Picture, if you will, a small, rural congregation. The average age in the church is early 60s. The weekly worship attendance is approximately 50, and there is one nine-year-old who comes about once every three weeks. She is the whole Sunday school. The community is a church-going community — about 60% Lutheran, 30% Roman Catholic, 10% “other.” For the past three decades young adults have migrated away from the area for college or work. Young families are rare, and most already hold a church affiliation with the Catholic church. This small church is holding a planning retreat. What do you think their number one goal is for the future? Developing a ministry to attract families with young children! This is NOT planning; this is fantasy.
For too long, United Methodist congregations across this country have recited the mythic mantra “we need young people,” (sounding eerily like zombies mumbling “we want brains”) without considering the feasibility of such a desire. Looking at our country in the 1950s gives an insight into where the mythic vision originated. During the Eisenhower era, the baby boom was at its height. World War II was behind, Korea was distant, Viet Nam was ahead, but in the U.S. four changes were rocking our culture forever — suburbia, credit cards, television and air conditioning. An odd combination? Yes, but each contributed to redefining life in these United States. In the south, public spaces — including churches — became some of the earliest adopters of air conditioning. A rousing sermon might attract a few people, but cool, refreshing air in July and August? Packed ’em in. New suburban growth resulted in new suburban churches, attractive to new suburban residents — who happened to be popping out babies right and left. These people were settling for the long haul. Home sales in the 1950s produced homeowners who stayed in one place for an amazing average of 22 years! If a young family joined a church, there was a good chance the congregation would celebrate the major life events of two full generations with them. Following some rocky runaway inflation in the 50s, the economy settled down and with free credit, people spent — and gave — liberally. Churches celebrated a boom period along with the babies. Television raised the bar on entertainment, and influenced what happened in sanctuaries all across the country. Worship shifted from liturgy (literally, “the work of the people,”) to a spectator sport. Worship wasn’t something people participated in, but something they attended — and while mom and dad sat in cool comfort in the sanctuary, (and, yes, many in not-so-cool discomfort), junior/juniorette/baby junior went off to Sunday school. Charming, lovely, nostalgic — and a brief aberration in the 20th century.
Within a generation, the baby bust hit at the same time that a glut of “new” religious groups, para-church organizations, sects, cults, and independent/evangelical entities occurred. The proliferation of choices with a downturn of growing families turned Protestant religion into a competitive industry. More and more young people deferred family for education, and more education moved a signficant segment of the population away from the church. Fast forward to the early 21st century and reflect on the young adult reality. Youth culture is in flux — fewer young people buying and owning property, high/fast mobility where a majority of under-35s live in one location, on average, for 23 months. More and more children born later and later in the “young” adult’s life, more and more competition for children’s/family/young adults time means church is just one of many options. Disposable income is lower because costs are higher and most young adults carry what would have been considered a staggering debt load in the 1950s. Well, you get the picture.
Many of our churches are not planning to grow with young people — they are planning to grow with young people from the 1950s (who are all in their fifties, sixties and seventies, by the way). Even churches that are successfully in ministry with young adults face these realities:
- young people tend to stay with one church for a very short time — in metropolitan areas less than two years; in the heartland less than three
- young people tend to break connection with a church very quickly and easily
- young people do not have/are not willing to give a lot of time for church-related activities
- young people are less interested in worship than in small group formation and service opportunities
- young people do not have much disposable income to share with the church
- young people do not have patience with being held on the fringes — they want to participate fully and fast
- the young people we nurture today we have for a very short time and whatever leadership value we cultivate in them will benefit other churches than our own.
These are not bad things — they are merely a new reality. Young people as a target audience to ensure our survival is a fool’s dream. As long as our primary interest is to get new blood to prop up the old church, we are in for serious disappointment. If we seek to empower young Christians to live as gifted members of the body of Christ in the world, we have a bright future — they simply won’t fit the old membership model we sometimes desperately want to hold onto. This is not to say we should “give up” on youth and young people — some want to jump to that conclusion, but that is their opinion, not mine. No, where there is potential for ministry with young people, we should grasp it — but acknowledge that this ministry is about building Christ’s body, not preserving our church institutions.
The United Methodist Church has a future — but it must be a reasonable and realistic future. Good stewardship is about managing wisely and well what you have been given, not lamenting what you lack or compensating for what you wish you had. People are living longer, are thriving later into life, are retiring earlier in some cases, staying active and engaged later in others, and populations are shifting. There is no reason we cannot grow, thrive, and be effective with vital ministries geared toward adults, middle adults, early retirees, and older adults where the possibility of growing with younger adults is unlikely or does not exist. Our planning should be grounded in good common sense as well as faith and good wishes. Age is just one example of the ways we need to adjust our thinking. Economics, education, theology, church property/facilities, pastoral and laity leadership are some of the others. Good blog topics for another time.