According to data just released by LifeWay Research, Southern Baptist membership will fall nearly 50 percent by 2050 unless the aging denomination reverses a 50-year trend and does more to reach out to young adults. According to Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, “The difference in the mean age of Southern Baptists versus the U.S. population shows SBC members older, especially since 1993.”
This is but the latest in a long litany of laments over the aging of the church. Some blame a secular society; some blame traditional approaches to ministry; some blame new forms of individualism that lead Christian young adults away from institutions in general; some blame the lack of evangelism.
Can someone who has pastored for over twenty years offer something from the trenches?
The natural flow of the church is to skew old. Left to itself, that is what it will do. It will age. You take your hand off of that wheel, and that is what will happen. This is not the only natural flow of the church. Left to itself, the church will also turn inward and become outdated.
But let’s stick with age.
I know of one large, innovative church - legendary in leadership circles - that woke up one day and realized that its median age had increased from people in their teens and twenties in the 1970’s to the thirties in the 1980’s, then the forties in the 1990’s, and then the fifties in the new millennium. And this was a church known for its innovation.
But innovation wasn’t the problem.
I had a wake-up call on this a few years ago. I was asked to speak at one of the fastest-growing churches in the United States which was made up almost entirely of twenty-somethings: NewSpring Church in Anderson, South Carolina. The pastor, Perry Noble, is a former student of mine. He tells people I gave him the kick in the pants he needed to start a church. I think he just needs someone to blame.
But I will never forget standing with Perry, waiting to speak, and watching the band that took the stage, the people who filled the seats, and the staff mingling between the services. I was overwhelmed with one thought: “We’re old.” That was hard to accept, because Mecklenburg had always been known as the “new” church, the “young” church, the “cutting-edge” church.
Now all I could think was that we had become the “old” church.
I went back to Meck the next weekend, and it was as if God wanted to make sure the message had been received. Though it was a bit of a scheduling fluke, every person on stage that weekend – every musician, every singer, every person speaking - was in their forties, save two. Those two were in their fifties. I was the youngest person on the stage that day, and I’m no spring chicken. The irony is that we were still young as a church in terms of our attenders – mostly folks in their thirties. But we were losing the twenty-somethings, which means we would soon be losing thirty-somethings, and on the creep would go.
My goal was never to simply be a church for young people. But the vision was never to be a church for old people, or to have one generational life-cycle before we closed the doors.
Right then and there I made a vow: we will not grow old! If the natural flow of the church is to skew older, then that means the leadership of the church has to invest a disproportionate amount of energy and intentionality in order to maintain a vibrant population of young adults. So we did. Mecklenburg Community Church is now younger than it has ever been in its entire existence, growing faster than it has ever grown, and reaching more unchurched people than ever before.
So what did we do? There are three headlines that are disarmingly simple in maintaining influence and impact with the next generation:
1. To attract young adults, you have to hire young adults. It seems simple enough, but it’s often overlooked. Very few churches intentionally hire people in their twenties. But without twenty-something staff, you are cut-off from the next generation’s culture. And that includes technology, which is heavily oriented toward new forms of communication. So if you don’t know a tweet from a text, or the Ting-Tings from the Kings of Leon, then you need to hire some folks who do.
2. To attract young adults, you have to platform young adults. One of the unwritten laws of church-life is this: who you platform is who you will attract. It doesn’t matter whether you want it to be true or not, it simply is. If you want a church of forty-somethings, then be sure to litter your stage with that age-group. But don’t then sit back and wonder where all the young people are.
Now, before you think you need to raise the banner for the importance of a multi-generational church, I’m with you. But here’s another unwritten law: the best way to become multi-generational is to intentionally target young adults.
Here’s why: While you can platform older folk and disaffect young adults, you can platform young adults and still attract older folk. Lots of them. A twenty-something person is not attracted to a fifty-year-old man singing a David Crowder Band song. But a fifty-year-old man is often attracted to a youthful, energetic twenty-something person who is singing that song. The stage does not have to be entirely young, by any means, nor necessarily should it - but remember the law: who you platform is who you will attract, whether young or old, white or black, male or female.
3. To attract young adults, you have to acknowledge young adults. To acknowledge a young person is to acknowledge their world, their sensibilities, their technology, their vocabulary, their tastes, their priorities, and their questions. Notice I did not say “cater” to such things, only to acknowledge them. A church that does nothing but speak to young adults is a glorified youth group, and not the vision of the new community detailed in the New Testament. But those who are younger should be acknowledged. So when using illustrations, don’t overlook the world of iPhones and Twitter, texting and Facebook. Become familiar with musical groups such as Coldplay and the Black Eyed Peas. And by all means, embrace the technology of the next generation as it is fast becoming the technology for us all.
Bottom line? Sometimes bridging a cultural divide is as simple as who you hire, who you platform, and who you acknowledge.
Yes, a person who is fifty should come and find points of connection and community at your church.
But that’s not the problem. We’re reaching the fifty-somethings. It’s the twenty-somethings that we’re missing.
Don’t believe me?
Ask a Southern Baptist.
James Emery White