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.
"I as a pastor in a sense have to wear multiple hats in that way," he said.
Some of the young people who drift away from the church return when they get married and start a family of their own.
"I think they're discovering they want to give their children the same values they had when they were growing up," Patterson said.
That's a pattern Quinn sees as well. Cottage Chapel is largely made up of young families.
"When we get older, we realize we're willing to fight and put up with things we couldn't before," Quinn said. "We want to be stable and have that community for our family."
But having a congregation full of young families can lead to other challenges, because families have so many activities competing for their attention, including school, work, sports and other extracurricular events.
"When you mix all those things together, the one area that people tend to sacrifice most is their commitment to church," Quinn said. "A lot of times, churches are the ones that take the hit."
A way he tries to combat that problem is by maintaining a connection with members outside of services by offering fellowship opportunities such as going out to eat, spending time in the park or going on a camping trip. Being in a different environment really opens people up to talk about things they might feel tense conversing about at church, he said.
"People want to feel like they belong and if they feel like they belong, then you can talk about what you believe," Quinn said.
Brandon Cannon, pastor of Real Life Church, also wants to make sure church isn't the first thing people take off of their busy schedule. One way he's making sure people don't get lost in the shuffle is ensuring he's not alienating people who have never been to church before.
"There's an alarming number of people that don't have a church background," he said. "Gone are the days of people who grew up in church."
People who have no church experience often won't understand anything that happens during a service from the songs to the offering to the scripture.
"We think those are the people Jesus wants us to reach, so we purposely plan for that," Cannon said.
During services, he tries to act as if everyone is at church for the first time and doesn't take for granted that people know what's going on. He takes time to explain small details that might be confusing and posts many resources on the church's website and social media pages that give people a picture of the church's basic beliefs.
Because Cannon started Real Life Church less than two years ago, the church had no traditional structure that needed to be tweaked for a new generation. He could incorporate explanations and social media into the church's structure from the beginning. The church also doesn't have the limitation of being tied to a denomination, though it is part of the Association of Related Churches, a network of pastors that provides support and guidance to recently planted churches.
"I think it's a blessing we don't have to conform to a denomination's standards, but we can share things and discuss what we're trying to do," Cannon said. "There's still that brotherhood to throw ideas around."
However, for those churches that already have an established structure, it can be hard to bring new people into the fold.
Sometimes churches become fortresses to the point where they aren't making an effort to welcome new people or bring their message into the community, according to the Rev. Dr. Rob Ballard, who is pastor of Faith United Methodist Church.
But that mentality has to change, especially in a culture that is "increasingly un-Christian," he said.
"We have to get out," Ballard said, continuing the fortress metaphor. "We can't just hide behind our doors."
It's important for church members to display the benefits of the Lord to the community and invite people to church services, he said.
"Most people come to a church for the first time because a friend or relative invited them," Ballard said. "What's going to get people to come in is our members inviting people."
Usually, church services and revivals are attended by people who are already Christian, so it's up to members to invite others, he said.
"That's the key to church growth," Ballard said. "A person becomes a Christian because someone comes up to them and shows them how to live."
Pettus thinks more people are coming to the conclusion they need to put their trust in something bigger because recent issues like the financial meltdown have shown people how fragile man-made constructs like government can be.
"I believe people are coming to the reality that there's something bigger," he said. "There's a greater battle that is taking place, and we as people are not capable of providing our own answer."
People are seeing that in a secular society, they can be kicked to the curb or forgotten, but Christ says everyone has value, he said.
"In all generations and all cultures, people want to know that they are loved and their lives matter," Pettus said. "And the only way I can see that happening is through Jesus Christ."
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