church1.jpgWe’ve come to the end of Robert Wuthnow’s informative book After the Baby Boomers. Pastors and church leaders, you need to buy this book! Do not assume that my chapter summaries are sufficient. I am briefly summarizing Wuthnow’s conclusions. The statistics and data in After the Baby Boomers are alone worth the price of the book.

Now, we turn to chapter 11 and the question about young, diverse congregations. How are churches succeeding in reaching younger adults?

Wuthnow believes religious leaders should be troubled by the fact that young adults are less likely to participate in religious services today than in the previous generation. Those who are participating are likely to be married, which is a minority in the young adult population. Mainline denominations have lost their young people by half. Evangelicals are barely holding the ones they have. Meanwhile, more and more young adults are not religiously affiliated at all.

Numerically, the next generation is larger than the baby boomers. The problems that churches face are societal. Community is not encouraged by American society, yet people still sense the need to connect with the past. Young adults are tinkering with their religions by seeking continuity with the past while simultaneously adapting their behavior to the demands of the present.

Churches must stop assuming that if they have a vibrant youth group and then a good program for young married couples with kids, they will reach this generation. This kind of mentality leaves out three-quarters of this generation. Wuthnow’s central argument is this: 

“Young adult is a time when other social institutions fail to be of much help… We provide care centers, schools, welfare programs, family counseling, colleges, job training programs, and even detention centers as a kind of institutional surround-sound until young adults reach age 21, and then we provide nothing.”

Churches should step in and fill the void. Why do we invest so much in programs for the children and the elderly, while leaving out ministry to young adults? We need programs for single adults with questions about marriage, work, and finances.

The clergy are looking through narrow glasses at the upcoming generation. People must get something from their participation to make it worthwhile. With so many outside activities competing for time and attention, young people must have a reason to be in church.

What are the characteristics of congregations that are attracting young adults? Wuthnow defines a youthful congregation as one in which at least 35 percent of its regularly attending adults are below the age of 35. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Generally, youthful congregations are not as established. 30% of them have been founded since 1970. Young people are more likely to go to new congregations than older ones. Yet this is not always the case. Congregations do not have to be brand new. Nor do they need to have innovative worship styles to attract young adults.
  2. Youthful congregations tend to be larger.
  3. Youthful congregations appeal to populations that have many young adults.

Many suspect that young adults are turning away from the mega-church model and are looking for smaller faith communities. Actually, young adults can be found in every-size congregation. No single size dominates. The congregation’s size is influenced by the size of community more than anything else. As long as young people find community in their church, it doesn’t seem to matter whether or not the church is large or small. When they attend church and do not experience community with people their age, they have a compelling reason to stay away from church.

Regarding worship styles, Wuthnow’s research may surprise you. Young adults are increasingly less likely to want the contemporary worship of the boomer generation. They think church services should “feel like church.” Young adults are more often interested in preserving traditional worship than changing it.

The research numbers on worship styles may shock you (unless you are like me and in your twenties, and then you’ll sigh and say, “Finally, someone is describing our generation correctly!”). The greatest popularity of contemporary worship appears to be among people in their early forties. The lowest percentage of all (12%) of those who prefer contemporary worship is represented by people in their 20’s. That figure is lower than the percentage of church members aged 65-97!

Wuthnow calls for balance in implementing programs for the existing needs of the congregation (mostly for married couples with kids) and those for people the church hopes to attract (singles). Church leaders should take note of the growing percentage of working women, who traditionally have poured time and resources into the life of the church.

Wuthnow believes churches should implement interreligious programs that represent other faiths besides Christianity. While I agree that the polarization of young religious adults may be a problem, adopting a secularized, pluralistic assumptions of our culture is not the answer. I strongly disagree with this section of the chapter.

Other opportunities for ministry include international mission trips, local mission efforts, volunteer work and helping the needy. Young adults will likely move toward churches who are offering these kinds of ministry opportunities.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back with some of my own thoughts on After the Baby Boomers.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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