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Does the Church have a Gen Next Future?

Tuesday, 6 September 2016  | Tom Sine

‘Does the Church Have a Future?’ Churches throughout the western world have been asking this question for decades. But as we race towards the 2020s, I want you to consider a new, even more immediate question: ‘Does the Church Have a Gen Next future?’

I suspect the answer to this question might also help answer the first question. However, to answer this question I will share some good news and some bad news. I also will describe one creative way to start transforming the bad news into good news, with leaders inviting the creativity of ‘gen next’ and God's good help. If you give this pathway a try, you might discover a more promising gen next future. You might even, in the process, discover how your congregation might become more actively involved in serious changemaking in your own community.

First, the good news. God is at work, not only through people of faith, but also through people of compassion who are bringing welcome change to our world in what some are calling an ‘innovation revolution’. In the last ten years, there has been a veritable explosion of new forms of social entrepreneurship and community empowerment that is bringing remarkable change in the lives of our most vulnerable neighbours, both locally and globally.

The digital generations

And this good news gets better! Much of this new changemaking is being led by young social innovators in Australia and around the world by Generation Y (those born between 1981 and 1997) and Generation Z (those born between 1998 and 2014).

As the first digital generations, these young people are far more aware of the daunting new social, economic and environmental challenges facing our neighbours all over the planet. Most importantly, a surprising number of them want to invest their lives in creating innovative ways to solve these global problems.

For example, Elliot Costello left his position in Australia’s business world to start an action organisation called YGAP, comprising young innovators committed to making poverty history. One of its strategies is to start restaurants that operate as social enterprises, such as the Feast of Merit in Melbourne, a communal dining house serving North Indian cuisine with locally sourced food and beverages. Volunteers staff the restaurant, which enables most of their profits to be invested into job training programs in Ghana, Cambodia and Australia.

‘The traditional model of doing social and charitable good when you have reached a certain level of economic wealth, namely later in life, is no longer viable’, observes Claritta Peters, a student involved in the social enterprise movement in the UK. ‘This generation wants their entire lives to make a difference, not just to contribute a share of their discretionary resources as they prosper’.

I suspect that God might be using these young people, largely outside the church, to remind followers of Jesus that we are called to be people of compassion, creativity and action. God is challenging us to move beyond token handouts and instead to create innovative new ways to enable the needy to become self-reliant.

I attended the SOCAP Conference on social entrepreneurship in San Francisco in 2013. As one who seeks to track social innovation, I was stunned by the number of young people I met who wanted to invest their entire lives in serious changemaking. I realised it would no longer be enough for me to simply write about making a difference; I needed to get back on the field of play again. The next day, my wife and I went to a nearby cafe that is very big on local sustainable food. When I looked up from my menu, I noticed that all the wait staff were wearing black T shirts that read: ‘Eat like you give a damn!’ I blurted out ‘that's it...I need to start living like I give a damn!’ I am now a volunteer in a community empowerment program called Lake City Future First.

The bad news

Now here’s the inevitable bad news: in terms of the next generation, most of the church doesn’t seem to have a future. In 2015, Damian Thomas argued that ‘churches are in deep trouble’ in the UK, pointing to the greying of the church and declining attendance, slowed down only due to immigration. Most importantly, an increasing number of millennials in Britain – the ‘nones’ - are choosing not to be a part of churches, with ‘the proportion of respondents who say they have no religion [rising] from 15 per cent in 2001 to 25 per cent in 2011’. The same trend is apparent in the US; and in Australia the proportion identifying as Christian declining from 96% in 1911 to 61.1% in 2011, including a more than 7% decline in the last decade. Again, the decline is more noticeable among the young.

In all 3 countries, the young are unlikely to come back when they are married with kids. So, unless something changes in the coming decade, a growing number of churches are not likely to have a future.

There’s one more bit of bad news. Under-35s who do stay inside the church will not have the same levels of discretionary income as their parents’ and grandparents’ generations when they got started, due to high rent, the higher cost of living and tertiary debt. This means that those who continue to go to church won’t be able to support their churches as generously as older members.

It’s time for reinvention

What is clear is that simply putting on a more ‘hip show’ to attract the under-35s isn't working any more. This age group is so concerned about addressing the urgent human needs of others that they have little interest in investing their time and money in an organisation whose de-facto mission seems to be institutional maintenance, which seems to be where 85% to 90% of congregants’ time and money is invested.

UK Anglican Bishop Graham Cray calls this preoccupation with church maintenance the ‘Whirlpool Factor’: ‘The more you are around church, the more you are drawn into its maintenance. Its need for our money, time and talents…’. Bishop Cray challenges us to reinvent our churches as launch pads for mission to those outside and spaces for nurturing more serious whole-life discipleship within.

So, where do we begin if we want to seriously engage the next generation? I urge pastors and church leaders to invite the changemaking generation to bring their creative ideas for local community. ‘Millennials have an unparalleled thirst to participate and co-create with the brands they love’, writes Christie Garton, a millennial social entrepreneur and author. Garton encourages executives to invite millennials’ creative ideas on both product design and marketing strategies.

The best place to start is with the teens and twenty and thirty year olds who are still a part of your church community. Set up a time to walk around your neighbourhood and ask them what issues they are most concerned about. Then invite them to share their innovative ideas for engaging those opportunities. Enable them to select and, importantly, to implement one or two of their best ideas.

Let me share an example. Innové is a social enterprise competition in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, USA. The Colonial Church in this community received $2 million for the sale of some of their land. They decided to use a generous portion of these proceeds for annual social enterprise competitions for millennials in their region, inviting under-35s to make a real difference in the lives of their neighbours. The competition is open to any young people in their area, whether they are church-related or not.

Leah Driscoll won first place in Innové's first competition. She started by identifying an urgent need: nearly 300,000 people in the Twin Cities didn’t have access to grocery stores or fresh produce where they lived. Leah's social innovation was to create the Twin Cities Mobile Market by redesigning an old city bus as a travelling grocery store that goes to different neighbourhoods every day. People in the church have been supporting Leah and her team with coaching and mentoring.

So here is the ‘secret sauce’: if you invite the ideas of young people and take their ideas seriously, it will not only make a difference in their lives and those of your neighbours, it will also make a difference in your church. It will communicate that you value them, their ideas and their participation. I think you will see an immediate difference in how they relate to your church. When you take them and their ideas seriously then they will have a sense of ownership. Then they will not just show up out of loyalty to their parents - it will be their church, too!

I suspect you will also discover that you not only enjoy the presence of the young, but also their concerns, passion and their leadership. This could lead to not only engaging and involving the next generation, but also to members of all ages becoming more involved in the lives of those in their communities.

But those of us who are older need to be warned! This younger generation is not only deeply concerned with the wellbeing of the most vulnerable. They also want to see more of us who claim to be followers of the radical way of Jesus ‘walk the talk’. Reaching out to the under-35s may result in us not only reinventing our churches, but also in upping our game and becoming more serious whole-life disciples of Jesus. Are you ready to join this changemaking celebration and join those that live like they give a damn?

Tom Sine is the author of Live Like You Give A Damn! Join the Changemaking Celebration. For more information, visit www.changemakers.com.

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