Young congregations

For many congregations, it’s like the holy grail — What should we do about the sea of gray heads at worship? How can we get more young people involved?

The U.S. Congregational Life Survey has found that the average congregation has a median age of 52 — meaning that half the worshipers are above that age and half below. That’s several years older than the average age of the population in this country. So the aging of congregations, particularly in mainline denominations, is a significant concern.

But the survey also found that congregations with more young people do have some distinctive characteristics. For example, congregations with a younger-than-average age profile tend to have a strong sense of belonging — they’re places where people really feel a part of things.

Young worshipers seem to be attracted to places of worship where they feel at home and where they make strong friendships — perhaps it’s a reaffirmation of the importance of relationships to many young people. That sense of belonging keeps younger worshipers committed and involved and goes contrary to the myth that older people are more likely to feel emotionally invested in a congregation or to consider it their “church family.”

The average age in a congregation doesn’t seem to influence how much or in what ways worshipers participate in congregational life. Congregations with lots of older people are just as likely as those with lots of younger people to be places where small groups are thriving or where lots of worshipers share in leadership tasks. Likewise, providing meaningful worship isn’t effected by the age profile of the congregation.

But congregations with lots of younger people tend to put more emphasis on caring for children and youth than do those with more older worshipers This may be a chicken-and-egg kind of thing: putting resources into programs for children and teenagers helps attract young families, and congregations that are full of families with young children understands that those parents want their children to be nurtured in faith and to be excited about what they are learning.

The survey also found, however, that congregations with lots of younger than average folks tend to be less involved in the community than are older congregations. Maybe younger congregations have needs of their own that tend to take priority — finding volunteers to run all those children’s programs, for example. And, with all the demands of jobs and families and school, perhaps younger worshipers have less time to dedicate to helping others — instead of working at the soup kitchen, they’re taking their kids to the dentist and working overtime. Older worshipers whose children are grown have more free time and discretionary income to devote to community service activities.

Younger congregations do tend to have a significantly higher percentage of new people — on average, four out of 10 who worship there began attending that congregation within the last five years. Conversely, in congregations with higher-than-average percentages of older people, only one in four of the worshipers began attending there within the last five years. For congregations that are growing both older and smaller, there is reason to be concerned.

Congregations that are younger than average do show greater strength, the survey found, in looking to the future. Older congregations need to put the future front-and-center, too. Rather than despairing about growing old and shutting the doors, some congregations are opening themselves up to change and taking on new challenges — intentionally reaching out, for example, to a neighborhood that’s changed and become more multi-cultural. Instead of reminiscing wistfully about what’s always been and what’s gone past, those congregations are looking ahead with creativity and faith to what could be.

Who knows? Maybe if they build it, start it, and open the doors, the young people indeed will come.