According to the latest PEW report, Christianity is declining in America, especially as relates to church affiliation. The study compares results from 2007 to 2014, so it’s a fairly short amount of time to track the data. In those brief seven years, the church is doing worse. I doubt anyone considers this shocking news.
When you dig into the numbers, what stands out is the growing number of people who identify in the None group. These “nones” are increasing in number at a far greater rate than anyone else. Mainline churches are decreasing, as they have been for some time. Catholics are losing members. The evangelical protestants are basically holding even (which is in fact declining since the population is increasing).
Christianity is also getting older. Its church members are aging, and they’re less likely to be replaced by people younger than they are. The Nones are getting younger. Young people drop out of church, especially in the millennial generation. People often think millennials return to church after they settled down and have kids. Data shows that is seldom true. They’ve made their choice, and they’re sticking with it – no church.
We’re bucking these trends at City Pres. I’m not wanting to gloat or take credit, but our church is young. We have those millennials attending. We have people returning to church who had been away for a long time. We have people coming for the first time. They’re here with us.
We care about those people, or at least we try to. We’ve decided to be a church that gives up and gives away as we give out the grace that Jesus promises. We’ve tried to do that in tangible ways.
For example, we’ve agreed to host various concerts in our church’s sanctuary. They’re not City Pres concerts, but they’re hosted at City Pres. We’ve even allowed them to serve beer at the church (we’re Presbyterians after all). There are limits and rules and a vetting process. Everyone has behaved themselves and been respectful of the space. It’s not some big huge strategy, but we’ve heard over and over that this is something unusual to a group of younger people who has given up on the church. They’re sick of the church. They feel judged by the church.
But they’re willing to be in a church building. If the church is kind to them. If the church will listen to them. They have a lot to say. They respect when respected. Are we listening?
I recently ran into a woman who told me she had been to a concert her son had played at City Pres. Her 80-year-old grandmother was there. Her other son and her son-in-law were there, neither of whom go to church or would ever want to. She said she couldn’t believe they were all sitting together in a church listening to a concert. She thanked me. This happens quite frequently.
Others have quite a different reaction. They’re worried about the PEW report whether they know it or not. They think the church should be more like it used to be. They see the young people gone and say “good riddance if they’re going to behave that way.” They’re upset that we would allow such riffraff inside our building. They’re saying we’re promoting and encouraging evil. They’re often furious.
We know hosting a concert in a church isn’t the same as church. We get it. We also don’t do anything differently on a Sunday after there’s been a concert. It’s the same gospel message. It’s the same liturgy. It’s the same call to worship, confession of sin, assurance of pardon, invitation to the Lord’s Supper, offering and benediction. We’re singing hymns. We’re doing mysterious things. We hate evil. We hate injustice. We hate hate. We love God, people and the city. We’re for things. We’re inviting sinners of all types – like me – to walk with Jesus in his love and care.
We’re trying other things too. I don’t want it to sound like concerts are our only way to attract people. They aren’t. In fact, that’s not even a way we consider. It’s just something we’re trying to do to be a good neighbor, to give away what we have to those who need it and want it. To consider what might even be to our hurt if it gets misused or mishandled.
I think people might come to church if they were involved in the discussion and felt like they had something to contribute. I think they are wanting something that is true and right and good – but not fundamentalist judgmentalism crammed down their throats.
They need the truth in love. We already knew that, but we haven’t done it well.
They need to know about the love of Jesus, which is rich and free.
They need to know that church is both ancient and also relevant. It’s old and new. There can be a rootedness into it that finds an expression today, here, now.
They need to form friendships in community. We all do.
They need to have a place to serve and be served. It can’t all be thinking, preaching, voting and hating. Jesus did not come to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.
They need the church to go to them. We need to have important conversations over dinners, coffees, beers, concerts, sports and many other venues. They’ll come when they think there is value and they’ve been invested in. That may be a bit selfish, but it’s also honest. They don’t think church is good enough right now, and they’re often right.
They – are us. We all have our problems. We need to repent and believe. We need to reach out in love. Jesus has many descriptions about the kingdom of heaven, and most of them (nay all of them) say it looks like you don’t think it should look. It looks like seeds in the weeds. It looks like leaven in the bread. It looks like nets. It looks like treasure, but a buried one. It doesn’t look like much. But it’s powerful and effective. It may be mysterious and hidden, but it has in it a power to multiply like crazy.
I have great hope for the generations to come. I pray we can keep it up and that God will continue to both draw and bless. I pray we’ll get younger not older. I pray those who are harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd will come and know the Good Shepherd, and that perhaps they’d consider coming to a place that listened to them and now they’ll listen in a different way as we struggle together.