by Pastor Doug Kings

A question I often hear is, “Why don’t young people come to church?” Of course it’s a mistake to lump all “young people” together, since each person would have their own explanation. But the bigger problem with the question is the unspoken assumption there could be a single magical strategy that will bring them to church.

It was common in the 60s and 70s to speak of the “generation gap,” yet decades later I think it is still playing itself out for the church. Today’s church is still basically the church our grandparents knew. The baby boomers (like myself) who now are the core members of most congregations usually grew up in families with strong church ties (which even then wasn’t necessarily typical). That churchgoing habit is deeply planted in us, but we are the last generation for whom that was common.

For earlier generations, churches were often the center of people’s social lives. Other organizations were also important for establishing social relationships, such as the PTA, Rotary, VFW, unions, lodges, and so on. Like churches, all these groups have experienced significant membership declines. This simply isn’t the way people structure their lives anymore.

Today, instead of the after-worship coffee hour, people go to brunch. Instead of joining a church men’s or women’s group, people look for a bar “where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came” (as the theme song for Cheers explained). People still have complex social lives but now they involve people from work or a team they play on, or who share some other interest or hobby.

At this point church members will object, “But the church is more than a social club!” Which is true, yet it’s hard to deny that for many years and for many people that is what church had become. And when better options came along to fulfill that need, they (or their children) moved on.

That objection does, however, highlight the church’s real problem today: figuring out just what that “more” is. Through most of its history, the church’s essential function was to be the place where people found salvation, understood primarily as life-after-death in heaven rather than in hell. Bluntly, that doesn’t cut it anymore.

Such a notion leaked out of mainline churches long ago, leaving worship, community aid projects, and the old social club to keep them going. But it’s been on the wain in fundamentalist and evangelical churches, as well. Traditional “hell fire and brimstone” preaching has been replaced by practical “life lesson” lectures. Instead of “6 Steps to Salvation,” it’s six steps to a happy marriage, healthy children, financial success, or better eating.

Yet across the religious spectrum there is awareness that none of this is “the more” people are looking for. All our efforts to be practical, modern, contemporary, relevant, etc. are still missing the fact that our world has changed, and therefore people’s needs have changed.

Jin S. Kim is the 43-year-old founding pastor of the Presbyterian Church of All Nations (CAN) in Minneapolis. It was started to minister to people like himself, young-adult children of recently immigrated Koreans. But now, he writes,

CAN has become a slightly majority-white church, although our members still hail from over twenty-five nations and cultures. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that two-thirds of our congregation is made up of twenty- to forty-year-olds. Ministering to a mostly millennial congregation has given us some insights about the future of the church in a postmodern context.

In his powerful essay Time for a New Reformation, Kin lists some of those insights. For context, I encourage you to read the full article. But I offer his list as food-for-thought and to recognize that for the church to move forward, our thinking and reforms are going to have to be profound and deep:

What is it that our young people don’t buy anymore?

  1. Uncritical patriotism and American exceptionalism (“my country, right or wrong”).
  2. Unexamined white supremacy, both the nativism of the Right and the paternalism toward people of color by the Left.
  3. Unfettered consumerism at the expense of global fairness and environmental sustainability, and endless consumption as a personal coping mechanism.
  4. Rugged individualism and the subtext of the American dream – the accumulation of enough skills and wealth so as to be completely independent.
  5. Christian denominational sectarianism, parochialism, and triumphalism in the face of religious pluralism.

Young people today are desperate for what only the church can offer: 

  1. Our young people are searching for their vocation. Many are educated enough for a job or career in the present order, but are desperately searching for a calling.
  2. Our young people hunger for healthy relation­ships, to meaningfully and deeply relate to another human being (half grew up in divorced or single-parent homes, and others in dysfunctional households). 
  3. Plagued with loneliness, isolation, and alienation, our young people are seeking enduring Christian community that functions like a diverse yet intimate family.
  4. Our young people are looking for stability in a highly mobile world, and concreteness in an increasingly virtual and socially networked existence.
  5. Our young people desire authentic faith. They are prone to agnosticism or even raw atheism, as they see little evidence of a God that makes a difference in the religious institutions of the day, namely the local church. If local churches would respond evangelically to these needs, they would open the possibility of spiritual renewal for this searching but confused generation.

His list isn’t exhaustive or true for everyone, but it can actually relate to people of any age. Moreover, it says that for the church to find its way in this new world, it needs to take itself more seriously than at any time since it first began. The crises this world faces, and which young people often recognize more honestly than their parents, require nothing less.

Blessings in your life and ministry.