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Seismic change is coming to the church in a new demography

This isn’t your father’s church anymore, so be prepared for startling demographic changes on the horizon.

By Sam S. Rainer III

In 1988 General Motors started an aggressive advertising campaign aimed at lowering the average age of Oldsmobile buyers. The ad theme, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile,” did not work. The slogan not only alienated loyalists, it did not attract the next generation. The brand that represented respectable middle-class achievement in the 1960s and 1970s lost to the “cool factor” of the 1980s and 1990s.

Ultimately, it became a victim of its own brand. The attempt to distance the Oldsmobile from everything it once stood for failed. The brand was phased out totally in 2004.

There is a new U.S. demography on the horizon. The demographics in several key areas are shifting in the early 21st century. They aren’t your father’s population trends, and the church must be positioned to better serve the changing culture.

There is much to be learned from the spiritual successes of previous decades, but there are also new challenges in society today. No church body desires to phase out because they didn’t attract new people. How local churches address these macro changes in demography, however, will either help or hinder their part in God’s Gospel mission.

The Brookings Institution, one of Washington’s oldest think tanks, awhile back released a report on the latest population trends re-shaping the nation’s largest 100 metropolitan areas. These metro areas account for two-thirds of the U.S. population and they represent the driving force of cultural shifts in our nation. The researchers pulled data from a variety of U.S. Census Bureau sources and examined several population trends currently reshaping Metropolitan America.

Let’s look at some highlights of a new metro demography:

Staying put — for now.
Within the industrialized world, the United States has the highest rate of internal migration. In other words, Americans move a lot. Domestic migration across state lines and to other metro areas, however, has slowed substantially in the last two years. In fact, across state movement has been sliced by more than 40 percent since the beginning of the millennium. Places that were once attracting new people are not seeing as large of influxes.

For instance, Florida saw a net decrease in domestic migrants last year, the first time in its history. Additionally, cities that were losing people are seeing slower declines. In the Midwest, 30 of the 44 large metro areas either gained more people or lost fewer people.

Much of this pattern can be attributed to the slower economy, specifically the housing market. Once markets rebound, migration will likely pick up. What is not known is where people will flock, to what degree, and how soon. This trend may not last in the long-term, but it will still be influential in the next five years.

Diversity spreads out and gets younger.
Both the source and destination of the foreign-born U.S. population has undergone major shifts in the last several decades. In 1970, only 30 percent of the foreign-born population came from Latin America and Asia. Today that number is 80 percent. In fact, half of the nation’s growth since 2000 is attributable to the Hispanic population.

Previously, immigrants of all backgrounds clustered in urban cores of traditionally diverse cities. The new geography of immigration now includes metro areas that are not accustomed to this diversity. Additionally, the U.S. population is predicted to turn minority white by 2042, but the preschool population will cross this point in 2021. Diversity is spreading geographically and it is becoming younger.

Riding the aging boomer wave. The first of the boomers will hit 65 in less than two years. As a result of this wave, the senior population will grow 36 percent from 2010-2020. Boomers are the first true “suburban generation,” a large segment of them living the majority of their lives in the suburbs. It is likely that many of them will remain in suburban areas, and these areas will “gray” faster than urban areas.

The massive growth of aging boomers will occur in areas unaccustomed to housing older people, specifically in the suburbs of metro areas. The metro areas that are expected to gray the fastest are in the intermountain West, the Southeast and Texas. The senior population will expand by as much as 70 percent in some of these places.

The new metropolitan demography calls for new approaches from the church. Not every change will affect individual churches or communities, but almost every church and community will be influenced by at least one of these newer trends. How might some ministries change in response to these cultural shifts?

1.) An outreach ministry less dependent on new residents. Due to decreased domestic migration, some churches will need to become less dependent on new resident outreach. There are churches that have depended entirely on new residents for their outreach focus. Understandably, someone had to reach out to new people in the community. Unfortunately, these opportunities are not as great in many areas now.

Local congregations should not intentionally neglect ministering to any one segment of people, but there will be many communities that experience substantial drops in new residents. This stoppage may be temporary. During the migration halt, however, these churches would do well to refocus their outreach strategy on existing lost residents. Once migration resumes, they will be well positioned to minister to new and existing people.

2.) A fundamentally different senior adult ministry. With waves of boomers rushing towards the senior adult life stage, churches will need to adjust how they minister to the first suburban generation. Many churches are already experiencing the “I’m not part of that group” mentality with existing senior ministries trying to get older Boomers to join. In short, there is a generational divide.

Boomers are less likely to take fellowship trips or go to group entertainment events. Boomers are more likely to have experienced divorce and have differing family dynamics. Boomer women are more likely to have occupied professional and managerial positions in the workplace compared with previous generations. Boomers are more educated than previous retirees. These reasons plus many others mean that churches will have to rethink how they minister to Boomers as they enter the retirement life stage.

3.) A fundamentally different children’s ministry. Not only will older adult ministries change, but also children’s ministries as well. As diversity spreads out geographically, and as preschools become more diverse, churches must prepare for a different type of ministry to children. Specifically within predominantly white churches, ministry leaders should begin to think about how to accommodate for an influx of children from differing ethnic backgrounds.

While the year 2021 is over a decade away, many metro communities are already beginning to see these types of changes in the preschools and grade schools. Now is the time to begin preparing how your church will respond to the unique make up of your community.

4.) An attitude shift from homogeneous to heterogeneous. As the younger generation ages, they will not recognize the homogeneous unit principal that was championed in the early years of the church growth movement. Basically, this principal states that people desire to worship and serve in church with other similar people, and the best way to reach people is with others who are similar.

The younger generation, as an ethnically diverse group, will not know homogeneity in the same way as previous generations. Many of the younger generation are third culture worlders. Third culture is a sociological term used to describe a person who has spent significant time in another culture, thus incorporating their birth culture with a second culture and creating a third culture. (See Rainer’s article on this in the November 2009 Church Executive.)

The term is typically attached to children who spend large portions of their developmental years outside of their parents’ home culture. Churches should be at the forefront of breaking barriers associated with differing races and ethnicities. It is these churches that the new, more diverse generation will see as normative and culturally relevant.

A new U.S. demography is coming. In many ways, these changes are upon us. There is much to take with us from previous decades and generations. But there is also much we must do in order to reach a changing culture for Christ.

Sam S. Rainer III is president of Rainer Research, and recently became senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Murray, KY. [www.rainerresearch.com, www.fbcmurray.org]

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