by Sarai Rice
“They just need to step up!”
I hear this all the time. It usually means that the speaker has been doing the same routine church tasks for years—going to committee meetings, recruiting teachers or greeters, mowing the grass, managing the sound system—and now he or she wants to stop. But for the speaker to stop, someone else has to start, and no one is willing to change their own routine in order to step into the speaker’s shoes. Maybe the place to start the change is with ourselves.
Behind the basic remark, those of us who say it usually harbor some resentment toward younger generations because of a variety of behaviors of which we disapprove: they don’t attend as often as they should, they don’t discipline their children as well as they should, they suggest changes that will never work, they don’t contribute enough to the church’s bottom line, they don’t seem to care about what we want or think.
We’re not shy about sharing our views, either—except, perhaps, about money. We let children (or their parents) know we don’t appreciate their crawling under the pews. We tell a new committee member that her name-tag suggestion won’t work. When a family attends only every few weeks, we layer on the guilt.
What We Fail to Understand
What we fail to understand—or don’t want to understand—is that younger generations behave differently than we do. Not worse, just differently.
For the youngest generations of adults, the norm is that all adults work. They don’t have time or energy for regular, at-night, at-church committee meetings. Truth be told, no one is much interested in this bit of institutional schmutz anymore, but those of us who’ve done it forever can’t always imagine an alternative. Younger adults can imagine several: organizing by Facebook groups, email, and texts, for instance, and meeting face-to-face only when necessary.
There are other differences as well:
- Younger generations don’t attend worship as frequently as we used to. In truth, very few of us do, but we notice it in others more than in ourselves. The bottom line may again be interest and energy. By the time we make it through the week and get to Sunday morning, we’re tired, whether as a result of jobs, volunteer responsibilities, or family obligations. Increasingly, retired people carry a similar load—part-time jobs, volunteer work, and caring for grandchildren. What most of us really want to do on Sunday morning is stay home, drink our favorite morning beverage, and stop doing all the things we usually do. For many of us, going to church does not constitute “stopping.”
- Younger generations face higher financial burdens than many of us did when we started our work lives. For example, seven out of 10 people who graduated in 2016 are carrying an average student debt load of more than $37,000, which is $10,000 more than five years before, and 40% of millennials between ages 22-24 receive an average of $3000/year in financial support from their parents. Expecting large donations from such a cash-strapped group is unrealistic.
- Younger generations communicate differently. My thirty-something children communicate with their friends and colleagues via Facebook and other social media, mostly using their smart phones. They do not need to be face-to-face in order to be intimately aware of and involved in what’s going on in each other’s lives. Nor do they need to be in church or Sunday School in order to have lengthy, theological conversations about the state of the world or what they can do about it. Most of the protests being organized today in response to political events, for example, are put together on very short notice via social media, not over months via a protracted series of committee meetings.
If no one is going to “step up,” what can we do?
What We Can Do
First, we need to be clear about what we cannot do. We cannot change how generations younger than ours behave. We cannot, for instance, undo the role of smartphones or Facebook. We cannot reverse a culture shift that is affecting everyone’s Sunday morning behavior, including ours. We cannot create more hours in the day and then insist that our newest members use them to recruit greeters. We cannot expect younger adults to give more time or money than they have.
But we can change at least one thing: ourselves.
- We can try to keep up with new technologies, even if it’s hard, so that we’re not left behind when congregational events start being organized and communicated on Facebook—or its successor.
- We can be open to accomplishing more of the church’s work via paid staff rather than volunteers, even if we still secretly think people should just step up, so that the necessary work will still get done
- We can stop being critical of new ways of doing things, even if we think they might not work, so that new volunteers will feel safe offering to help
- We can welcome children into our sanctuaries, even if their presence makes it hard for us to hear, because we are not the center of the universe and we want them to feel welcome.
- We can increase our donations, even if we don’t like the new things that are happening, because we want the church to continue and we are the ones with the money.
Those of us who are older cannot expect the church to stay the same to accommodate our preferences. Every church needs to change if it is to continue to be faithful, and the only way change will happen is if each of us agrees to start with ourselves.
[box]Sarai Rice consults with congregations on a variety of issues including planning, program development, and governance, and offers coaching for clergy and lay leaders. She has a passion for work across the lines of faith traditions, especially in areas involving community ministry and social justice, as well as a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.[/box]