9 Changes That Will Make A Big Difference In Your Aging Church
By: Jay Mitchell
We see it all the time – a congregation ages along with its Senior Pastor. When the Senior Pastor leaves or retires, there’s a push to find a younger pastor who will, in turn, help the church get younger. To quote Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend!”
While it’s true that, in general, the average age of a congregation will be within 10 years on either side of the Senior Pastor’s age, it’s not true that simply hiring a younger Senior Pastor will make your church younger.
In fact, it is possible to get younger without hiring a younger pastor at all. If you want to get younger, your church will need to get serious about doing these nine things.
1. Establish Community Vision
Get a clear vision about your community and what it will take to reach them. If your church has aged, is it because it’s reflecting the community around you? Or has your community changed? Are there young families or young adults in the surrounding community? Have you spent time talking to people in your community and asking them about what kinds of things they’d be looking for in a church? Have you done any demographic studies that would help you understand who is living nearby? It’s not realistic to ask people in your community to adapt to what has worked for your church in the past. You’ll need to find out what will connect with the people who are currently living nearby.
2. Invest In Youth And Children’s Ministry
Invest heavily in youth and children’s ministry, in both people and facilities. There is nothing more important in reaching younger families than providing a safe and compelling experience for their children. If you have a limited budget, you will need to establish your priorities. If reaching young families is a priority, you might need to invest in a gifted Next Generation or Family Pastor instead of hiring a general associate. You may need to upgrade your children and youth areas (complete with computerized check-in and up-to-date play area) rather than upgrading your adult Sunday school space or your kitchen.
3. Accept – And Be Open To – Loss
Be willing to see some people leave the church. Change is hard for everyone. Reaching young families will mean changing the way you do things, how you talk about things, and where you invest your resources. Some people will wonder where “their” church went and will leave in the hopes of finding a church that better suits their needs. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Hopefully, you can cast a compelling vision to encourage them to set aside their preferences to reach the next generation. However, if they want to leave to find a place that fits them better, let them.
4. Embrace Diversity
Be intentional about reaching out to and welcoming people who are different from your current demographic. As congregations age, the circle of relationships will get tighter. After all, you’ve known each other for years. You may have raised kids together or been part of the same community organization. Most churches will describe themselves as “friendly, welcoming and warm." And they are – with the people they already know.
What is your strategy for connecting with new people who may look different from the people who have been attending? Are you intentional about connecting with them in a healthy way? Do you have a team of people on the lookout for a new family or couple who decides to attend your church on a Sunday?
5. Provide Room To Fail
Encourage your staff to try new things and allow them room to fail. Reaching new people will require new methods. What reached your current group of attendees may not reach the next generation. Give your staff the opportunity to try new things that might connect with your community. If it doesn’t work, let them learn from it and try something new.
"Encourage your staff to new things and allow them room to fail. Reaching new people will require new methods."
6. Build Intergenerational Connections
Often, as a church tries to “get younger,” there is a sense of competition between the new group of attendees and those who have been around a long time. Look for ways to help these groups connect intergenerationally. Have a church-wide work day where you cancel services and invest in your community side-by-side. Set up a mentoring ministry where older couples invest in younger couples, older men with younger men, or older women with young moms.
7. Broaden Worship Styles
Getting younger is not simply a matter of changing your blended or traditional services to a “contemporary” or “modern” worship style. A badly done contemporary service will drive more people away than a typical blended or traditional service. Whatever style you choose, do it well. However, the musical style you choose does matter. Find out what musical style will connect best with your people, especially the people who aren’t sitting in church with you on Sunday. Offer a well-done service to connect with them.
8. Kill Sacred Cows
Changing times will require changing methods of reaching your community. What worked last year or the last five or 10 years may no longer work this year. If there is something you do annually, don’t assume you should do it again this year or next year. Some churches have cancelled their on-campus Vacation Bible School and moved it out into the different communities. The Christmas concert that used to sell out each year may not be reaching any new people – which was why it was created in the first place.
9. Serve The Next Generation
Inspire the current generation to care more about serving the next generation than serving their own. Most churches want to get younger but they don’t know how. They try to hire a younger pastor who they task with reaching younger families without impacting the current congregation in any significant way.
More important than any new program or new pastor is an older generation inspired to care more about meeting the needs of the next generation than in having a church that meets their own needs. Cast a vision about what will be added to your church rather than the things that will be changed or lost. Interview a young family about how they found a home in your church or an older couple whose faith has been renewed as they watch their children or grandchildren connect in your church in new ways.
"Inspire the current generation to care more about serving the next generation than serving their own."
Getting younger as a congregation is a worthy goal. But hiring a younger pastor will not make that happen by itself. If you begin implementing a few of these ideas, you may see a big difference in your aging congregations and you may not need a younger pastor at all.
What changes need to be made in your church to better reach the next generation?