While traveling around the district and engaging in numerous SPRC meetings, one question has surfaced more than any other. I bet you can guess it. It’s a variation of “How do we reach young families?”
Awesomely devoted United Methodists lament honestly with me about the struggle to identify any significant turn-around strategy to get younger people. Many of our churches are faced with aging membership and declining worship attendance.
Not convinced that the answer is easy, I often answer their question with a question. “Tell me, what do you love about your church?” What I’ve noticed is the answers fall into two categories—social connection or social cause. These answers will be familiar to you.
Social connection answers are things like: “We’re a family.” “It feels like home here.” “We’re such a welcoming church.” “We have a lot of fun at our hog roast.” “I found my friends here.” Social cause answers are things like: “We’re a mission church.” “We do so much for the local school.” “We host the blood drive.” “We raise money for 12 different missions each year.” These people love their churches for two very important reasons: connection and cause.
I heard a powerful testimony on how important these two things have been to reaching people when they were a “young family.” One gentleman talked about how being a young professional in a new community was daunting when he was 30, and the church was a place he could meet other young professionals and navigate life together—i.e. social connection. Another woman remembered that she joined in her 30s because the church had a strong reputation for ministries that advocated for the downtrodden—i.e. social cause.
Honestly, I don’t think that has changed—the passions of young families to connect and the engagement of young families in causes have not diminished. What’s changed is where it happens. Young families are still connecting on Sunday mornings—just not in church, maybe on the soccer field instead.
Young families are experiencing real community at ECFE classes, community softball, and hockey weekenders, not to mention social media. When they’re wanting connection, people aren’t thinking “I’ll get it at a church.” Community is happening in other spaces. And these same young families aren’t any less engaged in causes. In fact, their kids are raising money for Jump Rope for Heart through their school, as a family they are running the Camp Sweet Life 5K and the Relay for Life, and their workplace holds fundraisers for breast cancer. With more nonprofit causes than ever, the church no longer has a monopoly on charity, advocacy, and social change, and young families find plenty of ways to engage in doing good.
So, if we simply exist for social connection and social causes, then I dare to say we are obsolete. Frankly, if a 35-year-old parent of two asks “Where can I go for social connection and social cause?” I’m not convinced her first thought would be the church; there are so many other options that are much more accessible, simpler to join, and more in rhythm with the life and busy schedule of a young family. We can’t compete.
The good news is that we don’t have to compete, because while certainly our churches are places of connection and cause, these are penultimate to our mission, and not ultimate. What we offer first and foremost is not connection or cause but Christ himself! When Wesley commissioned Thomas Coke as a missionary and superintendent to the new world, his words were not, “Offer them a turkey dinner, so they can raise money for Feed My Starving Children” (both connection and cause wrapped up with all the fixin’s). Nope, his words were simply, “Offer them Christ!”
So here’s a question: Why are you different because of Christ? Can members of your church answer that question? I asked that very question in several of my SPRC meetings, and I got a lot of blank stares. Now, that’s a conundrum. Christ is the one thing we have to offer, and have been entrusted to offer—yet we are uncertain why that one thing, or rather one person, matters.
I need to admit a tactical error. Last November, I held large cluster conference gatherings in order to spend some time teaching principles for evangelism. I put the cart before the horse. What the church needs more than techniques for reaching others with the gospel is Jesus. We need to remember, reclaim, and reorient ourselves to why Christ matters for us—where the gospel meets us. If we don’t know why Christ matters to us, why would we expect Christ to matter to anyone else?
The good news is that if we can again articulate why Christ matters, and begin to lift up Christ—more so than connection and cause—well, Christ himself says, “If I be lifted up, I will draw all people unto myself.” I firmly believe that Christ is still the most captivating person to walk the planet. Call me old school, but I am convinced that Christ is most compelling to young families, to old families, to the family-less, and even to the church family. Offer them Christ.
Rev. Fred Vanderwerf is superintendent for the Minnesota Annual Conference’s Southern Prairie District.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church