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Younger congregants seek a culturally relevant way to worship

Church leaders face the challenge of reaching generations X and Y in the 21st century.

Sarah L. Sladek

For eight years we attended a small, especially friendly Methodist church. A year and a half ago, we left to find a church where our oldest daughter would no longer be the only child in her grade attending Sunday School, and where we didn’t feel like the youngest people in the pews.

Neighbors and friends recommended a church that was located a mile from our home, growing rapidly, and housed numerous youth programs. We were immediately drawn to this church that seemed more like a sprawling city with musicians, a movie theater, an especially active calendar of events and young families everywhere we looked.

Sixteen months later, we feel lost among this congregation of 8,000. All this time we’ve been attending this church and not one person has reached out to us to give us a warm welcome or invite us to get more involved. So now we are torn between a new church that provides every opportunity and an old church that provides a sense of belonging. And we wish we could have both.

No questions asked

My parents have been Presbyterians their entire married lives. Every time they moved to a different city, they sought out the Presbyterian Church and joined it and actively served in it. No questions asked. They would never consider joining a church of a different denomination.

These stories are representative of many people in congregations today. The Traditionals and Baby Boomers are those generations born prior to 1964. Like my parents, they are loyal to their religions and actively serve within their churches. But Generations X and Y march to a different beat. Like my husband and I, they are loyal to their faith more than a specific religion and actively seek churches to serve their interests and needs.

Generations X (1965-1981) and Y (1982-1995) have challenged churches to become more intentional and strategic in the ways they serve their members because they are the first generations to want new ways to worship. Churches everywhere are struggling to understand this generational shift. As a result, they are observing a decline in membership among younger generations. According to a 2007 LifeWay Research survey, 70 percent of 18 to 30-year-olds who went to church regularly in high school stopped attending by age 23.

To better understand why X and Y are leaving churches, one must first understand they have completely different values, interests, needs and wants from the generations before them. The way they communicate, their worldview, their priorities; everything about them is different as a result of their social experiences.

A high value on family time

Think about how much the world has changed since 1946, when the youngest Boomers were born, to 1995, when the youngest Ys were born. This encompasses nearly a 50-year time span and the experiences of each generation vary considerably. Gen X was the first generation of latchkey children raised in two-parent working households. As a result, Xers place a high value on family time. They are very selective about how they spend their time and who they spend it with and their families always come first.

Generation Y was the first group to grow up with technology. They have been surrounded by computers and multimedia their entire lives so it makes sense that when they join churches they expect to access programs and services through technology.

How can a church engage these tech-savvy, family-focused generations? Here are a few recommendations:

Relationships: Building relationships with Xers and Ys is imperative. These generations rely only on the people who take the time to earn their trust and express care for them. Your church will successfully engage them when it becomes concerned about their needs and develop programs and services especially for them.

Positive energy: Younger generations often refer to church as boring, time-consuming, judgmental and hypocritical. If Xers and Ys don’t feel positive, inspired, welcome or engaged in their church experience, they are likely to run for the door. Churches have responded by introducing shorter services, musical instruments and humor in the sermon. And if you don’t know what younger generations dislike about your church — ask them!

Family-focus: Xers are having children and Ys will be starting families soon. A commitment to an outstanding children’s program and a family-friendly environment is essential to attracting and keeping younger members.

Purpose: Younger generations want to make a difference and to know their participation has purpose and value. Explain how their involvement is making a difference. Gen Y has an especially broad worldview and would prefer to join a church where there are ample mission and service opportunities.

Respect: Contrary to popular belief, Xers and Ys are not slackers. They are multi-tasking high-achievers, but they don’t like obligations that intrude on family life. Be respectful of their time, don’t guilt them into taking on volunteer roles, and understand their participation will be more episodic. They like to take the lead a single project and then that’s it for a while.

Technology: Use technology to provide access to the church and its worship and faith-building opportunities 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Consider podcasting sermons or worship music or the minister’s message for the day, post video testimonials featuring younger members, use Webinars for Bible study, or launch a blog or bulletin board where people can engage in discussions about the church.

A new approach

If your church is largely comprised of members over the age of 40, then it’s time for a new approach. Yes, the Traditional and Baby Boomer generations have sustained churches for quite some time and they are not to be overlooked or neglected.  But many churches have made the mistake of ignoring the Xers and Ys, and it’s time to start thinking seriously about the next generation of church executives, members and volunteers.

My husband and I are looking for a church that can give us what we want and we’re not alone. Xers and Ys are either actively seeking a place to belong, or abandoning the idea of going to church altogether because churches aren’t meeting their interests and needs. There’s a tremendous opportunity here for the churches that find meaningful ways to integrate church involvement into young people’s lives.

It’s important to understand that younger generations haven’t lost their faith and they haven’t given up on God. They are simply seeking a new way to worship than the generations that came before them.

Sarah L. Sladek is president and CEO of Limelight Generations, a generational marketing company, Minneapolis, MN.  [limelightgenerations.com]

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