“We need more young people. We need more young clergy.” No doubt you have heard this from time to time. I have to say I am pretty disgusted by it. Being an early Gen-Xer, I know what it feels like to be told “wait your turn” until you are about 35. Then all you hear is “you can’t because we need more young people.” The other day I heard once again that churches need to bring in more “young adults.” Excuse me while I ask an impertinent question. “Where are the people my age?”
The Predicament of Being Young
For years I served churches where I was the youngest person in the sanctuary or Sunday school classes. The people that were my age were on the outskirts. Their parents were in church and supporting it. Why weren’t their children supporting it? I can’t say for sure. But I think it was because their parents were.
What I mean is this. The church focused on the baby-boomer generation as the young people for so long that it forgot the children of that generation. As an associate minister in charge of youth ministries, I observed the parents of the youth. These people were in their forties. When a class for post-college young adults was established by the senior minister, he realized he had to tell the baby-boomers the class was not for them. It was a surprise to them.
The younger Gen-X members of the youth group were the children of people who were trying to hold onto their own youth. It seemed natural to me at the time. In hindsight, it is bizarre. The people my age were treated as children far too long. They let their parents have the church.
The Death Tsunami
Lovett Weems, the church growth consultant, coined the term “death tsunami” that faces long established churches. The older members are dying out. The Greatest Generation is almost completely gone. The middle class baby boomers are retired. Gen-X is absent. The Millennial generation tends toward large congregations when they go. Our Gen-Z children are likely to be absent too. The churches are anxious for “young people.”
Every time I hear the cry for more young people, I also hear a plea for change. Indeed, the present attitudes of the churches need to change. It is evident. But a church must have a reason to continue existing. What is that going to be? I am about to shoot some sacred cows.
Which Young People
I want to ask this question first. Which young people does the church want? The churches I served wanted their young people. Fair enough. That’s a good desire. Are we wanting any others? What will the church offer them that is different?
Earlier, I referred to a “church growth consultant.” I cannot think of anything else that could demonstrate the baby boomer way of thinking more. A business model church will fail because of the orientation toward goals. Retail church reflects the essential difference between Target and Walmart. or Dollar General and Family Dollar. There are young people to whom this model appeals. But the model makes churches of a type just as Walmart or Target are a type called big box stores. Clergy are pressured to ignore doctrine, theology, and biblical teaching for this model. As someone said, if you are still saying “think outside of the box” you aren’t.
Another offering made concerns an emphasis on mission. Churches that are “all about social justice” will attract another type of young person. I strongly advocate social justice in an area where churches generally do not do so. Most churches where I live are interested in “helping” ministries or “mercy ministries.” Advocacy for more just social structures is looked at with suspicion. Some times that is for political reasons. I do not see churches advocating for social justice being effective toward that goal. So, I am suspicious that “social justice” is a form of marketing when it comes to churches.
Young People Investing
I do not believe the younger generations are apathetic or more pathetic than my generation. But I know young people are not going to get involved in church unless they have a reason to invest themselves in it. I want us to think theologically about that.
When I wear vestments in worship, I am investing myself for a task within the worship. I don’t wear an alb and stole because I look good in it. Honestly, I think I look like Poppin’ Fresh the dough boy from Pillsbury. But, the vestments mark me as being invested to the church. What is often used as a financial term is actually a theological one. The words Creed and Credit are related terms too. Clergy members should believe something is the worthy of attention. Doctrine, theology, and teaching the Bible as informing both will reach someone if they are given in truth and love. These are the church things keep me in ministry. They are important. If I wanted a show or advocacy I would get membership in organizations that are better at these things. None of these organizations provide a doctrine with love.
All people need something provided by the church. It may be help, instruction, or consolation. But, most importantly, we want connection, fellowship, and love. Churches that limit these elements of the faith deserve to die. Stop targeting customers. Whoopi Goldberg was wrong in Sister Act when her character said church was “just like Vegas. We need butts in seats.” It is more about hands joined together. This is not what young people are looking for. It is what all people are looking for.