Current Events Monday: Reaching Younger People

James Hassell   -  

Yet another article has surfaced about the continuing decline in church attendance in the United States. The Guardian newspaper published an interesting column over the weekend which puts in black- and-white print what we mostly already know: Younger Americans are rejecting the church (Protestant and Catholic) in droves, churches are shutting down per year in the US at a rapid pace, and Covid seemed to accelerate the level of decline. The article also highlights some newer trends in how some churches are selling or disposing of their properties. It looks like facilities that formerly housed churches are becoming a boon to the now teetering national real estate market.

You can read the article by clicking on the link here: Losing their religion: why US churches are on the decline | US news | The Guardian

A striking quote in the article comes from Scott McConnell of Lifeway Research (formerly known as the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board). McConnell suggests that the decline in church participation among younger people is quite simple, that they do not “feel like they’re being accepted in a church environment, or some of their choices aren’t being accepted.” If we follow the logic of the article and Mr. McConnell, then we would notice that church decline basically boils down to issues of acceptance. We are therefore prompted to ask the question: What is it in our churches that keeps younger people from feeling accepted? Perhaps if we could make changes to allow for a more acceptable environment, then the church could once again grow and prosper among future generations.

Before we spend copious amounts of time and energy on making things more acceptable in churches for young people, let’s do some old-fashioned critical thinking about the article and its underlying assertions. For instance, what exactly is meant by making sure younger people feel accepted? If this means that we ensure our doors are open to everyone and that we are all sinners in need of grace, then I’m all for that (Luke 9:24; Romans 10:13). If, however, it means that we must accept certain behaviors as normative, even if those behaviors blatantly defy the love of God and neighbor, then we have a problem. If this situation of church decline is not teaching us that we must be in the world but not of it, then I don’t know what will.

Consider Jesus’ encounter with a young person (Matthew 19; Mark 10; Luke 18). Jesus certainly accepted the young man as he was. The Gospel writers even tell us that Jesus felt a kinship and love for the man. Jesus saw great potential in him to be an influential force for the Kingdom! But when Jesus commanded the young man to sell all his possessions, give them to the poor, and come follow Jesus, then man walked away sadly. I think we have strong biblical support to surmise that this man walked away feeling as though he was not accepted in Jesus’ environment. Why should Jesus challenge his choices anyway, right?

I suppose many churches in America may have to get used to a hard truth if the coming years: We will not reach young people if they don’t want to be reached. Some will walk away when the teachings of Jesus get particularly difficult. The church also cannot surrender truth in order to bolster attendance and bring in more money, especially when the goal posts of what is acceptable in our culture keep moving. What is acceptable to many people today will be unacceptable tomorrow.

An example may be helpful at this point. I drove by a stadium full of people watching a track competition at Hays High School yesterday (Sunday). There were more people braving the cold wind in a large stadium on a Sunday than would likely ever set foot in a church building at a nearly simultaneous time. If the choice to forego regular worship with a Christ-focused community becomes an acceptable practice (Hebrews 10:25), then where does that choice lead? The people who we supposedly are going to reach to fill the church won’t come to church anyway. They will be on the church roll but will be at the stadium all the same. We will have reached them to gain some of the world at the loss of their souls.

The major question before the church in a period of steep decline may not be, “How can we change to be more accepting of younger people,” but, “How can we change to ensure that we walk as Jesus walked, and let the chips fall where they may?”