Becoming Ecclesiologically Attractive
Many of us are aware, and deeply concerned, about the lack of young people in our churches. While there are no doubt churches who buck the trend, in general, the UK church is ageing. In 1980, 46% of Sunday church attenders in England were aged under 30. By 2000, that figure had dropped to 35%, and by 2015 it was down to 26%.1
The trend is deeply concerning. As someone who has a few years left in that age group, I sometimes wonder what the church will be like when I reach my later years. On one level I’m not concerned; Jesus is not going to stop building his church (Matt. 16:18), but I’m conscious that he builds his church, in part, through us. We can’t just sit back and let him get on with it.
I’m sure there are many diverse and complex factors which have contributed to this demographic shift, and I’m sure there are lots of things we should be thinking through as we respond, so I was really intrigued by a brief discussion of the topic on Preston Sprinkle’s podcast, Theology in the Raw (which, as it happens, is probably my favourite podcast).
In this episode (#734), Preston was talking with Drew Dyck. The conversation was primarily about Drew’s latest book Your Future Self Will Thank You and was a fascinating discussion about how insights from neuroscience can help us as we think about habits, addictions and sanctification. But they also briefly discussed another of Drew’s books, Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults are Leaving the Faith and How to Bring Them Back. What stuck out to me most in this discussion was the suggestion that one of the reasons why so many young people have left the church and show no signs of coming back is an ‘ecclesiological unattractiveness’. That is, the way we aim to appeal to people through how we do church can actually have the effect of repelling the younger generation.
The meeting-centred ecclesiology which developed in the church growth movement in the 80s and 90s, where the bulk of energy is put into pulling off a good Sunday gathering, with a high value placed on excellence in production, isn’t attractive to the younger generation. Drew notes that when an older person walks into a slick, well produced Sunday meeting, they think, ‘Wow! These guys must be doing something right’. But when a young person walks into that context, they think, ‘There’s corruption here. How are they doing this? Who is paying for this?’ If this is right, then the irony is that what many of us are doing to try and attract younger people, may in fact be putting them off.
The alternative, Preston and Drew note, is a focus on community. Everyone, and especially the younger generation, is looking for community. For those who have left the church, the catalyst for leaving is often a problem in relationship, and so it makes sense that relationship will be key to drawing them back.
So, if we want to be ecclesiological attractive to the generation who are currently woefully underrepresented in UK churches, the answer may not be to turn the volume up, invest in more lights, and make better use of multi-media. The answer may actually be a lot cheaper (financially, even if not in time). The answer may lie in fostering community: opening our homes, disrupting our diaries, loving others. And this shouldn’t really be a surprise to us. When Jesus talked about how we, as his followers, would be recognisable, it wasn’t about having the most well-rehearsed band or the best, fast-paced video notices, it was about love: ‘Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John 13:34-35).
- 1 These figures are taken from a report titled ‘The Ageing Church’ available from the Brierley Consultancy.