How to Reach a Younger Generation

In my travels I see a wide variety of churches. An alarming trend is the rapid aging of the American church. With each passing week more young people are absent from the gathering of the church. What can we do? The church has tried various programs and gimmicks to reach out to the youth, so let’s start by stating three ideologies that have not worked.

• If we build it they will come

You can add drums and guitars to your worship team, sing songs from the 1980’s and 90’s and call it contemporary worship (which is not exactly contemporary), and instead of seeing young people stream into your service, you put off the older members. You can furnish your meeting space with pool tables, ping-pong tables and foosball tables in hope of gaining young people, and you typically end up with a room full of dusty, unused tables.

• All young adults are the same

To clearly define and target the younger generation is impossible. We live in an incredibly diverse world with young people’s likes all across the spectrum. There is no such thing as a “typical teen.” I grew up in a generation that wore Levi jeans, Sperry topsiders and listened to the Eagles, but not all in my generation liked those things. Take a field trip to Starbucks and be amazed at the nonconformity.

• We need young adults for our church to survive

If the main goal of reaching young adults is self-preservation, we’ve missed the mark. The main goal of reaching young people is for them to come alive in Christ and actively participate with Jesus in what he has called and shaped them to be and do. This will be the only true catalyst for the church to experience broad and expansive renewal.

I believe many of our churches will look and operate quite differently in the years ahead. Are church leaders willing to allow the next generation to put their fingerprints on what church will become?

A senior pastor with many years of experience voiced a new and brave idea. The pastor’s congregation is made up of people aged 60 to 90 and he said it would not be fair or appropriate to ask a younger pastor in their 20s or 30s to come in as his replacement. His alternative plan was to move forward and bring in a younger leader, but instead of attempting to add young people to the existing group, he thought it would be better to start an entirely new group where the young leader could concentrate on working with new people based on their generational needs and styles.

This bold plan reminded me of a powerful teaching of Jesus in John 12:23-25. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Jesus is using an analogy from the vegetable kingdom to refer to his impending death and resurrection. I think it is also appropriate to infer that laying down our lives (or collective lives as a church community) is a Christ-like behavior that is fitting. It is in our loving surrender and diminishing that new life can be birthed. John the Baptist said it a different way: “He must become greater; I must become less.” Will the existing church be able to lovingly surrender so that the new church of the next generation can spring to life? Time will tell.

Greg Williams 

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