As American Christian mainline denominations find themselves getting smaller, they also find themselves with congregations that are growing older. And while it's an ongoing struggle for congregations to encourage younger members to attend weekly worship services, many older congregations find themselves growing increasingly disconnected with younger generations.
Many churches, however, are finding ways to connect with younger adults, and not merely in the effort to boost church membership. Some are learning to connect with younger adults in order to leave them a ministerial legacy while also being a spiritual presence in the lives of young adults.
This past June, I began my first call at University Place Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Champaign, Illinois as the Minister for Community and Campus Relations. University Place (UniPlace), has a deeply rooted history in not only the town of Champaign, but with the University of Illinois that sits adjacent to our church property. Since its beginnings in the 1900s, UniPlace grew much like most mainline denominational churches in the 1940s and 1950s.
However, like many other mainline denominational churches, the sanctuary, which once was filled with hundreds of church members on a Sunday morning, now only has a scattering of about forty older adults today. And while this poses a real concern for the future of UniPlace, what we do see is God working through us in ways we did not expect.
Since 2012, UniPlace has operated a weekly community dinner in our church basement which feeds those facing hunger and homeless issues in our community. But we are also seeing a new ministry begin at UniPlace through the collaboration of church members and university students as they build a relationship with one another.
Every week, students from the University of Illinois cook and prepare meals for one hundred guests who come through our doors. For our community, our dinners provide a way individuals can have a free cooked meal. And for our older church members, it's a way they can connect to university students and discover their shared passion of community service outside the context of a worship service.
Like my other mainline millennial clergy counterparts who are beginning their first calls into churches, we are serving in congregations that are smaller than they were in previous generations. And for us, our struggle will be how to engage our "spiritual but not religious" and "nones" (meaning no religious affiliation) millennial counterparts while also continuing to minister to older adults—particularly by providing spiritual care to the baby boomer generation as they grow older.
While transitioning worship services from hymns to contemporary music and having a pastor trade in his or her liturgical robe for blue jeans is a method many churches have done in effort to attract millennials, a change in worship style is something that doesn't often result in blended generational worship services on Sunday mornings.
First, for many older adults who enjoy traditional worship services, this style of worship service often alienates them. We can see this reflected in the lack of older adults in many non-denominational churches that offer only contemporary services. And there are many millennials who do enjoy traditional worship services and struggle to experience the spiritual divine speak to them in a contemporary setting.
What remains is a need for recognition and exploration—a recognition that while many millennials may not be seeking to have a spiritual experience in either traditional or contemporary worship services, they are seeking for a spiritual meaning. And it's through this recognition that the process begins of exploring things which older and younger generations in our communities share while also allowing the opportunity for both of these generations to be a spiritual presence to one another in diverse ways—from witnessing an older church member and a university student share their college experience with one another while pulling weeds to an older church woman and a young university student talk about relationships while they scrubbed pots during our community dinner.
What I seek to remind the older adults in our congregation is that while university students may not be in worship with them on Sundays, they still seek a spiritual presence in their lives. And for them, they often find that presence in their interactions with older adults who also experienced the many challenges young adults face with today.
For UniPlace, it's our community dinners and our community service projects which have allowed us to see how older adults and younger generations can be a spiritual presence to one another. And while UniPlace may not exist as a church ten years from now, members at UniPlace are prayerful that the passion for community service in the hearts of university students and the needs of the Champaign community will blossom into a new ministry that will be the legacy of our congregation.