Full disclosure: I am uncomfortable with targeted church growth conversations. So any impersonal language or poor word choices in this article probably reflect my discomfort. Feel free to point them out, but please don’t dwell on them.
I’ve had three exchanges with large-church pastors in the past few months that really bother me when it comes to the way the UMC seeks church growth in the 18-30 demographic. These are anecdotal but are from large-church pastors, speaking inside-the-ballpark to other clergy (an important note).
- One pastor recounted that when the pastor was 20 in the 1960s with tattoos and listening to Led Zepplin, everyone said that age group would never be in the church. They were rebels, they saw church as irrelevant, they didn’t attend. And yet, now, the Baby Boomers are the biggest demographic in the church and possibly the last generation to heavily support the church (proportionately). The Busters and Gen-X are trickling back too. The pastors’ take? “Don’t worry about the 18-30s, they will come back when they get older.”
- A second pastor said in a staff meeting that even though this particular church was next to a college, the church shouldn’t focus on college students. Instead, they ought to focus on the 30s-40s demographic, as they are more likely have children (potential for growth) and more likely to have money (potential for ministry support). The pastor’s take? “Don’t worry about the 18-30s, they can’t support the church ministries yet.”
- Finally, we see across annual conferences that ministry budgets of campus ministries are being cut. Ministries that used to have full elders now get part-time local pastors or student pastors (who are undoubtedly gifted but the lack of support for a full elder indicates a lack of funds/initiative). And while large churches in proximity to colleges can have college ministries, they are rarely as effective as on-site ministry that can fit into the rhythm and flow of college life. The church’s assumed take? “Don’t worry about the 18-30s, they don’t have time to attend church anyway.”
Now for the surprising fact: None of those churches lack in outreach to 18-30s. All have great numbers in that demographic, but all three indicate that focusing on “success” in that demographic is setting oneself up for failure. And yet at every charge conference the churches are judged at their outreach to that age group (as they should be).
So on one hand we promote this outreach to this group, but on the other hand we wish away the problem by saying “they’ll come back later in life.” It may be true, but it’s not addressing the problem. It’s almost like the approach is “give them good memories so when they realize the hole in their lives they will come back to church.” Is this effective? I don’t know. Is it right? Not to my gut.
I’ve been wrestling with how I feel about this “realist” take on outreach to 18-30s. I think at the moment, I’ve taken two lessons from this:
- 18-30s is the demographic where you will fail in quantity and succeed in quality. This demographic may not come in the numbers of the other demographics. But the ones who do come likely will be on fire and enthusiastic members of your church. And where do you think the young clergy (under 35yo) come from? This demographic, of course. So the clergy and dedicated laity you get from this demographic might be lifelong disciples of Jesus Christ. Thus, avenues of leadership and empowerment are highly important in this age group.
- 18-30s is the demographic where churches will spend more resources than they take in. By the nature of their age, their tithes and offerings will not be numerically high enough to put mission and ministry and dedicated staff above the redline. Dan Dick explores this further. And that’s okay. They are a mission field, and any sensible church should realize that the money going out won’t come back in. That’s, of course, not a primary reason for cutting back on 18-30 ministries, but I’m sure there are some pastors who take into account cost-benefit ratios, to their shame. Thus, commitment by the finance team of a church to spend more than you take in is highly important in this age group.
- How does this “realist” (not saying their conclusions are correct, just they are born of their experience) take on 18-30s ministries strike you?
- If you are 18-30, how does this conversation relate to your own church experience?
- If you are older than 18-30, does the first pastor’s account accurately reflect your faith journey? Did you come back?