected — is in the 50+ category as well.

It is time for churches to figure out the difference between dreaming and planning, wishing and strategizing.  We can say we want a return to the 1950s with full Sunday schools and happy young families, but let’s be honest.  For the vast majority of UMCs, this just isn’t going to happen.  So, if we can’t have that, what can we have?  A much larger number of UMCs can have vibrant, vital, highly interactive ministries with middle adults, retirees, older adults, that attract and serve the audience they actually have instead of only wish they had.

Now let me be clear: if you have a viable children’s, youth, young adult, young families ministry, then by all means do it and do it well.  I am not saying we abandon one group for another.  What I am saying is simply this: the fastest growing non-ethnic demographic segment in most of the country for the next 25 years will be in the 55-and-older category.  Almost half of this group has little or no church affiliation.  Opportunity?  I think it is worth exploring.

21 replies

  1. Well said. The issue of ‘disposable income’ is a touchpoint for smaller UMC’s with aging members. Talk is about bringing in younger families, but younger families tend to have more famly expenses and less disposable income than older adults. If this sounds too utilitarian, try meeting the budget of the older church with the aging building requiringmaintence and repair with the tithes and offerings of the oftentimes less committed younger families. I find tha the vision of spiritually healthy older adults is forward thinking, where will we be in 5,10,15 years, as opposed to those who pine for the past. You have presented thoughtful considerations for those leaders and congregations intent on saving teir dying programs by attemtping to reach a younger demographic. Thanks!

    • Interestingly, Tuesday evening, we had a discussion at committee meeting about this issue. One older gentleman ws adament about bringing in younger worshipers, but failed to see the facts and the financial implications – aging building, lacking curriculum and age appropriate space, worship design ca 1980… it’s a long row to hoe, but continuing conversations may help to turn the tide.


      • How about “going out to” instead of “bringing in”. A lot of the concerns become moot. The question remains, can your congregation be good at it? Can they conform to the culture of their mission field, yet bring the Good News? Can they Can they find joy in Christ in new ways?

  2. Thanks again, Dan!

    For me, today’s blog connects with the current issue of THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY (July 27), which focuses on the mega-church matter. The editorial asks, “Does size matter?” and can be found at http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=8600 .

    I’d still like to see “churches” begun in retirement centers and nursing homes….

    • That really is a good connection, and your suggestion makes sense to me, along with other places for placing ek-klesia in our various communities.

  3. As a Gen X-er who is really tired of the pandering to my generation and Gen Y and millennials and whatever the marketers call folks coming of age in 2010 all I can say is Yes and Amen.

    The fields are white unto harvest in all age groups. Since we can’t rely on culture to deliver any of them to us anymore, it’s up to us to use whatever social networks we have to find and invite folks we have or are ready to form relationships with.

    It’s a no-brainer- unless you think forming the young primarily remains the best way to form disciples in this culture. It does remain one way, but isn’t likely to be our strong suit anytime soon.

  4. We have similar issues in the British Methodist Church, and I have friend who often says, ‘Age Concern and Help the Aged don’t focus on the young and they are not worried about going out of business.’

    Well spoken, Dan.

  5. As a 30 y/o UM pastor who’s heart most easily goes out to my own unchurched peers, this is a good reminder. And I absolutely agree that we should find the right ways to connect retiring Boomers with Christ and his Church.

    I would like to press for more substance on your statement about evangelical independent churches. You say:

    “Younger families are heading to newer evangelical congregations with plenty of comfort resources and technology, where demands and expectations are VERY modest.”

    Can you provide some concrete data or examples showing that demands and expectations are modest in these churches? I’m not necessarily disagreeing, but your statement sounds like a stereotype and I believe we in the Oldline need to justify these sorts of claims.

    • Great question, Casey.

      I’m curious, though, why do you use the term “Oldline”? I know some folks refer to the mainline denominations that way, but should we be adopting such terms to describe ourselves?

      • I think “Oldline” is reflective of the reality – denominations that used to have considerable clout and influence now waining fast in favor of those in the free church tradition

      • Oldline is painfully descriptive — it brings to mind “tired-rut” which is where so much of our thinking stays. The myths of young adult spirituality, mega-church appeal, etc., are grounded in some measure of truth. The successful mega-churches and the prominent young adult spiritual crusaders are out there, and they do phenomenal things. But they are only part of the story, and focusing only on the success stories skews our thinking so badly that it makes it hard to know what “normal” looks like. For me, the most important thing for Oldliners to pay attention to — whether from age-old denominations or upstart evangelical independents is that the growth edge of Christian spirituality in the United States among tweeners to thirty-somethings is homegrown-pastiche-ecumenical-interfaith-small group-non/anti-institutional exploration. College/university campuses are getting this; but church culture for youth and young adults are not. We Oldliners seem to have a very hard time seeing anything we don’t recognize as “normal,” and all the glorifying of one type/brand of church isn’t helping us at all.

