Forever Young

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Forever Young

According to data just 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 Ed Stetzer, 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 lament 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.

Can someone who has pastored for over twenty years offer something from the trenches?

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.  I know of one large, innovative church that is well-known in leadership circles that watched its median age from its youthful beginnings from the seventies go from the twenties, to the thirties, to the forties, to the…well, you get the point.  Every decade, the people got, on average, a decade older.  And they were a church known for ongoing innovation!

But it wasn't innovation that was the problem.

I had a wake-up call on this a few years ago.  I was asked to speak at one of the largest and fastest-growing churches in the United States, made up almost entirely of twentysomethings - NewSpring Church in Anderson, South Carolina.  The pastor, Perry Noble, is a former student of mine.  He tells people I gave him the kick in the pants he needed to start a church.  I think he just needs someone to blame.

But I will never forget standing with Perry, waiting to speak, and seeing the band that took the stage, and the people who filled the seats.  Instantly it hit me:  "Meck has become old."  That was hard to think, because we were known in our early years as being the "young" church, the "hip" church, the "cutting-edge" church.

Now I was watching another church hand me my lunch.

I went back to my church the next weekend, and it was as if God wanted to hammer it home.  Though it was a bit of a fluke, every person on stage that weekend was in their forties, save two - they were in their fifties.  I was the youngest person on the stage that day, and I'm no spring chicken. The irony is that we were still fairly young as a church - mostly folks in their thirties.

Right then and there I made a vow:  we will not grow old!  If the natural flow of the church is to skew older, then that means the leadership of the church has to invest a disproportionate amount of energy and intentionality in growing younger.  Much like the natural flow of the church is also to turn inward, and demands a disproportionate amount of energy to stay outward-focused.  I had always known that one; it was the skewing younger one that crept up on me.

Mecklenburg Community Church is now younger than it has ever been in its entire existence, growing faster than it has ever grown, and reaching more unchurched people than ever before. 

And one of the big reasons was the commitment to stay forever young.

So what did we do?  There are three headlines:

1.    To attract young adults, you have to hire young adults.  It seems simple enough, but it's often overlooked.  Very few churches intentionally hire people in their twenties.  But without twenty-something staff, you are cut-off from that generation's culture.  And not just in terms of contemporary culture, but in terms of technology, which these days is heavily oriented toward new forms of communication.  So if you don't know a tweet from a text, or the Ting-Tings from the Kings of Leon, then you need to hire some folks who do.

2.    To attract young adults, you have to platform young adults.  One of the unwritten laws of the church is this:  who you platform is who you will attract.  It's true.  It doesn't matter whether you want it to be true or not, it simply is.  If you want a church of forty-somethings, 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 get all multi-generational on me, here's another unwritten law:  while you can platform older folk and repel young adults, you can platform young adults and still attract older folk.  Lots of them.  A twenty-something person is not attracted to a fifty-year-old man singing a David Crowder Band song.  But a fifty-year-old man is often attracted to a youthful, energetic twenty-something person who is singing that song.  And the twenty-something person enjoys having the fifty-year old man listening - and in his life.  The stage does not have to be entirely young, by any means, nor necessarily should it - but remember the law:  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 they should be acknowledged.  So when using illustrations, don't overlook the world of iPhones and Twitter, texting and Facebook.  Become familiar with musical groups such as Coldplay and the Black Eyed Peas.  And by all means, embrace the technology of the next generation as it is fast becoming the technology for us all.  For example, I speak quite often on college campuses, and often in a forum of dialogue.  Recently, I've been doing it with technology that allows them to text me their question in the auditorium in which we are meeting, which is then thrown up on a screen.  Why?  It's what they are most comfortable doing.  And yes, it gains a certain degree of credibility in their eyes. 

Yes, a person who is fifty should come and find points of connection at your church. 

But that's not the problem.  It's the twenty-somethings that aren't.

Don't believe me? 

Ask a Southern Baptist. 


"Southern Baptists face further decline without renewed evangelism emphasis," Florida Baptist Witness, July 30, 2009, at

Forever Young