It’s Not About Getting Younger Members

This report made me sigh.  (Quick recap:  The PCUSA is one of the two oldestYAADs with Jan and Denise religious groups in the country.)

Here’s what not to do in response to this information:

  • Run out and hire the first pastor we can find with a tattoo.
  • Install screens in the sanctuary.
  • Replace the organist with a drummer and a couple guitar players.
  • Become Buddhist (because their average member is twenty years younger than “ours.”)

It doesn’t matter that all the kids love Hamilton (and the real Alexander Hamilton was educated by a Presbyterian on St. Croix and influenced by Presbyterians in NY.)

It doesn’t matter that hundreds of youth and young adults will be converging on Purdue University this week for the Presbyterian Youth Triennium and it will change their lives.

What does matter:

  • We say that “we want kids” and “we want young adults” but sometimes we don’t act like it.
  • We want “young families” for the wrong reasons.  Please re-read this post.
  • We are addicted to a certain way of being the church that is less about the gospel and more about our own comfort levels.

What also matters is that my (old) denomination offers the kind of spiritual community – in terms of The Big Picture – that would be appealing to people in younger demographics if we could live out these principles in real life:

  • The majority of millennials support marriage equality in the United States.  (Note:  The PCUSA is one of a handful of denominations that support same sex unions and ordains LGBTQ clergy.)
  • The majority of young adults support Black Lives Matter.   The births of multiracial children is increasing in the United States.  In 2015, there were more 24 year olds than any other age group, but for white Americans, the average age was 55.   In other words, it’s time for faith communities to address the realities of racial/ethnic shifts in this country and – for the love of God – the realities of systemic racism.  (Note:  The PCUSA not only just added a creed to our Book of Confessions that declares it is a sin to separate people based on race and color.  But it’s also true that the four leading officers of our denomination include a Latino man, an African American man, an African American woman, and me.)
  • Young adults want to make a difference in their communities. According to this Pew study, the majority of Millennials and Gen Xers volunteered in the past twelve months in greater percentages than Boomers or members of the Silent generation. While slacktivism is popular (e.g. buying TOMS shoes, signing internet petitions) there are many young adults more interested – and aware of the need – to make more impactful contributions. (Note:  PCUSA World Mission is known for sticking around after the sexiness of doing good wears off in many troubled corners of the world.  For example, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance stuck around to help Katrina victims after most agencies left and, subsequently, we are the only group of our kind recognized in the Katrina museum in New Orleans.)

I believe that diverse and theologically progressive congregations have much to offer people – of every age – seeking a spiritual community that wants to change the world for good in the name of Jesus.  And yet our churches doing amazing things could do a better job translating who we are and what we are about.

Perhaps we – in every church –  could stop repelling people with our in-house squabbles.  Perhaps we who have remained in traditional congregations could get out more and notice more clearly the needs of our communities – rather than perpetuating  pet projects that offer little impact.

I can almost hear you saying, “Jan’s been a General Assembly co-moderator for less than a month and she’s already drinking the Kool-Aid.”  But the truth is that there are many congregations faithfully doing what matters to younger generations whether the younger generations are present to notice or not.  How can we connect with people of all ages in ways that make sense for a the future Church?

Image from the 222nd General Assembly in Portland, Oregon.


5 responses to “It’s Not About Getting Younger Members

  1. One of the concerns I have about the reactions to these types of surveys is that they are viewed as a moral judgment as opposed to simply data that needs interpretation. Please also bear in mind that the demographic shift is to an older population. Do we acknowledge that? How does that color how we read these charts?

    I also wonder: Is our reaction also colored by internalized ageism, to add another ism to our list? Another response to this survey might be to celebrate that we are able to reach this population. Or to ask ourselves, how can we build on our strengths?

    Here’s a piece I wrote for Episcopal Cafe on this very thing:

    Key points:

    “*In 1950, only 8% of the U.S. population was 65 years or older. In 1970, it was not quite 10%. In 2010, it was 13%. And in 2014, it was 14.5%.
    *In the 1950s, a 65-year-old could expect to live an additional 15 years. Today, it is closer to 25 years.
    *For the next 20 years, approximately 10,000 people will turn 65 every day.

    “Learning this has made me ask a new question: What if the aging of our congregations is a feature, not a bug?

    “Consider it this way: what if I told you you could have a congregation full of committed members with significant life experience, an interest in big questions of faith, lots of free time to devote to the church’s life and ministry, and who are likely to stay with your congregation for 20 to 25 years. Would you celebrate that gift?”

    I’m not saying don’t reach out to younger people. I’m only saying that there may be more to this story that we should consider.


    • Thanks so much for your comment.

      Check out the link from Pew that in 2015 there were more 24 yr olds than any other age in the US- for people of all races. For White people the average age is much older. I agree that aging is not the issue though which is why I titled it that way.


  2. Sallie Watson

    You go, Co! Thanks for leading us in this way.


  3. Thank you Laura. I appreciate your insights and the way in which you approach the data and naming the ageism in our churches/denominations. In the small rural church I served, it was the retired people who had the time to work at the food pantry, to make the 90 mile round trip for commodities for the pantry, to help other get to doctor’s appointments, to serve the compassion dinners for grieving families…it is important ministry as well.


  4. Pingback: Co-Moderator Jan Edmiston’s Blog Post

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