Years and years of vibrant/relevant/fruitful/vital/+your buzzword youth ministry have only seemed to shine a spotlight on the growing “missing generation” of young adults that are for the most part simply not coming to church anymore. Healthy youth ministries are failing to to engage their exiting participants, who may or may not return when they settle down and have kids of their own. Much has been made of the “why” of the growing absence of young adults. People are marrying later, settling down later. Extended adolescence pushes the average age of completion of education and realization of adulthood into the 30s. So we work super hard to figure out what it is that these young adults want in a church experience and smack our existing models of worship and discipleship into something that looks more like that. And it sort of works, sometimes. And the more we pound on the clay of the institution with the mallets of appeal, the better we’ll probably get at it–if only in degrees at first.
But I haven’t heard a lot of people talking about this: what if we accidentally succeed?
Seriously. Say your contemporary service stumbles over the just-right combination of sounds-like-Christian radio + safe hipster appeal and the late 20s-30s-somethings come flooding in. Hurray, we did it; we need more space, we’ll build a bigger building, we’ll add staff. It’s so exciting to be growing again! Oh, but wait a moment. We’d collapse under our own weight, faster than we already are.
Know your demographic. These people don’t pay for anything.
Exaggerating to make a point, but think about it. I’m in that demo–we had Napster, we stream and torrent, we borrow before we buy, we sneak into the second movie. Sometimes the first. Even those of us that don’t steal know that genuinely high quality content is always available for free somewhere. Facebook is free. Google is free. Twitter. FourSquare. Even Hulu offers free TV if you’re willing to wait a day.
So what does free content have to do with a demographic that has come to be defined by what it consumes have to do with worship? Everything, if worship has become content to be consumed. If we’re focused so hard on creating content that we’re tweaking our light & sound and advertising in the right neighborhoods and restaurants we’ll have lost the thing that made us matter in the first place. What was it? I’ve forgotten. Something about disciples; something about the transformation of the world. And even if we get them in the door, I just don’t see young adults rallying around a mortgage and staff. Remember, good content is free somewhere if you just know where to look. Like smaller, more intimate gatherings. Less teaching, more dialogue. Less top-down, more groundswell.
So what happens? They didn’t all die; they’re out there somewhere. Living in community. Worshiping in homes or small, rented spaces where necessary. How do we get them back? Can we afford to? What must change?
Perhaps more important to our immediate conversation: how do we best equip our youth for their future relationship with the church? Should we acknowledge current trends and stop presuming that their spiritual development will continue within the local church as we’ve known it? How do we prepare them for life beyond our walls? Or is it time to dig in?