I had it drilled into my head in seminary that the church is one generation away from being just a memory. The thinking being we owe it to the coming generation of young people to share the message and bring the joy of Christ into the world before it’s too late. I suspect this was all code for that dreaded e-word, evangelism, which might be as good a marching order as any?
The trouble comes in something like this story from Downeast magazine, which hopes to inspire people to both retire to the great vacationland and to re-imagine what that retirement would look like. You can read the article here. It’s a worthwhile read, but when you’re there really look at the info graphics that go along with it.
Demographically speaking Maine is aging quickly, a point well made using a map of the state comparing the ratio of younger folks to the over 65 crowd. (I’m not giving anything away here when I say that by 2020 some areas of the state are predicted to have no young people to speak of.)
Now, to my church focused mind, this brings to mind some interesting questions. The article doesn’t speak to the idea of church, leaving us religious folks to either wonder or to consider the matter ourselves.
Now, it’s also fairly well understood that New England is one of the least religious areas in the nation. Look at the trends in this pew study.
Rub these two ideas together: aging population and shrinking religious expression.
Here’s where I start to wonder.
What if the missing generation is not the “next generation” as seminary taught me, but the large booming, pardon the pun, generation that predominates in most of New England? We can all speculate about the Millennial generation and blame them for the downfall of our institutions, but what if the truth is something different? (Include it in this list)
I wonder, because the issues involved in church growth, discipleship, expression, and experience change when you stop considering the problem being the “missing young people.” We’ve all heard that said, some might admit to saying it, and most church folk have thought it.
Because, it is worth wondering, why is our moment, right now, not the best moment for the established church? We know it’s not, but why isn’t it? If the established church, theoretically, works best with the older generation, then why are churches not filled to capacity as the aging generation eases into retirement?
Let’s assume, for the moment, that I’m correct and we are not so much failing to meet the younger generation as we are in connecting to an older one.
What’s my point?
We in the established church are not so much not connecting with the younger generation as being ignored by the older generation. What does that say? What does it mean?
Here’s my guess: it better explains some of the trends we’re seeing in decreasing worship numbers, closing churches, and the like. It means that the local church needs to reckon with the notion that the people it needs to serve are not some new population, although you could call it that, but is instead neighbors that look very much like the people in the pews already.
It also opens up consideration of some very interesting ideas.
Given this is Lent, let’s close with a short list of questions and ideas to ponder as we remember that we are but dust and to dust we will return.
- Must evangelism become more about repentance? If the church begins to focus seriously on the older generation, then it must reckon with the fact that the church is not a new idea for most people. It’s not Good News, because it hasn’t been Good News for them and their experience.
- Does Christian Education become adult education? Perhaps youth formation can become a regional effort, with one church being really good at it and others in the association directing young people that way? Here in Western Massachusetts, one school district recently sent a class of 7 kids onto middle school. The truth is there are not many children in some places.
- What about connectivity? Boomers love gadgets and things. Most are very aware of the internet, Facebook, and the like. Live streaming? Group chats? Sophisticated media driven campaigns? All are possible.
- Can we transition to intentional communities? Aging brings changing life needs. Are the next church growth opportunities in tomorrow’s retirement communities? What would it take to prepare leaders to make that happen?
- What is sustainable? Demographics are often destiny. Can the church define itself in ways that look beyond survival or legacy?
Andrew Keen closes his new book, How to Fix the Future, focusing on how to help young people live in a world that’s coming. Keen writes, “… designing a coherent map of the future requires a coherent knowledge of the past” (Keen p. 290). Keen’s point is we can’t see where we’re going, until where we’ve been.
My point: church needs to reckon with the fact that church growth today, be it members, social justice, or in Good News shared, must be focused on the people who have known its hallowed halls for decades.
Rev. Jeremiah Rood lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Amanda, and two small black cats. He has experience working in local congregations but most recently has turned his attention to building an active online ministry at www.revjeremiahrood.com. Rev. Jeremiah’s ministry also includes spending a year in a detox working with struggling addicts and alcoholics. His time is now split between writing a book exploring these issues and working in a local public library.