On Youth And The Aging Of The Church

Trawling through the emails that accumulate while we are away on holiday is a massive task upon return. This time the inbox had inflated to 1400. It’s therefore a task I undertake in several phases over a period of days. That meant it wasn’t until a couple of days ago that I saw one that had come in before holiday but which I had left: the fortnightly Serious Times Update from James Emery White. And his 30th July column was a great thought-provoker. Following a report on his own denomination, he ventured into the debate about why the Christian Church in the West is aging. He listed the usual suspects:

Some blame a secular society; some blame traditional approaches to ministry; some blame new forms of individualism that lead Christian young adults away from institutions in general; some blame the lack of evangelism.

Then he added something to the conversation from his own experience:

The natural flow of the church is to skew old. Left to itself, that is what it will do. It will age. You take your hand off of that wheel, and that is what will happen. This is not the only natural flow of the church. Left to itself, the church will also turn inward and become outdated.

He describes how he has seen this happen in churches previously (and still) seen as ‘hip’, including his own. He goes on to outline some of the intentional steps churches must take to model the importance of younger generations. Some of them are only applicable to larger churches with several people on staff. To attract young adults, you have to hire young adults, platform young adults and acknowledge young adults. But even if some of these do not work in small churches with just the one minister (who may also be shared with other churches), White’s main theory is that churches must deliberately model the acceptance of younger generations by using them in leadership. It also means embracing some of their technology, an idea that greatly appealed to me!

And that’s where I thought it might be worth having a debate on this blog. No-one can doubt the problems many churches have reaching younger generations. While I am not sure White would necessarily approve of some positive discrimination or affirmative action description of his suggestions because I’m sure he’d still only want to hire and platform young adults of suitable gifting and character, should there be some kind of bias towards them? Would it help to invest a disproportionate amount of energy in young adults?

On the one hand I have seen churches where everything had to be tested by whether the elderly would accept it and could participate in it. If they could not take part, an event did not happen – even though there might already be other activities in the church programme that catered for older generations.

Furthermore, it was not so surprising to see the growth in the 1990s of youth churches, especially given that some of them arose out of historic denominations where the emphasis on tradition had alienated younger Christians.

But on the other hand, our wider society is arguably one biased towards youth and it could be said that by valuing the elderly, the church is making a prophetic statement about a marginalised group. Unless, of course, that is the only group the church is dealing with.

I have a gut feeling that White is telling us something important. What do you think?


  1. I have seen a couple sides of this…..

    The church we attended in the U.S. tried their best…….their answer was to have two services, one “traditional”, one “contemporary”. What we found was that in truth they ended up with two separate churches – neither group really was in touch with the other.

    Our current church seems to put into practice what Mr. White said here…..

    “While you can platform older folk and disaffect young adults, you can platform young adults and still attract older folk. Lots of them. A twenty-something person is not attracted to a fifty-year-old man singing a David Crowder Band song. But a fifty-year-old man is often attracted to a youthful, energetic twenty-something person who is singing that song.”

    Now, we don’t even have a band……our pastor chooses the songs, and does a really good mix of old and new. We have a guitar player who leads the appropriate styles, and a piano player for the hymns.

    I also find these words of Mr. White in practice at our church….

    ” 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 tastes, their priorities, and their questions. Notice I did not say “cater” to such things, only to acknowledge them. A church that does nothing but speak to young adults is a glorified youth group, and not the vision of the new community detailed in the New Testament. But those who are younger should be acknowledged. So when using illustrations, don’t overlook the world of iPhones and Twitter, texting and Facebook. Become familiar with musical groups such as Coldplay and the Black Eyed Peas. And by all means, embrace the technology of the next generation as it is fast becoming the technology for us all. ”

    He speaks to the whole congegration……his sermons are never “older generation” styled, nor are they so full of teenage speak that the older folks kinda go “huh?”

    I think it basically boils down to this thought that Mr. White mentioned…

    “But here’s another unwritten law: the best way to become multi-generational is to intentionally target young adults.”

    I can say I’ve found this to be true, at least in our church.

    I would also add another thought…….a church’s outreach programs should be sure to include young families with children. We just finished our Vacation Bible School program. This is a week-long evening affair, full of stories, crafts, games, Bible teaching….aimed at children ages 5-12. Our “marketing” for this is aimed at the children in the community AND their parents, and this year we’ve started three new young families coming to our church as a result of this. (One 7-year-old girl pleaded with her mom for the family to attend, so she could continue seeing the friends she made.)

    I would have to say that I agree with your gut feeling, Dave!


    1. A couple of thoughts, Owen. Firstly, I often come back to something Steve Chalke said many years ago when he said we often compare church to a family. If that is true, then there are certain activities we do together and compromise for one another’s sake, and other activities we do separately. (That doesn’t gainsay James Emery White’s point about prioritising young adults, though.)

      Secondly, I’m glad your church emphasises ministry to children and their families. When we minister to children, we need to remember parents, other carers, siblings and so on. These are the people who will have influence at home, whatever we do and say, and however good it may be.


  2. Good points, Dave…..

    I like the family analogy-and really, it’s not an analogy: the church is, and should be, like a family. I think the trick is (and this has been duly noted by many), to encourage members to compromise when necessary. I’ve seen the older generations balk at changing anything in one church, and yet in another I’ve seen them welcome fresh styles and ideas. And to be fair, I’ve seen the young adults whine about “traditional” worship, too.

    I actually had never had the thought of prioritizing the young adults, it just really seemed to make sense when I read James Emery White’s blog – probably because I’ve seen it actually working. I was surprised at first when I read that, it seemed “unfair” at first.

    “…should there be some kind of bias towards them? Would it help to invest a disproportionate amount of energy in young adults?”

    “On the one hand I have seen churches where everything had to be tested by whether the elderly would accept it and could participate in it. If they could not take part, an event did not happen – even though there might already be other activities in the church programme that catered for older generations.”

    I don’t know about a “disproportionate amount” – but I think a good portion of it should be. I know of an example of your quote above….the church where I was baptized. A year ago I visited an old friend who still attends there, and he’s in his sixties. I asked him how the church is doing these days, and he said “it’s pretty old now. They don’t have a Sunday School anymore, no youth program anymore, and I’m pretty much the youngest one there!” They had simply been “governed” by their elderly body, and their membership had been steadily declining.

    Balance, compromise…..


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