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 Left to itself, the church will also turn inward and become outdated.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?