Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Keeping Our Church Forever Young

One of the lessons they don't teach you in seminary is that a church, left to itself, will naturally turn inward, which is exactly why it takes a disproportionate amount of energy to keep it focused outward.  All I have to do is nothing, and it turns inward.  I don’t have to spend any effort to get people to have their needs met, take a class they are interested in for spiritual growth, or worship enthusiastically to great music.  But it takes enormous effort to get people to die to themselves, to set aside their personal preferences, in order to reach out to others.  I’m not talking about simply encouraging people to invite their friends to church with them, but to sacrifice themselves in ways necessary for growth, such as attending alternate service times, parking far way, making room for others to serve, or sacrificially giving.

Another natural descent involves become outdated.  Left to itself, the church will find itself frozen in time in terms of d├ęcor, style of music, technology, message topics, and methods.

But the most overlooked natural flow of the church is that left to itself, the church will grow old.  Why is this so dangerous?  Because if a church grows old, it’s almost certain that is has turned inward and become outdated.  And that means you have started on a death spiral.

I’ve always known this, but had a wake up call a couple years ago.  I was attending a church service related to leadership development.  I will never forget watching the band take the stage, the people who filled the seats, and the staff mingling between the services.  Everyone seemed to be so much younger than me.  I had one overwhelming thought of PCC, “We’re much older than this.”  That was hard to accept, because PCC has always been known as the “new” church in town, the “young” church, and the “innovative” church.  Now all I could think was that we were not young anymore. 

This realization came to me full force to me last year.  As you know I have stepped off the stage during music time, no longer playing guitar every Sunday.  The reasons for this role change are many, but little did I realize the new perspective I would gain from sitting in the congregation viewing those on stage.  Maybe it was a bit of a scheduling fluke, or maybe it was God wanting me to get the message, but one particular Sunday as I was sitting in the congregation during worship time, I noticed that every person on stage that day was in their forties or mid fifties, except one.  And when I took the stage to speak, I did so as a fifty-three year old!  In an instant, our church looked completely different to me.

The irony is that we were (are) still young as a church in terms of our attenders – mostly folks in their thirties.  But we were losing and unable to retain twenty-something year olds, which meant we would soon be losing our thirty-something year olds, and the creep would go on.

When I planted PCC thirteen years ago (at forty years old) my goal was never to have a church that was exclusively for young people.  But the vision was never to be a church only for old people either, or to have one generational life-cycle before we closed the doors.

Right then and there, sitting in the chairs that day, I made a vow to myself: we will not die of old age!  If the natural flow of a church is to grow older as time marches on, then that means the leadership of PCC has to invest a disproportionate amount of energy towards young people in order to maintain a vibrant population of young adults.

So we did.  Just walk down the children’s hallway on Sunday morning, drop in on a Wednesday night youth service, take a look at the ushers serving in the isles, or take a peek at the stage on Sunday morning or in the sound booth, and you will see more teens and twenty-something year olds deployed in service than in most churches.  Using young people has always been a strength of PCC, and now that we are thirteen years into this work we must be very deliberate and intentional about it to ensure a vibrant future.  If I have anything to do with it, Pace Community Church WILL HAVE more than a one generation life-cycle before it closes its doors.  Should the Lord delay His coming, PCC will outlast and outlive me.

Here are three headlines that are disarmingly simple in maintaining influence and impact with the next generation.

1. To attract young adults, you have to hire young adults.  It seems simple enough, but it’s often overlooked.  Very few churches intentionally seek to hire people in their twenties.  But without a twenty-something staff, we are cut off from the next generations culture.  That includes technology, which is heavily oriented toward new forms of communication.  The idea here is the need for reverse mentoring, that the younger generation teaches the older generation a thing or two, something that is seldom used but much needed.

2. To attract young adults, you have to “platform” young adults.  I have written about this before.  See the links at the bottom of this page.  That’s how strongly I feel about it.  One of the unwritten laws of church life is this:  who you platform is who you will attract.  If you want a church of forty-something year olds, then be sure to stack all ministry positions with that age group only.  But if you do that, don’t sit back and wonder where all the young people went.

Now before you think you need to raise the banner for the importance of a multi-generational church, I’m all with you.  But here is another unwritten law of church flow: the best way to become multi-generational is to intentionally target young adults.

Here’s why.  Older people are attracted to environments of young people, but the reverse is not true – young people are not attracted environments of old people.  In other words, if a church targets young people (in music, ministry style, programming, and serving opportunities, etc) it will attract both young and old alike. But if a church targets old people, it will not attract young people.

Case in point – just look around PCC on any given Sunday morning and notice the mixture of all the age groups in our congregation.  We have babies, kids, teens, 20’s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80-something year olds all in one church family!  That’s great.  But this doesn’t happen by accident.  It happens because we make young people visible.

Whether we are rocking with an electric guitar riff or singing a hymn, or whether I am sharing a sobering message, reciting the apostles creed, or a group of girls are on stage dancing with sign language, all the age groups at PCC are eating it up!  Young and old alike.

There you have it.  PCC rocks and dances to the apostles creed.  You heard it here first.

3.  To attract young adults, you have to acknowledge young adults.  To acknowledge a young person is to acknowledge their world, their sensibilities, their technology, their vocabulary, their priorities, and their questions.  Notice I did not say cater to such things, only to acknowledge them.  Become familiar with their favored musical groups.  And by all means, let’s embrace the technology of the next generation, as it will fast become the technology of us all. 

By acknowledging the world that young adults live in, you validate them and in retrun they identify with you.  Most importantly, we get street cred.

Bottom line?  Sometimes building a cultural divide is as simple as who you hire, who you platform, and who you acknowledge.  Yes, a person who is fifty or older should come and find points of connection and community in our church, and thankfully, so many of us do.  But that’s not the problem.  We’re reaching the fifty-and-over age groups.  It’s the twenty-something year olds we’ll miss if we’re not careful.

Don’t believe me?  Ask a Southern Baptist.

Here are links related to this subject I wrote last year:

Giving Young Adults a Seat at the Leadership Table HERE

Empowering & Platforming Young Adults for Leadership HERE

Biting the Bullet for New and Young Leaders HERE

Why Teenagers Should Volunteer & Serve HERE

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