    • Casey,

      When I did my research on spiritual seekers, I did a survey of just under 1,700 21-31 year-olds attending congregations of 10,000+. One of the questions: how much time do you spend on church related activities each week?
      74% One hour or less
      17% One-to-two hours each week
      6% Two-to-five hours each week
      1% Five-to-ten hours each week
      2% More than ten hours a week

      Another question: What factors determined your choice of ? The top ten answers:
      1. Location — close by
      2. Reputation
      3. Quality of music
      4. Preacher’s reputation
      5. Where my friends attend
      6. Range of services
      7. Anonymity/can come and go as I please
      8. No pressure to join/no pressure to do things I’m not interested in
      9. Enjoyment/fun
      10.Helps me feel closer to God

      One more question: How likely are you to increase your involvement/participation in this church in the near future?

      67% Not likely — satisfied with current involvement
      13% Likely — I would like to attend more programs
      12% Likely — I would like to be more involved in the programs and ministries
      5% Not likely — may not stay/may try other churches
      <1% Various other answers

      There were thirty questions altogether, though most of them don't apply to the "level of engagement" issues. I compiled folders full (over 1,500 pages of notes) of anecdotal evidence as well that basically shows three things to be true of 21-31 year-old church participants and larger churches: 1) large- and mega-churches are basically "churches within churches" — with incredibly active cores of between 300-750 deeply engaged members, and passive audiences of thousands. Younger people are more highly represented in the "audience" section for a wide variety of reasons — school, work, family, lifestyle, etc. However, a small segment of younger adults are VERY active and VERY engaged; 2) a large number of younger people view "church" as a service provider rather than an organization to join and support. It has been continuously surprising to me the number of people I have interviewed who have never considered being involved in any form of congregational leadership or ministry of the church to those outside the congregation. Many "don't know how that works." The assumption is that church is something to "attend," not become involved with. 3) "Inspirtainment" (I think I made this word up, but I may have stolen it) is a relatively new phenomenon made possible in the digital age. There is a significant audience looking for a Jesus Show. They want to be inspired. They want to be provoked to think. They want guidance for their lives. But it is very much at a personal and private level. This transcends age, but is very strong in 21-41 year-olds. Personal spirituality is between the individual and the specialized faith that makes sense to them. A majority (54%) of the young people I interviewed "didn't want to be part of a church" (to join, be considered a member, to be expected to attend regularly, to be asked to serve on a team, to be part of a small group, etc.), they simply wanted the right and freedom to attend where they wanted when they wanted.

      • Dan,

        Thank you for the information. My church is a small UMC that has experienced significant worship growth in the last year among mostly younger adults. Anyone interested in membership must go through New Member Orientation w/ me. I address the need head on of, “Why would anyone join a church today?” I emphasize that membership is different than mere attendance – members volunteer to put their needs second to others, especially those not yet connected to Christ and the Christian community. Most have responded well to this and some have made the choice not to join…from my observations, mostly f/ a desire to have their weekends free.

        Anyway, one of the things we do for 1st time worship guests is a “Guest Gift Pack” which includes a small gift edition of an evangelistic book. Lately, it’s been “The Case for Christ.” But I keep wondering: are there any good, evangelistic WESLEYAN “gift” books out there? Or even WESLEYAN outreach Bibles?


      • How about one of Bishop Rueben Job’s “Three Simple Rules …” from cokesbury.com? Unintimidating, profound, and very Wesleyan.

  6. I find that if we would focus on what we do well rather than wishing for what we could be, we would be so much more effective as the Church. Not every church can be everything to everyone. Rather, if we focus on the groups that we do have in our church and how to better disciple them, and teach them how to reach out to the world, I would imagine that we would overall, as a larger institution, have a lot more healthy disciples.

    Now as a youth minister, I don’t think that we can completely ignore the needs of young people. But perhaps in this ‘new’ model, our approach could be different. Rather than beating our heads against the wall trying to bring into the congregation new youth, young adults, and young families that may or may not be present in our communities or may not find anything relevant in our current congregation, perhaps we can better equip the older adults in our congregations to be able to interact, support, and witness to the young people that they may meet OUTSIDE of our congregations.

    Perhaps there is a young person in their lives that they could be a support to who may never accept an invitation to the church, but instead, our older adults could be the presence of Christ in the lives of many young people that we may never reach. A new way of youth ministry, perhaps?

    • Fantastic observations. The both/and approach is one I tried to lift up in the article. There is still a huge mission field of children, youth and young adults that we don’t walk away from, but you offer very practical suggestions for ministry with youth that transcends traditional models of “youth ministry” — insights we most definitely need as our cultural context continues to morph.

  7. Absolutely true, but before a community can be intentional, much less strategic, the membership must first have a coherent sense of identity, a sense of being a single body. For churches, that’s the body of Christ, doing Kingdom work. I think many churches lack that sense of corporate cohesion, seeing themselves still as a gathering of Christians. Secondly, a community must have a pervasive sense, present in each member, of responsibility, authority, and power to participate in the decision-making. How often are (United Methodist) church local conference meetings treated as a necessary evil to rubber-stamp the pastor’s compensation and the usual slate of leadership? When does the body get to learn and practice corporate spiritual discernment? Without that, how can we be effectively intentional or strategic?

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