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What churches can do to attract young people

I don't write about religion often, but when I came across this new Pew survey, I found several key indicators that show once again, if your church is begging people to come to Sunday morning service, it may as well turn the sanctuary into a condo complex.

Well over one-third of young people are not religiously affiliated today. But, over 2/3 of those people are spiritual or have some kind of faith-based underpinnings. This means that nearly 20 million Americans care about God but don't care about church.

What is the church doing about this?

Mostly, nothing, I'm sure. This report came out yesterday; my fear is that no church in America is discussing it at staff meeting today or gathering its committee on committees to address it this Wednesday night. Rather, they'll continue their descent towards irrelevance over the next few decades and then be forced to decide what to do with their empty buildings.

But, I have hope. I think the church can find a place of meaning and relevance today. But, it will require a colossal shift in business as usual. Not many congregations will be interested in doing this, which I understand. They'll go the way of Polaroid, Circuit City, or Borders.

But, for those pastors and priests willing to make the necessary changes to become relevant again, I offer these five suggestions. None of these water-down your message or detract from your key mission. Rather, they imagine your work and ministry to be more important than ever.

Get social

One key quote from this report is:

Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.

Bravo, churches. You've made it all about you and now it's a huge turnoff. The church's original mission was to focus outwardly. Nothing says that you focus on yourself more than tall steeples and fancy windows and pews.

But guess what? Almost 80% of the unaffiliated believe religion and churches can be forces for good, saying "religious organizations bring people together and help strengthen community bonds [and] ... play an important role in helping the poor and needy."

In other words, by focusing on helping others - instead of helping themselves - churches can once again find a place in people's lives.

Marry everyone

This may be the more divisive suggestion, but it's time for churches to wake up. Opposing same-sex marriage today is like having racially segregated seating half a century ago. Times, opinions, and rights are changing. Dying on this hill is fruitless. Embracing equality is the right thing to do.

Frankly, this is one of the more important reasons I currently don't attend church anywhere. The treatment many of my friends have suffered - and the way they continue to be marginalized and mistreated - is shameful. A pastor or church that continues to call love sin is a person or place I can't be in community with.

And I'm not alone on this issue. The data proves it. Therefore, churches should look past orientation and celebrate commitment, regardless of who's making it.


Back to the money and power thing: by finding better, more relevant ways to use space, churches can restore legitimacy in the minds of potential congregants. Not only is cleaning, heating, and lighting a room that's only used for one hour a week (the sanctuary) a waste of resources, it's bad stewardship over a precious commodity (space).

Churches that seem to be growing today among younger generations have flexible space. Sunday's sanctuary also holds Monday's conference, Tuesday night's Room in the Inn, Wednesday's children's play space, Thursday's community meal, Friday's AA meeting, and Saturday's rally.

As for classroom spaces, well, calling something 'school' on a Sunday has never sounded fun. And if you really believe that worship can happen anywhere, then you should try worshipping everywhere. Physical space should be an asset - not a hindrance - to your relevance.

New schedules

As the survey points out, there is a direct correlation between one's religious identity and his or her attendance at services. Of course, holding mass or a worship service on a Sunday morning (while historical and traditional) isn't exactly convenient. The notion that community is created by everyone seated and facing the front while someone blabs for half-an-hour seems silly.

What could your church do to shift its schedule or abandon a one-size-fits-all Sunday morning service? Don't simply offer hymns and homilies on a Tuesday night, bur rather reprogram your entire lineup. Ditch the large group listening session and give attendees chances to talk. Rely on small groups that are geographically convenient. Tie programming to social action.

In other words, don't just "do" church on Sunday mornings. "Be" church as often as possible so people have more chances to participate.

Context as text

The survey shows that the percentage of people who think the Bible should be taken literally is decreasing. Good.

What this means for your church is that the Bible can't be your only teacher or text. It can certainly be important, but let's get real. To value it as the be-all end-all authority - when it's open to so much interpretation - starts more fights than it solves. Scripture should be one teacher, along with reason, dialog, culture, community, and science.

As deeply entrenched as all of us are in art, music, television, relationships, and progress, why not draw on examples that teach from other, more relevant areas of life? I half-joke with a pastor friend that he needs more Saved by the Bell references in his sermons. It's not that TV shows are authoritative when it comes to issues of morality; rather it's that using truth wherever it's found can have a deep and lasting impact on the hearer.

Let's name truth where it's found instead of claiming that truth only resides in our opinion of a certain verse or chapter.

What about you?

Whether you're a preacher or a parishioner, I'd love to hear your ideas for making church more relevant to the next generation.