Friday, June 29, 2012

The Church Generation Gap

Fair notice - this blog is for church members. Those of you who are non-Christians or are unaffiliated with any church are welcome to read, but for this blog, I am not really talking to you. I suspect that you have some valuable insight to add, and I welcome that, but I am talking to someone else right now.

One of the latest Berkley polls out there shows that the Millennial Generation – the twenty- and thirty-somethings – are not going to church. My church is a great example: there is a lot of grey hair, and the youth group is thriving. In between, however, there is a big gap. I know a lot more people in my church who are in the age group fifteen years older than mine than in the age group fifteen years younger.

There are a number of articles out there (here, for example) speculating on the reasons why. You will see explanations including moral compromise, hypocrisy in the church, the ongoing denominational battles, clergy sex abuse, and the failures of church youth groups to provide transformation to teenagers.

I do not discount any of those as a partial cause, but we need to consider something else. We need to examine whether the churches are worth being a part of. Many people my age and older are committed to the idea of church and will be there as a matter of principle. Teenagers will go to church that is fun or where their parents send them or where their friends are or where there is free pizza.

What about the folks in between? What about the twenty-four year old newly married construction worker, the thirty-one year old lawyer, the thirty-six year old single mother, and the young family of five struggling to make ends meet? It is true that Generation X, those who are now in their thirties and early forties, may come to church in order to bring their kids there. While that is good, those folks need to have a reason to become a part of the church independently from their children.  What are churches offering them, once fun and free pizza are not really drawing cards?

If the church is offering culturally relevant discussions of poverty, issues of world peace, immigration, and gay rights, some of these Millennials may find the topics interesting for a while. Then again, they can find the same discussion on television or on the internet or in any of a number of social groups. If the church is offering a rock concert or an organ recital, Millennials may be attracted to the event without ever understanding that the church was hoping that they would be attracted to the church itself. If the church is promoting its style (be it contemporary, liturgical, traditional, blended, or something else), the Millennials may well be attracted only to the style, and to that only for the moment.

If church is offering an angry Jesus, a warlike Jesus, or a finger-pointing Jesus, it may be a hard sell. On the other hand, if church is offering a Jesus who does not care what you do as long as you show up or a Jesus who does not demand anything in particular, there will be little reason for the Millennial to stick around. If the church forces narrow interpretation, many thirty-somethings will continue to shop; but if the church treats "doctrine" like a dirty word, those same thirty-somethings will wonder what the fuss is about.

I have a friend and professional colleague (who came back to church as a Generation Xer because she had kids) who has done most of her postgraduate work studying the differences among generations. In studying the Millennials, she finds, generally speaking, hyper-educated children of "helicopter parents" who grew up going to multiple after-school and summer programs and getting a trophy for every activity. They have moved beyond their parents' questioning of authority into a world where they are their own authority, able to Google any question personally and relying on their digital savvy to decide questions for themselves. They are passionate but largely unaffiliated - be the discussion about politics, brand loyalty, commitment to an employer, or religion.

And, of course, they are becoming adults in a post-modern world, where the concept of overriding truth is anathema to many who set the agenda and rule the airwaves. Simply telling them what we believe is the truth and then expecting them to fall in line because we are authoritative or pointing to a book that we tell them - as sincerely as we know how - is authoritative will not prove very effective. That does not mean that we stray from the truth or abandon the scripture (in fact, the opposite is true), but in preaching and relying on the Bible, we have to recognize that natural skeptics are not going to accept our authority just because we tell them to.

We can debate about whose "fault" these generational characteristics are, but while we tilt at that windmill, the Millennials are not finding many churches offering them what they need to stick around.

(At this point, I should insert the obligatory exception notice - Yes, I know your particular church is different, that your Young Adult Ministry is overflowing and you cannot buy enough cribs for the nursery. Good. You are in fact the exception. I have taught Sunday School classes overflowing with twenty-somethings, half of whom were out of the church four years later. Some exceptions do not last.)

When I think about the folks in this age group who are not involved in church and whom I know at work, in my neighborhood, on Facebook, or elsewhere, I ask myself, "Why do they tell me they are not in church?" The answers go something like this, in no particular order:

     1. They are busy, and church does not seem worth the expenditure of time.
     2. They do not know what church offers that is believable and meaningful.
     3. They have "done church" in the past, and it was (1) boring, (2) meaningless, (3) and/or disappointing.
     4. They do not know Jesus. (OK, they do not put it that way, but the conversation makes it clear that the church of Jesus has little call on those who do not know Jesus in the first place.)

Can the church do anything about this? I think so. I do not think the answer is tied up in worship style, correct denomination, or even finding the proper side of the conservative/liberal divide. I believe that churches of all stripes, smells, and colors can still become home to Millennials.

I am sure that there are worthwhile studies into how to communicate differently to this generation. We can understand that the way we did it in the fifties or the eighties may not work today without descending too far into the style debate. We can and should evaluate programs, organizational structures, and messages.

But the real issue is both deeper and simpler.  We need to be more about Jesus and less about ourselves. To welcome the Millennials home, the church has to allow itself to be, as the New Testament describes it, the body of Christ. First and foremost, the church needs to portray Jesus and quit trying to market the church. Too many "evangelism" or "growth" or "outreach" programs are centered on how great a particular church is. Those kinds of emphases are largely effective to those who already believe that church is important and may shuffle church members from one congregation to another, but promoting yourself as a "good church" does not move those Millennials who have dropped out. Introducing them to the Lord has always been the better plan. Jesus's words "If I be lifted up, I'll draw all men to me" certainly have something to say about the cross and about worship, but they also speak to how the church ought to be about its business.

When relevance outweighs revelation as a goal, the church is about itself.  When the identity and authority of the pastor are clearer than the identity and authority of God, the church is about itself.  Garrison Keillor is quoted as saying "If you can’t go to church and for at least a moment experience transcendence ... then I can’t see why anyone should go."  Our churches need, in the words of a close friend of mine who happens to be a pastor, to recalibrate to the transcendent.  If we are the body of Christ, then we are all about Jesus and not about ourselves.

Being the body of Christ means different things to different churches, and so churches will still be different. Being Christ's hands and feet will result in churches that go into the world and interact with the poor and the immigrants and the needy. Being Christ's arms will mean that churches hold onto those who need holding. Being Christ's eyes will mean that churches find a new vision for how to operate in this world, a vision that no social group or internet post can match. Being Christ's voice will mean that churches worship with a clarity of message. Being Christ's face will mean that churches display Christ simply by allowing folks to walk in the door. Being Christ will demonstrate the truth that all of our authoritative pronouncements and scripture-quotation alone cannot convey. Being Christ will be accomplished by transformed church members living the lives of those who have an ongoing relationship with Jesus and who have personal experience that reflects the scripture and proves the truth of our pronouncements.

We have to trust Jesus with the business of drawing people to Him. When we think we know better, we lose people, a generation at a time. When we market something other than Jesus - in fact when we "market" at all - we send the message that we think the reason people should join with us is because we church members have it figured out. That message just does not wash, with Millennials or anyone else.

I trust Jesus to be able to breach any Generation Gap. I don't trust anyone else to do it, great churches included. I think we need to get out of the way.


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