Churches facing challenge as congregations age, younger generations move away
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Local pastors face new challenges in growing their churches during the 21st century, as a new generation increasingly moves away from conventional religious structures.
A Pew Research Center report from October 2012 found that nearly 20 percent of the Americans are religiously unaffiliated, up from just over 15 percent five years before.
However, just 6 percent of people say they're atheist or agnostic, the report said. Indeed, many of the religiously unaffiliated say they are religious or spiritual in some way, as the report found that 68 percent of the unaffiliated believe in God, 37 percent consider themselves spiritual but not religious and 21 percent pray every day.
The growth of the religiously unaffiliated appears largely generational, as 32 percent of adults under 30 are religiously unaffiliated compared to only 9 percent of those 65 and older, according to the report.
For today's pastors, the challenge is how to get those young people to church.
Though the number of religiously unaffiliated has grown rapidly in recent years, the Rev. Jason Pettus said every generation has faced challenges when it comes to growing the church.
"There's never an easy time to share the gospel because sin is always at work," said Pettus, senior pastor at Living Hope Baptist Church.
What changes is the cultural reality of the time, and today's society is much more secular than in the past, he said.
"There's less of an appreciation or sense of needing God to be the answer to our problems," he said.
Particularly now that information is more accessible than ever, it can be difficult for people to understand that they aren't capable of solving every problem or achieving fulfillment on their own, Pettus said.
"I think one of the real challenges is to come to the realization that this world is not how it's supposed to be," he said. "We need something outside of us."
But for many people, especially from the younger generation, that something is not being found in church pews.
Pierre Quinn, pastor of Cottage Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church, has noticed many young people shifting away from traditional religious structures in favor of finding their own spiritual path.
"They say 'My problem's not with God or faith. My problem is with the structures holding them up'," he said.
Those people may pray and do other spiritual activities on their own, but they don't want to be in a structured church environment, he said. That might be because of a previous bad experience in church or a feeling they're being judged sitting in a pew, but for whatever reason, they're choosing a different path.
"It's not our message, it's our method," Quinn said. "We're saying the right things, we're just not saying it the right way."
A big part of his mission at Cottage Chapel is reconnecting with people who attended the church in the past but left for various reasons. He organizes a family-oriented event for the community each month as a way to publicize Cottage Chapel, and he has seen attendance double in the year he's headed the church.
"It's slow, but it's happening," Quinn said of church growth.
The Rev. Chris Patterson, pastor of St. James United Methodist Church, definitely sees a decline in young people coming to church.
"Our younger generation is leaving the church, and they don't seem to be coming back," he said.
The younger generation has a different set of expectations than previous generations, Patterson said. Older generations look to a pastor as more of a chaplain, but the new generation wants a pastor to be a leader, friend, guide and mentor.
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