As I shared last week was given the opportunity to do some field research for my boss. He needed information on why twenty & thirty-somethings are only attending church at the rate of four percent. Me being the sociology/political science junkie hit the streets of Old Town Alexandria and then headed north to the campus of American University.
As I shared previously, my experience in Old Town did not live up the Jay Leno “Jay-Walking” vision I had planned for. My experience on the campus of American University proved to be a much better experience. I met two students who were hanging out on a bench waiting for the friend so they could head to class together. One grew up in very strict, Ethiopian influenced, Christian home and the other raised in an atheist/Jewish home. Both of these gentlemen categorized themselves as agnostic. As they both shared their story it became clear that they no longer participated or had not desire to participate in the church because what they believed the church had to offer them was available in other areas of their lives. Fellowship and friendships were available to them in other social groups, academics, and non-profit organizations they were members of. Both of these AU students did not see the church as relevant in their lives because they are able to experience fellowship in other areas of their lives, serve the needy through non-profits, and do not currently or in the past had a strong tie to a particular faith community.
As I walked around AU I ran into a political group who were advertising for a on campus mock political debate that was to occur that same evening. That is went I met “John”. This gentleman was in his early thirties and wanted to remain anonymous. John lives in Alexandria but works in Arlington. He has been in the area for approximately six years.
John identified himself as a Chrisitan but acknowledged the fact that he only attends services at Christmas and Easter when he is at home with his parents. When asked why he does not currently attend a regular weekly worship service and is not a part of a fair community John told me it was not because he did not want but that he had never been invited to participate in a faith community since he arrived in the DC area. When I first heard this response I thought it was a lame excuse and that if John really wanted to attend church he would. But then I began to think about my own experiences finding a church when Allison and I first moved to Alexandria. Church, for first time visitors can be a very intimidating environment. Just like any other social setting, we have our groups of friends or circles we stick to and it can be hard if not down right impossible for a new person to break through and be welcomed.
Churches have welcoming committees and greeters who are assigned to seek out and “welcome” new folks, rather than charging every member of a congregation to welcome new people into the community. Allison and I after three years did not feel comfortable during the traditional coffee time at church because outside of a few close friends, did not have a strong connection to anyone at th church. Our ties to Aldersgate came from the pastors and handful of people who were close to our age. It took four weeks before someone approached us outside of the required passing of the peace at the beginning of each service.
John pointed out exactly what I needed to hear. We (and I am including myself) as a church are not recognizing that younger members are critical to the survival of our beloved congregations. We assume that new members will come to us on their own or when they need us, rather than us realizing that we need folks who are at a different stage in their life than we are to form a more diverse community.
I shared what Mason told me last week, one of the twenty-somethings do not see the church as relevant in their lives is because the congregations do not reflect the larger body of Christ. In most churches today, you walk in and everyone looks the same and has the same general background. There is no diversity.
It is my opinion that in order for twenty-somethings to see the church as relevant in their lives the church must too begin to see this demographic as relevant to the survival and growth of the local congregation.