Right there in the want ads for pastors. Right there in their strategic plans. Right there in their requests for services from our organization or calls to their denominational offices. No subtlety, no nuance, no hesitation; putting it right out there for the whole world to see. So many churches shouting from the rooftops: “Please, young people and families, come join us (in order to save our churches)!”
Just below the surface lurks an anxious desperation. These churches are growing older, and they want church-as-they-have-known-it to continue, targeting younger people in order to repopulate their churches.
I get it. I understand the fear. I know the smell of fear rising from a congregation and the metallic taste of fear on the tongue while looking around the sanctuary. Concern for the ongoing life of some churches is real. No doubt about it.
But here’s the problem. The purpose and calling of a church is not institutional maintenance. Jesus didn’t commission us to go and start churches and make sure they can keep up their budgets, programs and facilities. In fact, few of us can stay motivated by institutional fear for very long.
The fear and anxiety only take us so far before running out. We humans aren’t made to live by fear alone.
So when fear and anxiety are the source of our invitation to younger people and their families, the younger ones sniff it out right away and run for the door (if you can get them inside).
Here is my short list of church invitations younger people will reject:
“Come help us save our church.” Of course, churches don’t say this directly, yet it’s the real message below the overt invitations. This is an insider concern if ever there was one. People who are not involved with church are not motivated by the plight of churches. This invitation evokes no interest on the part of those who have no stake in a church’s present or future. They may feel sorry for these churches, being compassionate people, but that’s as far as this invitation goes. It actually communicates desperation, repelling otherwise potentially interested spiritual seekers.
“People who are not involved with church are not motivated by the plight of churches.”
“Come repopulate our children and youth programs.” Again, why would someone want to do this? This invitation assumes people in one’s community already value church programs and want to see them succeed. Younger people are looking for something else from churches than an invitation to rebuild dying programs.
“Come help us attract other people like you.” Would your church say this out loud? Perhaps not, but it is the whispered invitation below the spoken invitation. We all know it takes some younger people to attract other younger people. This invitation really means we want to use you to rebuild our church. Younger people are quick to discern they are being used when this is the invitation.
“Come participate, but don’t attempt to change our approach to church.” I’ve actually heard people say, “We want to grow (numerically) as a church, but not too much.” These people recognize the system shifts when new people join the group. Then those new people who help boost the metrics also change things. Before inviting younger people into churches, those churches need to decide if they are open to their influence.
“Come give us your ideas, but don’t expect any influence or authority.” Including younger people in church activities and membership is one thing, but giving them seats at the leadership table is another. When churches do, they recognize change will happen. One way to include some younger people but prevent their out-of-the-box ideas from influencing the church is to deny them meaningful leadership opportunities. Younger people quickly recognize the disrespect inherent in this way of being church.
“Before inviting younger people into churches, those churches need to decide if they are open to their influence.”
“Come join us, staying with us when you discover you were targeted in our strategic plan.” What happens when people learn they were targeted in recruitment efforts by churches? Well, you know that extreme skepticism and distrust for organizations of any kind in our culture? These postmodern cultural realities are ramped up when it comes to organized religion. People in general are skeptical and distrustful of churches, younger people even more so. Targeting them in written documents and strategic plans is old school methodology that assumes we are still in the age of Christendom in this USA, coming across as insincere in the 21st century.
Why do younger people reject these invitations, one might ask? Quite simply because they see they are being used in the name of Jesus rather than being loved in the name of Jesus.
Mark Tidsworth is founder and team leader for Pinnacle Leadership Associates. He has served as a pastor, new church developer, interim pastor, renewal pastor, therapist, nonprofit director, business owner, leadership coach, congregational consultant, leadership trainer and author. Ordained in the Baptist tradition, Mark is an ecumenical Christian minister based in Chapin, S.C.