A few weeks ago, I was in conversation with a pastor at the EFCA West Orange County (CA) Regional Gathering. We were talking about the difficulties established churches face when they miss passing the baton to one or more succeeding congregations. You know the scenario – a church located in a community with lots of families, children, and younger people, but the church is filled with Baby Boomers and few if any people from other demographic groups. Many of the Baby Boomers began attending the church when they were much younger but, for reasons often unknown to them, they have not succeeded in attracting and retaining people younger than themselves. The church got “old”, and it does not know how to attract younger people. Once the existing Boomers move away or die off, the church will fold. It’s a sad situation.

When my sons were in high school, my wife and I would help chaperone their student ministry’s winter camp. They rented two cabins in the mountains. One of them was dubbed “the 70s house” and for good reason. Though we were near the millennium, this cabin reeked of the 1970s. Everything, including the colors, appliances, furnishings, and the carpet that crackled when trod upon screamed “1970s” to this generation that followed that era. Unless the owners had the cabin only for making money through rentals, one would assume that they decorated it in the 70s and that it was still “good enough” for them. But the millennial generation didn’t think it was cute – they thought it was ridiculously out of date and felt weird. And musty.

When I work with a church through the process of discernment and subsequent actions to bring their facilities and practices up to date as one of the keys to attracting and retaining succeeding generations, I am often faced with skepticism. “Why can’t we just spruce things up a bit? Do we really have to make significant changes to attract and retain younger people and families?” The answer is usually pretty simple – you need to do those things because the other things you are doing are not working.

We often don’t notice the off-putting things around us that tend to repel the very people we are trying to attract.

I like the commercials for Febreze, the odor-fighting air freshener. Their ad series introduced me to the concept of being nose-blind – not noticing the rancid odors that one has gotten used to in their own environment, like the smell of an adolescent boy’s bedroom in summer. 

Churches can be like that. We often don’t notice the off-putting things around us that tend to repel the very people we are trying to attract. If our community was an impoverished, remote village and people had to walk barefoot for miles across a barren landscape to meet as the church, we would likely not be upset at having to sit on an uncomfortable chair or pew. But we don’t live there and the people we are trying to reach for Christ don’t live there either. Here are some of the oftentimes off-putting things guests at our places of worship say they encounter:

  • Uncomfortable or broken chairs
  • Dingy, smelly restrooms
  • Ignoring things that haven’t worked for a while
  • Children’s toys tossed in a basket (they appear to have not been sanitized in quite a while)
  • Torn and stained carpeting in the children’s area
  • Bad coffee – or no coffee
  • Greeters that know they’ve never seen me before but merely say hello and don’t talk with me
  • Greeting times in services where people spend time with their friends but neglect guests

Sometimes church leaders of an “older congregation” will decide to spruce things up a bit, but they undertake these things by themselves and merely rearrange or slap a new coat of paint onto things they think will do the job but currently are not. Sadly, these efforts oftentimes are not the updates they had desired. They are merely a new gloss on an outdated thing. Instead of being recently updated, they have sadly been recently outdated.

Figuring out how to attract and retain succeeding generations is everyone’s responsibility and something to talk about.

Here are some ideas for a conversation with your leadership team.

  • What are the age demographics of our church? Are we attracting and retaining younger generations? If so, what are we doing to bring about this fruit? If not, what are some of the things that need to be done to turn things around?

  • If you asked this question among yourselves, you may have already inadvertently made your first mistake. Older generations oftentimes assume that their theories about why younger generations do or do not come are accurate. But we don’t truly know because we are not part of that generation. The best way to know is to ask them. Who might we ask to provide such candid assessments? Consider getting input from younger generations in the church as well as some that are not in the church. Perhaps you could consult some younger adults that may attend another church nearby, too. It may be eye-opening to have a total stranger from your neighborhood come into your church to give his/her first impressions and observations. Consider giving them a gift card or cash to come to weekend services and give their honest assessment.

  • If facility updates and upgrades are needed, who is making the proposals and/or decisions regarding what they will entail? Is it the old guard, or the younger members of the flock? Who is in the best position to make these decisions? Can we at least work together?

  • Who is on our worship and planning teams? Are they multigenerational or just the old guard? Men and women? Who do we platform? Who participates in leading worship?

Boomer brothers and sisters, please know that I am right in the middle of the Baby Boomer generation, and I struggle with these very issues in my own life and in my home church. It’s not easy to make the needed changes and sacrifices, but it is very important that we navigate these changes well. Our legacy cannot only be what used to be but it must be how we effectively passed on the faith and the leadership of the church to the next generations.

EFCA seeks to be a movement that multiplies transformational churches among all people. We need to plant new churches, but we also need existing churches to be healthy, transformational, and intentional about reaching the next generations. Multiplication becomes mere replacement if we allow established churches to die because we failed to do so.

 Let me know how your conversation goes. If I or the EFCA West team can help you, please reach out and let us know. Serving you as you serve the kingdom is our calling and passion.

Let us know if we can help and how your conversation goes. Contact Bob Osborne.

This is one of a series of articles intended to facilitate and guide church leaders’ conversations about significant issues that often are not talked about among pastors, boards, and church leadership teams. Visit the EFCA West website to see prior Something to Talk About articles.