Church, the next generation…

A venerable East Texas pastor, with whom I am well acquainted, bought me lunch a couple days ago. But before the waitress brought our drinks he was already lamenting the dearth of young people at his church.

“I can’t figure this generation out,” he said. “We’ve tried programs and different outreaches but nothing’s working.”

He went on to describe a cyclical occurrence whereupon his congregation would see an influx of singles, couples, or young families show up during a holiday or following a special church event…  only to see them moving elsewhere after less than a month’s time.

But the phenomenon is not limited to this minister’s fold, nor is it merely isolated to our region. This is the causal outworking of numerous ideological and theological shifts that have occurred in the West from the latter half of the 20th Century until now.

This newest generation to come into adulthood: the “Millennials” (born roughly between 1980 and the early 1990s) are participating in religion in different ways than even their generational predecessors: “Generation X” (born from about 1965 through the late 1970s) of which I find myself a part.

A recent study published by the Pew Research Center has found that most Millennials are religiously adrift, vaguely Christian in belief and barely Christian in practice. Subsequently, most of these who describe themselves as “active and committed to their faith” often feel isolated in an increasingly outmoded Christian culture.
Lauren, age 20, attends nearby Kilgore College and describes herself as “active” in the campus student ministries, but admits that she tends to avoid going to worship services when she returns to the church in her hometown.

“The people there are all nice and it’s great to see everyone when I come home but I’ve come to a point where I’m experiencing something different out of worship than the way it’s always been done,” she said.

Pew’s study also finds that young Americans are “less religiously affiliated” than their elders, with about one in four Americans ages 18 to 29 not affiliated with any particular religious group.

This is not entirely unexpected, since it is a sociological truism that young people cultivate some distance from the religious institutions of their parents, only to return to those institutions as they marry, raise children, and slouch toward retirement.

It’s so commonplace that it’s even somewhat of a cliché…  the parable of the “prodigal son” and all that. Not to “tattle” on my brethren or anything but, even amongst the deacons of my own church, I can count several men who were quite the hellraisers in their younger years…  myself included, but I digress.

One possible inference from this sort of study is that we are becoming increasing irreligious as a society…  but before the atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists start popping open the champagne, they would do well to take an even closer look at the numbers.

The report goes on to say that “not belonging does not necessarily imply not believing,” for more than a third of these unaffiliated Millennials profess belief in God “with absolute certainty” and nearly 20% reporting that they pray daily.

In fact, these Millennials look quite similar to their forebears when it comes to some of the fundamental doctrines of the Christian religion. Seniors in high school are just as likely as Senior Citizens to believe in life after death as well as miracles.

With only 3 percent of Millennials in the study claiming to be atheists, and only a few more subscribing to agnosticism, there is a solid consensus of general “belief” to be found in this generation.

Personally, I find that this generation tends more towards a certain spiritual “honesty” that is rare among their elders. The days of feeling some sort of cultural pressure to adhere to historic Christian truths is simply gone. In a word, if they don’t believe, they sure don’t mind telling you.

As a result, we may not be seeing younger people less devoted to Jesus Christ but simply more people being honest about their beliefs…  those demographic groups whom, in the past would have professed faith they neither possessed nor practiced, are now just being honest about their lack of belief. I have to admit, I prefer this to the alternative.

Consider also how “juvenile” young adults are still acting in this era. Many still behave as teenagers when compared to the lifestyles of previous generations.

With an adolescence that extends well into their early 30s, you are seeing many who are delaying traditional major life transitions of  career>marriage>children. With these benchmarks disregarded, there is certainly no hurry to hammer down what system of belief they will choose to live by. Consequently, this ambiguity and lack of certainty about Christian belief and practice should not be surprising in view of how they live their life.

So…  what does this mean to those like my dear old pastor friend, one who earnestly desires to minister to these young people, but remains at a loss at how to bridge the generation gap?

I would submit that younger people have grown up in an age of skepticism and doubt for every institution, from politics to the very family structure itself.

Such conventions as going to church on Sundays are no longer assumed in our society and, really, they haven’t been for quite some time now.

These people have grown up in an Age where a basic acceptance of the Christian worldview and strictures is all but absent.

Attempting to appeal to the sanctity of religious beliefs or practices will fall on deaf ears.

So what words of advice or sage counsel would I dare to proffer?

Be aware of the sweeping technological developments that are evolving exponentially.

How many people had cellphones 18 years ago compared to now? How many were online? And so on. Understand how people are communicating now and what media they are imbibing from their culture.

Familiarize yourselves with social networking technologies. People are communicating differently now, listen. Stop waiting for them to bump into you at the grocery store so you can read off the “Roman Road” script. Stop being afraid to talk to people and have your beliefs challenged by them.

Oh, and by the way, please lose the trite milquetoast tracts. I’ve never known of someone to have been converted to faith in Jesus Christ because they found a Chick-tract at a urinal in a Wal*Mart bathroom.

Step out into the dark corners of your neighborhoods. Embrace the poor, the suffering, the frail, the troubled. Foster community by being an active participant thereof.

Train young leaders to take on increasing responsibilities, don’t leave them languishing on the sidelines. I know of too many youth ministers that are toiling under poor headship by a shepherd whose eyes are too blind to see the writing on the wall.

Finally, and most importantly, do not water down the message. Do. Not.

Teach and preach from the Scriptures in a clear, authoritatve voice that does not shy away from the harshness of human existence or theological contention. At the same time, lead with a humility that is authentic, and an authenticity that abides in graciousness before others. Love and feed your sheep.

Let go of arbitrary societal conventions…  meaning, take a hard look at the peripheral aspects of your ministry. If there are areas that are not producing fruit and merely wilting on the vine, it is probably time to prune them away. Shake things up a bit, stop with the church by-the-number approach. The times have changed, and will continue to change.

I believe that these Millennials are both capable and ready to listen to ministers who take strong stands and are willing to back it up with a reasoned defense. However, don’t confuse “taking a stand” with the wearisome drumbeat of a singular ideological perspective or cause that fails to interact with where people are in their lives or neglects to consider the complexities of our times.

At the same time, do not reduce the deep spiritual teachings of Jesus Christ to some catchy five-point acronym that co-opts the transcendent message of the Gospel into mere platitudes of good manners or twist the Scriptures to fit into a narrow syncretistic social ethos.

Come out from the Christian ghettos and see how people are living. You can wait for “them to come to you” but don’t be surprised if you join the ranks of the 5,000 churches that will close their doors this year.

Renowned evangelist Billy Graham once said that the men who followed Jesus Christ were unique in their generation in how they turned the world upside down, because their hearts had first been turned right side up.

The world has never been the same since their time, and I believe there is yet time and opportunity for Him to shake the world again.