At New Wine Ireland's Sligo Summer Conference, Steve Morris tackled the issue of a missing generation within our churches. How do we reengage with the 18- 30s who are walking away? Why have we failed to keep them in our churches?
I’ve been a youth worker for 10 years and I’m now at the stage where people who I was working with at 12 are now in their 20s. This comes from the pain of seeing people falling away. There is an aching in my heart over those who are dropping out.
The missing generation
Those in their 18 -30s are the lowest in attendance in church. We've had great investment in youth workers, conferences, etc. and yet we are still struggling to engage young adults to stay in church. We have a huge gap in our churches!
People in the UK and Ireland often still identify with Christianity or a particular denomination. But more and more people are saying they have no religious affiliation.
In the past we had the big rallies of Billy Graham. It worked because people knew the backstory of the Bible. They understood the church and it was a call back to Christ, to accept and walk in what they already knew.People re-engaged with CHRIST and then they reengaged with the church and found their calling within the church.
We then had a move around Willow Creek towards Seeker Services. People had become disillusioned. They still had a good body of biblical understanding but they were unhappy with church. It was wholly appropriate mission for the time. The first point of re-engagement was with COMMUNITY. You can belong before you believe.
There has been another shift in recent years. People have no idea of the biblical story. Their actual understanding of the big picture is very limited. If you begin with Christ, it does not make much sense because they don’t have the same foundation. People may pray a prayer but they do not understand or know what they have said yes to…
People in the current generation connect with a CAUSE and through that they connect with CHRIST.
Talk to them about injustice, homelessness, trafficking… young people care about these things. They are passionate about that. The gospel has this great cause… therein lies our strength when we reach that generation. We are going to have to be prepared to take people along to serve and to address the cause before they have even met Christ.
Being brave and bold in mission
Brick Lane is one of the most culturally diverse streets in London. On a Sunday, 20,000 visitors come to Brick Lane. A friend noticed that all other faiths were out witnessing to the crowds but all the Christians were in church! The friend chose to start a coffee shop, to run a business and establish a church on Brick Lane.
They had a dream to be the best coffee house in London. The church does a big bring-and-share meal on a Sunday. On a Wednesday night they have a worship service. The business is making money and making a profit. Now, they have employed a worker to work in a prison using the profits from the shop. Every Friday night, the coffee shop manager does ministry among prostitutes along Brick Lane. They are in the process of buying a house to help woman who are being freed from trafficking to have a safe place to live.
People connect with the cause. They connect with the community and then we can introduce them to Christ. We are not avoiding the Gospel.
When you love God, you will love people. Don’t be scared of working with people who believe different things. You are going to need to take some risks and partner with people who are not yet Christians as you engage with a cause.
Many of the people who have re-engaged were disillusioned and disappointed with church. People don't believe that our religious leaders and our institutions can be trusted anymore. There has been a lack of integrity. Young people respond when we are willing to apologise for the ways in which the church has got it wrong and put things right.
Don't preach your denomination - preach Christ!
Young people don’t want to opt for a denomination… they may call themselves a “follower of Jesus” rather than an anglican, a baptist, a presbyterian, etc… We cannot speak down to them. We can’t demand that they affiliate with denominational structures when they have seen the hypocrisy and the lack of integrity within those structures. They want to cross the divides. There is a natural suspicion and cynicism against your church. They are not starting from zero, they are starting from minus 10.
Release people early
Encourage younger people to take the lead - give them your full support to fulfill their dreams for your community or for their cause! Hand over the baton and allow someone to run with it. Allow them to make mistakes. Don’t grab the credit for their story. Have the courage to sit in the background and propel them on. There is a disappointment and a disillusionment.
There is a cry for authentic community
Jesus only had three years to do his ministry but he still found time for picnics and parties, Sometimes in church we need to rediscover the ability to smile and have fun. Why not cancel your service and have a bbq? If you would love that, why not do it?
I’m serious about the things of God but at the heart of it is authentic community. Eating together. Celebrating together. Having fun together. Crying together. Worshipping together. Talking until late in the night. Playing music. We need to get away from church being an event we attend and back to a community we belong to.
Most people are disappointed with church because of hypocrisy. We are never going to be perfect but we cannot allow our reaction to the things we don’t like about our church make us cynical about the church. I love the church.
Wrestle with tough questions
We have to do the hard work intellectually with our young people. From 11 years old, children are wrestling with issues like evolution and science, sex and sexuality, etc. at school. Yet in Sunday school, we treat them like five years olds!
Don’t be afraid to tell children and young people the various options and opinions on controversial issues including those with which you disagree. Allow them to wrestle with these things and come to their own conclusions. Don’t dictate. For a strong faith that will survive we need to wrestle with the tough questions.
Understand the backstory.
People have grown up during recession. Young people are scared to make decisions and long-term commitments because of the uncertainty over jobs and education, There is rampant materialism, a technological revolution and an over sexualisation. Pornography is widespread and easily accessible, even for children.
We need to have an intentional investment in this generation.
Being serious about young people will impact the budget. You’ve got to back it with your prayer, your pounds and your passion.
Only fight for essentials.
Don’t be afraid to let old traditions die. On the essentials of the gospel hold firm but on everything else… let it go. Everything else should be up for change. The pews, the colour scheme, the style of service. Allow the younger generation to make their own traditions.
There is so much in the Gospel for this generation.
- For those who have a distrust of leaders… introduce them to Jesus who is full of integrity.
- For those who think religion is miserable… introduce them to Jesus who held a bbq on a beach for his friends.
Leaders of key ministry need to be committed to Christ, committed to church and committed to community. Older leaders should be willing to stand up in leadership meetings and take the flak for younger leaders.. If they have made a mistake, support them and help them through.
The church can offer a model of inter-generational ministry. It is key to have an inter-generational leadership team before you can see a fully inter-generational ministry. There will always be time when people want to be with their own generation but there needs to be a movement from both sides.