“It seems that our church is getting smaller and smaller, but our town is growing. We have a very nice church and we have a good number of people coming who are in their forties and fifties, but we can’t seem to attract people in their twenties and thirties. What can we do?”
Before we answer the question, a bit of clarity on the differences of the generations and mindsets would be helpful. The backbone of the American church has long been the Builders and the Silent generations (born between 1901 and 1942). These were the stalwart supporters of the church and the institutions of the ‘50s. The Baby Boomers were born between 1943 and 1960 and they largely left the church in their teens and twenties because they felt that the former generations were unresponsive to their needs and their cultural tastes. They were the first of the “Me” generations and, since the church seemed more interested in tradition than in individual fulfillment, they left the church in droves. However, many returned during the 1980s, but recent trends have shown that many Boomers have since left the church, and of those who do continue, many attend less frequently. And yet, because of their upbringing in the church, there existed a common base of stories from the Bible and the church that was felt across the culture.
Then there’s the Baby Busters, or the generation most commonly known as Gen-X. These were born between 1961 and 1981. This was the first generation in the United States that was born outside the church. Since their Boomer parents had left the church, Gen-X was left with no common memory of the stories, teachings, or traditions of the church. This being so, for the most part Gen-Xers are not looking to the church to fulfill their spiritual needs.
But there’s more going on here than just a lack of shared memory. If this was the case, the church would be able to market heavily and draw in a good number of those spiritual seekers. Except it isn’t happening. Church marketing seems lost on this group.
The problem is that more than just years have passed; a whole cultural paradigm has shifted. Behold! the postmodern worldview.
It would take more space than we have to fully explore the postmodern worldview—indeed, books have been written on the phenomenon—but there are a few things that must be understood to be able to even communicate. Postmoderns don’t think the way moderns do. Modern thinking is propositional and understands the world through rationality. Truth is seen as universal and self-evident. Further, there is a self-reliance and confidence in their achievements and in their self-determined destiny. Moderns believe that if they really put their minds to it that every day, in every way, they really can get better and better.
The postmodern worldview is about as different from the modern worldview as apples and pigeons. Postmoderns have witnessed the downside of all that science and technology moderns put so much hope in. They see the “truths” purported by the Boomers as suspect; indeed, they look for the motives behind these “truths.” They embrace ambiguity and paradox as cultural norms. “There is no ‘metanarrative,’ no grand story to inspire a people, no explanation of everything, no meaning or purpose to life awaiting discovery at either the cosmic or the personal level. Each individual has to create his or her own meaning” (Eddie Gibbs. ChurchNext. 2000. p. 24).
What this means to the church is that postmoderns aren’t particularly looking for the truth. They believe they find truth as they go, as they experience life, and as they examine and participate in the communities they create around themselves. Thus, no manner of clever ads, pointed postcards, or witty signs will entice the postmodern to interact with an institution that claims it has the truth.
So, how does the church reach out to the postmodern? To begin with, the church is going to have to get serious about leaving the four walls of the building to interact with the world. Second, the church is going to have to dare to do as Jesus did and be with those who are outside the faith, something the church isn’t known for. The church will have to be unoffended by and tolerant of pointed questions, cynicism, and intense scrutiny. Postmoderns aren’t interested in our orthodoxy, but are curious, read that as skeptical, to see if the church walks the talk. Again, something the church isn’t known for. And the church is going to have to get past the propositional truths it holds so dear and offer instead genuine, authentic, real experiences of the power and presence of God. Than, and only then, will the church get a hearing.
So, how do we attract the younger generations to
our church? We stop trying and we go them—because
they’re probably not going to come to us.