Churches are dying because young people are shut out. Let’s fix this.

Churches are strange. If a steel plant closes in a Rust Belt city, you can be sure that there won’t be a new one opening in the same town where the one shut down.  And yet, when it comes that thing called “church,” we’re living in an era when 3,500-4,000 churches are closing their doors in America every year.  At the same time, there are roughly the same number of new churches opening their doors each year.  As a result, we’re in this very strange time when established churches with histories, properties, and elders whose faith has been refined and wisened through decades of walking with God, are evaporating, while a newly pierced and tattooed generation does the church equivalent of the tech boom’s “start up” through the phenomena called church planting.

Starting new churches is a good thing right?  Sometimes yes.  But  I’d argue that many new churches are starting because established churches have failed to embrace one of the most fundamental truths of the Bible, which is that the older generations must always be both strategic and intentional about passing the faith torch, and the leadership mantel to a new a generation.  Our failure to do this means that the largest demographic fleeing from the church is the 18-30 crowd.  As a result, there are two tragedies:

  1. Beautiful church buildings sit, largely empty on Sunday morning all across America, save for a few grey-haired seniors who are wondering where all the young people are.
  2. New young churches are gathering, filled, just as established churches are, with only one generation of the faith represented.  They’re new, and relevant, and lacking the wisdom they so desperately need from the seniors.

The blame for the problem resides largely with the established churches because unless they pass the torch, how can they expect a new generation to do anything other than leave?  But passing the torch requires more than superficial changes like different music, a Steve Jobs dress code, and really good coffee in the fellowship hall or foyer.  Before any of that, there’s a mindset that’s vital if churches are to be genuinely intergenerational.  As our church, started in 1916, has cultivated these values, we’ve seen our average age drop to 33, with about half the attenders ranging between 18-30 in age.  What values must be priority if this is to happen?

Curiosity: Paul understood the value of curiosity, because you see him learning about Greek culture he’s among the Greeks so that he can speak into the lives of  Greek people in a way they’ll receive.  He unpacks this value in I Corinthians 9:19-23, which the crux of his thought being in v22 where he declares that he’s become “all things to all people.”  Paul’s principles regarding crossing cultural boundaries apply to generational boundaries too.

I’ve had wonderful conversations with seniors who fought in WWII for the British, the Americans, and the Nazis.  I want to hear their stories, because they were shaped by a world I’ll never know.  When I’m with an 18-year-old, I want to know what bands are on their iPod, why they’re marrying later, and how the fact that divorce is commonplace among their parents generation has affected their outlook on life.  Curiosity is huge, and people who have that quality believe that there’s something to be learned from every person they meet.

Curiosity, though, between generations, has fallen on hard times.  The idols of youth and beauty have often rendered seniors irrelevant to young people, and too often, seniors like it that way, as they’re spared from needing to engage with the dramatically different ways of looking at the world that new generations embody.I challenge you to cross a generational boundary and, armed with nothing more than curiosity, set out to learn how a different generation thinks.  This will go a long way towards closing the generational divide that plagues the church.  In our church, the group called Wise &Wonderful (60+) has meetings with our post college/early career group because these two very diverse demographics enjoy being together.  That enjoyment stems from a second value:

Mutuality. When Paul was longing to visit Rome, he writes to them and tells them that he’s eager to ‘impart a spiritual gift, and strengthen them’ AND ‘that (he) might be encouraged by them’, and all that they have to offer.  In contrast, the generational divide is often furthered in our culture by one of two prevailing errors.  Either we see our generation as having much to give but little receive (as seen when either elders or youth look with disdain on the other), or having nothing to give (as seen when elders say, “Why would a young person want to spend time with me?  My life is boring compared to theirs.”).  The caricature of this is surely seen in the relationship between Homer Simpson and his dad.

