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New Generations Change the Face of Churches Over Time

Last month I took you on a journey back to an era 50 years ago, taking a look at church life in the Roanoke area at that time. Congregations that were new then are now middle-aged, and are either prospering or lagging. Some, long-established and influential back then, have now disappeared or are trying to reinvent themselves as older neighborhoods experience rebirth.

For me, as one who seeks to understand the present by reflecting on the past, it’s easier to look back than to imagine the future, but I recently got a taste of this through a day-long conference of my denomination. It was led by Sharon Ely Pearson, a Christian formation specialist for my church on the national level. Though aimed at Episcopal leaders in Western Virginia parishes, most of what Pearson told us applies to those who plan and teach Sunday school groups in many of the churches with which we’re most familiar.

She led us to imagine what church life will be like in 2020 — just a decade away. It goes without saying that the years will go by quickly — as all but the very youngest already know.

I’ll be old. Very old. I will quite possibly no longer be able to be active in my church, although I know a few of the age I’ll be who still get to services regularly, even if someone drives them. My unchurched daughter in rural Georgia and my son-in-law will be looking to Social Security and probably part-time jobs to pay the bills. I don’t see organized religion in their future, but both are people-centered.

My granddaughter, soon to be married and a teacher of young children, may well have some of her own. I wonder if their mother might be baptized when they are, for she has grown to adulthood without a church family. A young seminarian from a denomination different from my own will perform the wedding. The young couple –whom Pearson would probably say are “spiritual, not religious” –have visited several churches, typical of their 18-34 age group.

These family members are my personal connection to the national Christian educator’s reflections on American churches a decade from now.

How about this statistic? “If current trends continue, by 2020, 14.7 percent of Americans will be attending worship. Eighty-five percent of Americans will be staying away from worshipping God at a church.”

For the long-committed church person, that’s a shocking figure. Many around the Roanoke area can attest to this, for they’ve told me so. Long-time committed members grow frail and die. Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren do not take their places.

Still, there’s another side to the lack of church support. Some congregations–often the ones that have taken a denominational title out of their names — are indeed growing.  Their membership tends to be younger, conservative in their understanding of scripture, enthusiastic about mission trips and other hands-on projects, and receptive to the kind of self-help programs that are highly advertised. They will give as much as they can to close-by causes if they know someone affected by misfortune such as an unmerited crime or catastrophic illness.

Pearson, the Christian educator, knows about these churches. The pastors of most of them, she thinks, have successfully embraced the culture. The relatively narrow views that are preached in many of these churches are easier for young adults to grasp who have had little religious influence in their homes. In time, some will become more sophisticated from their life experiences. Others will drift away.

In addition to getting in the church-going habit at a large congregation with lots of activities, small literalist Bible study groups, upbeat music, an attractive place for children, and frequent fellowship times, people in the under-40 age groups are making trends. Pearson offered her audience some of these emerging trends that are often associated with Baby Boomer and GI generations.

Here are a few:

• Feel less obligation to be part of an organized body of believers in God who follow specific beliefs.

• Protestants, now about half those identified as active in a church, will no longer be the majority faith in America.

• Two new “stages of life” are real. One is young adults taking longer to find life / work commitment and to marry and those over 70 who are still employed or very much in the mainstream of life.

• Many different patterns of family life resulting from frequent divorces, unwed motherhood, interracial couples, grandparents rearing their grandchildren and gay couples who adopt. Medical care has also made handicapped children more visible.

• Rediscovering the impact of older generations in passing on values and customs, as some children “catch” a sense of God from their elders.

• The impact of the digital age with most churches now trying to make themselves known with a web site. But, as a couple of “computer geeks” informed their audience ,web sites are giving way to use of the social networks Facebook and Twitter in a field that changes too fast for many older churchgoers to comprehend.

• Numbers of adults who find their faith strengthened by such gatherings as 12 Step programs which are described as “spiritual” (God-centered) but not “religious” (with specific doctrines and practices).

Will all this affect our valley churches in the next decade? Some of it seems inescapable.

By France Stebbins
[email protected]

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