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FIRST PERSON: Engage younger Christians … or else

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–A potential financial crisis looms for the Southern Baptist Convention as church members decrease denominational support, according to a convention study.

Meanwhile, millions of American “twentysomethings” are checking out on organized Christianity, according to a new study by the Barna Research

Both discouraging reports were released in late September. They may not be directly connected, at least not yet. But the second trend could make the first much worse if churches don’t change the way they relate to younger members.

The convention study found that overall giving by Southern Baptist church members has declined gradually for the past 30 years and likely will continue to fall. It also confirmed that local churches are sending smaller percentages of their offerings to the convention’s unified Cooperative Program for funding missions, seminaries and other denominational ministries.

The giving decline transcends current economic sluggishness. Many church members, particularly younger members, have abandoned (or never started) the biblical practice of tithing 10 percent of their income to church ministries. Southern Baptists currently give an average of 2.03 percent of their income to all church causes, according to the study.

The study also found a “serious neglect of Cooperative Program education and promotion in the churches. Rather than widespread negative feelings about the Cooperative Program, there appears to be widespread ignorance about the Cooperative Program.” Many who participate in the giving program don’t feel a vital, personal connection to the ministries it supports.

Other church bodies are experiencing similar crises as younger generations of believers — like their secular peers, unenthusiastic about traditional institutions or even hostile toward them — look for other ways to connect to God and the world around them.

The new Barna study reveals that “millions of twentysomethings — many of whom were active in churches during their teens — pass through their most formative adult decade while putting Christianity on the backburner,” according to a press release from the research group. “Americans in their 20s are significantly less likely than any other age group to attend church services, to donate to churches, to be absolutely committed to Christianity, to read the Bible, or to serve as a volunteer or lay leader in churches.”

More than 10 million American twentysomethings are active church attenders and committed believers, the study reports. More than half of all Americans in that age group claim to have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ.
But less than a third contributed any money to a church over the past year.

Regular church attendance by formerly involved teens drops by 42 percent between high school graduation and age 25; it drops 58 percent by age 29.
Eight million Americans in their 20s who actively attended churches as teenagers will disappear from pews by their 30th birthday.

The assumption that they — like their parents or grandparents — will come back when they get married or have kids is “only true in a minority of cases,” says David Kinnaman, vice president of the Barna Research Group and an expert on ministry to postmoderns. Kinnaman himself is in his 20s.

“More importantly, that reasoning ignores the real issue: Millions of twentysomethings are crystallizing their views of life without the input of church leaders, the Bible or other mature Christians. If we simply wait for them to come back to church later in adulthood, not only will most of those people never return, but also we would miss the chance to alter their life trajectory during a critical phase” — not to mention the energy and gifts they offer the church during early adulthood.

Kinnaman says twentysomethings have legitimate issues with churches. For one thing, they have confidence in their ability to lead but feel overlooked as potential church leaders. When the opportunity for leadership comes, they want hands-on application and one-on-one mentoring, not classroom lectures.

“Their disenchantment has raised questions for churches related to relevance, discipleship, authenticity, the use of art and technology in ministry, relationships, music, learning styles and teaching, teamwork, leadership hierarchy, stewardship and much more,” he adds. “On the flip side of the coin, young adults — many who have grown up in unhealthy families — struggle with character issues, with relational isolation brought on by their hyper-individualism, with Bible familiarity and with being over-critical of their elders. Consequently, many of the legitimate questions get lost in the jumble of generational warfare.”

Such skirmishes involve far more than squabbles over what kind of music to sing in church, teaching/preaching styles and the like. American culture is changing so fast that effective intergenerational communication requires the commitment to learn whole new languages. Failure to make that commitment may determine whether many of our children continue in the faith and pass it on to others.

The church has one huge advantage that other institutions lack: Every person, young or old, hungers to worship God and know His purposes. That’s why young people lost in a rudderless, leaderless society continue to search for eternal meaning and vital participation.

We can give it to them. But we’d better find ways they can understand and embrace. They won’t buy into the same old, same old.
Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice each month in Baptist Press.

Missions for twentysomethings:

Giving to international missions:

How far does the Cooperative Program reach?:

The International Mission Board is a Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.

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  • Erich Bridges