Reaching the Next Generation

Call me overly optimistic or even naïve, but I think it is still possible for congregations to reach the next generation successfully. One key will be to listen to our mission field—the people and communities around us—better and more deeply than we’ve listened in the past.

Most of us have read the research and seen the trends; we know the forecast appears grim. I am enough of a realist to accept that congregations are experiencing a time of seismic change. Congregations of the future will look very different than they do today. Consultants, denominational leaders, pastors, and lay leaders try to help us think about attracting younger people. Some suggest new ways of looking at the problem and ideas about how to respond. Others have already given up and say is impossible to reach new generations. Some even predict that most existing congregations will just die. But I still am hopeful.

Simple conversations

I continue to be inspired by a little book by Margaret Wheatley, Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future. Margaret has been an important voice in this time of seismic cultural change on the kind of leadership that is required to address our most difficult questions. Here are Margaret’s essential beliefs from Turning to One Another, laced with my additional thoughts:

  • “People are the solutions to the problems that confront us.” If we take seriously that we are made in the image of God, then God has given us everything we need to heal ourselves, heal a broken world, and tackle our most difficult questions and problems.
  • “Relationships are all there is. Nothing exists in isolation.” Congregations cannot turn inward or cut themselves off from their communities and expect to reach new people. They also cannot cut themselves off from God/their spiritual center. Tod Bolsinger, in Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Unchartered Territory, tells how he and his church staff struggled to figure out why worship attendance had declined. Instead of denying the problem or defaulting to old conversations about previous strategies, they interviewed a cross-section of folks they hadn’t seen in church for a while. They set aside their hypotheses and defensiveness and really listened.
  • “We humans want to be together. We only isolate ourselves when we’re hurt by others, but alone is not our natural state.” There is a great spiritual hunger in people all around us and we are living in a highly divided and polarized culture at this time in history. Now more than ever, people long for conversations about purpose, comfort and deep meaning. It is simply not true that people are no longer interested in organized religion.
  • “We become hopeful when somebody tells the truth. I don’t know why this is, but I experience it often.” It is hard for congregations to tell the truth or to admit they don’t know how to reach new people. After years of conflict and decline, leaders of a small church finally said to me, “We don’t know how to reach the next generation. We need you to help us.” Only after they stopped fighting about trivial stuff and let go of old ways of doing things were they ready to listen to God, take in new information, and ask for outside help.
  • Truly connecting with another human being gives us joy.” God has hardwired us to delight in one another, but we humans sometimes are hampered in our efforts to connect because of hurtful past experiences and the resulting lingering fears. Building authentic connection is at the heart of congregational life; it is what we have been called to do. Many established congregations need to relearn how to connect with one other and with their communities.
  • “We need time to think, to learn, to get to know each other. We are losing these great human capacities in the speed-up of modern life, and it is killing us.” Many congregations have substituted inconsequential busyness for authentic connection. Preoccupied with roast beef dinners, Easter eggs and bake sales, we have lost our capacity for the kind of connection that helps people to progress in their spiritual journey. Many people in our own congregations are—ironically—spiritually starving. And as leaders, our own spiritual hunger causes us to miss the spiritual hunger of those around us.
  • “The cure for despair is not hope. It’s discovering what we want to do about something that we care about.” Today’s congregational and clergy leaders have to act. We must find the courage to break out of traditional ways of thinking and behaving in order to connect meaningfully to our communities. Acting will mean that some people in our congregations are not going to be happy. We must risk that.

One of my colleagues, Fred Vanderwerf, recently completed his D.Min. on evangelism. In part of his research he interviewed ten “nones” in a local bar poker league. (Fred is a long-term member of the league.) Through his research on this small sample, Fred found that these particular people, who are not connected to an organized church, really are looking for something to give their lives meaning.

However, as Fred wrote in his dissertation, they are not searching for Easter eggs, roast beef dinners, or bake sales. He uses the following illustration: Many established churches have come to believe that a way to try and reach young families is hosting an event like “Trunk or Treat.” In case you have never heard of Trunk or Treat, it is when church members bring candy in the trunks of their cars to the church parking lot hoping that the parents and children of their neighborhood will come to get their candy on Halloween.

In exploring the spiritual lives of poker players, Fred heard none of them say, “I sure need the church to offer my kids more candy on Halloween.” Instead, they talked about the real-life issues and struggles they were facing.

Encounters with religion

Another important finding from Fred’s research is that most members could not name a negative encounter with a religious person who was trying to evangelize them. It would be easy to imagine that they might have been turned off to organized religion by a pushy person with a pamphlet, or by media reports about a clergy scandal. But no one in Fred’s sample had had such a negative encounter with organized religion—or a positive encounter either. They reported no encounter with organized religion at all.

If we are willing to listen to our mission field—the people all around us—they will tell us about their deep spiritual hungers and needs. But well-meaning church folk just aren’t asking. One reason may be that we are not doing a good job of addressing our own spiritual hungers either. Instead we spend our time at committee meetings. guessing what others might need. Worse, we simply assume the people in our mission field are just like us, and need exactly what we need. And then we wonder why they don’t know we exist.

To reach future generations, we need to listen carefully and then find the courage to act on what we hear. And the time to start is now.

Susan Nienaber embraces an unwavering dedication to the health, vitality and mission of congregations and of the leaders and institutions that support them. She serves as District Superintendent in the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church, and occasionally consults with congregations on issues of conflict, dialogue, crisis, personnel, professional misconduct, leadership, and interpersonal dynamics.

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