According to data recently released by LifeWay Research, Southern Baptist membership will fall nearly 50 percent by 2050 unless the aging denomination reverses a 50-year trend and does more to reach out to young adults.
According to the director of LifeWay Research, “The difference in the mean age of Southern Baptists versus the U.S. population shows SBC members older, especially since 1993.”
This is but the latest in a long litany of laments over the aging of the Church:
Some blame a secular society.
Some blame traditional approaches to ministry.
Some blame new forms of individualism that lead Christian young adults away from institutions in general.
Some blame the lack of evangelism.
Here’s the truth: the natural flow of the church is to skew old.
Left to itself, that is what it will do. It will age. You take your hand off of that wheel, and that is what will happen.
So if the natural flow of the church is to skew older, that means the leadership of the church must invest a disproportionate amount of energy and intentionality maintaining a vibrant population of young adults.
And there are three headlines that are disarmingly simple in maintaining influence and impact with the next generation:
1. To attract young adults, you have to hire young adults.
Very few churches intentionally seek to hire people in their twenties. But without twentysomething staff, you are cut off from the next generation’s culture. That includes technology, which is heavily oriented toward new forms of communication. The idea here is the need for reverse mentoring, something that is seldom discussed and much needed.
2. To attract young adults, you have to platform young adults.
One of the unwritten laws of church life is this: who you platform is who you will attract. It doesn’t matter whether you want it to be true or not; it simply is. If you want a church of fortysomethings, then be sure to litter your stage with that age group. But don’t then sit back and wonder where all the young people are.
Now, before you think you need to raise the banner for the importance of a multigenerational church, I’m with you. But here’s another unwritten law: the best way to become multigenerational is to intentionally target young adults.
While you can platform older folk and disaffect young adults, you can platform young adults and still attract older folk. Lots of them. A twentysomething person is not attracted to a 50-year-old man singing a Tenth Avenue North song. But a 50-year-old man is often attracted to a youthful, energetic twentysomething person who is singing that song.
The stage does not have to be entirely young, by any means, nor necessarily should it, but remember the principle: Who you platform is who you will attract; whether young or old, white or black, male or female.
3. To attract young adults, you have to acknowledge young adults.
To acknowledge a young person is to acknowledge their world, their sensibilities, their technology, their vocabulary, their tastes, their priorities and their questions. Notice I did not say cater to such things, only to acknowledge them. A church that does nothing but speak to young adults is a glorified youth group and not the vision of the new community detailed in the New Testament. But those who are younger should be acknowledged.
Become familiar with their favorite music groups. And by all means, embrace the technology of the next generation, as it will fast become the technology of us all. When using illustrations, don’t overlook the world of iPads and Twitter, texting and Instagram.
So what’s the bottom line?
Sometimes bridging a cultural divide is as simple as who you hire, who you platform, and who you acknowledge.
Yes, a person who is 50 should come and find points of connection and community at your church. But that’s not the problem. We’re reaching the fiftysomethings.
It’s the twentysomethings we’re missing.
Don’t believe me?
Ask a Southern Baptist.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary: 25 Lessons for Successful Ministry in Your Church (Baker Books). Available on Amazon.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.