The truth is that there’s no solid hierarchy to the healthiest intergenerational relationships.  Instead there’s a sense that each generation has gifts to offer the other, which means there’s a humble (yet honest) sense of both appreciation and admiration, qualities which close the gap.  Can seniors appreciate a new generation’s post-modern longings for authenticity, raised as they’ve been, on Clinton’s lies, and the fabricated WMD’s of the Bush era, and passionate church leaders building giant ministries that eventually collapse under the weight of their own exposed hypocrisy?  Can youth appreciate that experiences like WWII, Vietnam,massive technological upheaval, and both the blessings and curses of building a nation on consumerism, have shaped them for both better and worse?  We need each other, need to be shaped by each other’s perspectives and stories.

Responsibility: Finally, if churches want to cross any social boundary, they’ll need to let outsiders in, not just as spectators, but as owners, stakeholders.  Failure to do this means that a churches “Everyone Welcome” sign is a sham that really means: Everyone’s Welcome to Come and Be Like Us. Dress like us.  Think like us.  Listen to our music.  Vote like us.  Like what we like and hate what we hate.  This is code for, “We don’t care about you,” and is a form of generational provincialism, a sort of “We know what’s good for you because we’re old” mentality.

If instead, a church allows a new generation to help shape the culture of music, dress, demeanor, while collectively holding to the timeless truths of the gospel, I promise you two things will happen:  1) new generations will fill the church because 2) they will be changing the church culture, so that timeless truths of the gospel are able to become accessible to their peers.  In our church, this means that choir robes have disappeared, music has changed, and my style of preaching is informed as much by The Decemberists lyrics, as it is by Chariots of Fire.

Paul didn’t tell Timothy to sit around and watch him.  He told him to appoint elders, correct, rebuke, lead, and “don’t let anyone look down on you because you’re young.” In his culture of the day, where people had no voice in their religious communities until they were 30, Paul’s empowering of Timothy was off the map radical.  If we who are older aren’t willing to entrust emerging generations with real responsibilities, then the existing trends of young, hip, startups that lack the wisdom of age will continue, and established churches will continue to grow grey and eventually die.  This is a tragedy that doesn’t need to happen, and won’t, wherever curiosity, mutuality, and responsibility are in place.

What barriers do you see to churches being intergenerational?  What experiences have you had with churches breaking down generational walls?  I welcome your thoughts.

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Deborah

    Your sermon yesterday was practically a commercial for our Bethany’s mentoring ministries! The Women’s Mentoring Ministry actually had one of our informational coffees that afternoon and there were about 35 women there. Young women are hungry for wisdom and fellowship with older women. Unfortunately, out of those 35 women only two of us were older than mid-thirties. We need “older” women in the church to step into these wonderful relationships. They will be as blessed as the younger ladies.

  • http://vaguelynovelvaguelyphotogenic.wordpress.com Samuel

    Love the Lord of the Rings reference. (Your message was great as well).

  • GG

    Hi Richard,

    Wonderful post. While I do not have THE answer to many of your questions, I have considered many of your points over the last few years.

    While I have many friends that I love spending time with, I know very few people who listen and care about other people’s opinions or experiences. They care so little in fact, that questions are rarely asked and conversations rarely go beyond “small talk.”

    This could be because we have lost the art of conversation, and ultimately the ability to truly care about what another person is saying.

    It reminds me of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence people. He mentions that the reason people do not remember other peoples names isn’t because of a bad memory. It’s because they don’t care.

    Ever since I read that book I have always been sure to ask questions, listen, converse, and the benefits have been amazing. I have strong friendships. I remember things in great detail, and the main reason is I care when I am speaking to people.

    This understanding has also allowed me to appropriately reject answering phone calls and rejecting texts out of respect for the people I am currently with. Simple civility.

  • Megan

    This afternoon I listened to last Sunday’s sermon. I am moved deeply by this series on “health” and find myself thinking and praying about how I may contribute to “health” and spritual growth with my church here in Ohio. Thank you for posting your sermons (and your thoughts) on the internet.


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