Anyone who attends a worship service these days is sure to notice a scary fact: Congregations are getting older, and there aren’t many young faces in the pews on Sunday mornings.
The question on the minds of nearly every church leader is “how?” How do we get young adults engaged in the worship life of our congregations?
There are plenty of people who make their livings by providing answers to that question. How do you get young adults into worship? Well, you change the music, you add candles and hire a younger pastor. You create better programs, facilities and activities in order to entice them to your campus. Hopefully then they’ll stay for worship.
What is the question?
But what if we’re asking the wrong question? What if “how” we worship is only a small part of the reason that our congregations are getting older?
It’s not that the question of “how” we worship doesn’t matter. The problem is that it’s often the only question we ask, which cuts us off from others that are even more important.
There was a time when “how” was the right question, which is why we keep asking it. In the 1970s and ’80s many congregations were very successful in bringing baby boomers back to church by asking “how” they could make worship more appealing to that generation.
These congregations changed how they worshiped by replacing organs with bands and creating a more casual environment. Sermons became more pragmatic, focusing on “how” to live a better life.
There were many good, and some not so good, results of this movement. But one thing can be said without a doubt. Some of these congregations were quite successful in bringing people back to worship.
So it makes sense that as congregations face a new generational challenge that we would return to the question of “how.”
But things have changed dramatically. Unlike baby boomers many young adults have had almost no exposure to the practice of worship. It’s estimated that 25 to 30 percent of younger adults in the United States are “nones,” meaning they aren’t affiliated with any religious tradition and perhaps never have been. So it’s not simply a matter of making worship more appealing but also demonstrating that worship matters.
But if “how” isn’t the only question we should be asking, what other questions do we need to ask?
What does this mean?
Those of us who work with young adults are still trying to figure that out ourselves. But in her new book “Christianity after Religion” Diana Butler Bass points us in the right direction. Bass argues that people have become disconnected from the “what” and “why” of Christian practices like worship. Almost everyone knows “how” Christians are supposed to spend Sunday mornings, they’re supposed to go to worship.
But we don’t know “what” compels us to do so, or “why” it matters if we worship with others or not. When we do articulate the “what” and “why” of worship it tends to be expressed individualistically or in terms of obligation. I go to worship because of what I get out of it, or because that’s what I’m supposed to do.
I don’t believe there is any simple solution to helping young people reconnect with the “what” and “why” of worship. As a community that believes that Jesus is truly present in word and sacrament we have a compelling place to start though. But we’ve got to figure out how to articulate the “what” and “why” of worship instead of just assuming it is self evident.
So, what brings you to worship? Why does it matter?
You might also want to read:
Doing church differently
Finding Jesus in a post-modern world
‘Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus’ — a response