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Rethink your church strategy

Ian Buchanan recommends that we now need to think in terms of intergenerational ministry

Ian Buchanan

Figure Image
photo: iStock

I’ve been thinking about 20th-century church growth logic.

I graduated from seminary in the 20th century. The church growth strategy that had been implanted in my imagination was similar to most other ministers from the 20th century: ‘When you’re leading a church, focus the congregation on the future of the church, the youth.’

Logically, the first agenda item for a new minister became the employment of a youth minister. And the logic seemed sound back then. After all, for most of human history young people have outnumbered older people. They were the largest market segment.

The Boston Matrix

In the 20th century the Boston Matrix was one of the business tools that some church leaders found helpful as they grew their churches. This matrix allows you to divide ‘your markets’ and your subsequent ‘product offerings’ into four distinct segments.

The two really important segments for churches were the ‘STARS’ where new growth, new products and the future lies and then there are the ‘CASH COWS’. This unfortunate use of a bovine image allows you to identify your ‘established markets’, ones that can be ‘milked’ in order to feed the more exciting outreach into the future, into those ‘STARS’.

I don’t know how widespread the use of the Boston Matrix became but I noticed that it clarified what many churches were doing instinctively. The church needed to focus on the youth and get the older folk (read: people in the second half of life) to give their all to ensure that young people came, stayed and brought in their parents. The future of the church was young people in families, or so we were told.

Unhealthy trajectory

Two Americans, the editor of The Journal of Youth Ministry, Thomas Bergler and Professor of Youth and Family Ministry, Andrew Root, have helped 21st century churches to see the unhealthy trajectory of this strategy as it worked itself out in our churches, on both sides of the Atlantic, in the second half of the 20th century.

Without wanting to rehash their well-documented theses, essentially they note that evangelicals have unwittingly juvenilised the church by buying into a church growth strategy that does not exist in the Bible.

Amplifying the error

21st century-Western culture is amplifying our error and our growing post-Christian UK culture is raising the volume on this idea. We’ve entered the 21st century distinctly nervous about the inevitability of ageing and even, for some, subsequent maturity. As Oliver James aptly notes in his book Affluenza, we’ve create an immature 21st-century culture built on four inter-related cornerstones. Money, possessions, fame and good looks now underpin the good life. And guess who seem to undermine these beautiful new foundations? Older people!

Let me put it bluntly. We’re talking about people in the second half of life, those useful ‘cash cows’. People becoming ever more an economic drain on the health service and, inevitably, people who are becoming visually less appealing. We’ve created a culture of anti-ageing, a foolish attempt to avoid the inevitable. So one generation now looks at the other as an ugly reminder of what they are trying to avoid.

Change of mindset for 21st C

21st-century demographics are calling out for a mindset change. Let’s step back and take a look at the reality of living in the 21st century in the northern hemisphere. This is not a backdrop that 20th century churches would have understood. The bottom line is that the 21st century will see very high and growing percentages of people in the second half of life and, logically, reducing percentages of people in the first half of life. Whatever the causes may be, and whether we like it or not, this is our new reality.

According to the UN, by 2050 the northern hemisphere will see ever-growing percentages of people over 55 years old. This is already a reality in both Italy and Japan and will now become a reality for all of us in just 35 years’ time. As for the evangelical church in the UK, well, we look like we’re accelerating the ageing process.

Apparently, as the average age in the UK rises we evangelicals are ageing even faster. We’re doing this by retaining people in the second half of life and losing people (or simply not drawing them in) from the first half of life. Current data shows that only London and the West Midlands are bucking this trend and that is primarily due to immigration.

The UK church of the 21st century is going to have to think fast about how we deal with issues associated with ageing. Issues like dementia, growing levels of loneliness, architectural changes that redesign whole cities around populations with high percentages of well-worn bodies, and older people who are healthier, live longer and have more money than their predecessors. Recently-retired baby boomers will test our resolve to change. They are not willing to be passively baby-sat or even ‘milked’ but prefer to be on the cutting edge of active ministry. And they have a history of rebelling against the inherited order.

What does the Bible say?

What does the Bible say about intergener-ational church growth? Does the Bible suggest a way to escape our 20th-century obsession with a one-generation-focussed ministry? I think it does, but it’ll require us to allow the Holy Spirit to regrind the lenses we brought to the Bible in the 20th century. Lenses shaped by fierce individualism, fear of ageing and a suspicion of any authoritative guides on the journey of life.

The Bible unashamedly retains an old-fashioned idea that our forefathers could see, but one that we have overlooked. It’s called intergenerational ministry. God seems to assume something that we don’t, that his people will ensure that all generations are working together in God’s mission.

In Psalm 145 David extols the joy of one generation encouraging another generation in the journey of growing Christlikeness. And at the birth of the church Peter quotes the prophet Joel in Acts 2, as he foretells a day when God will pour out his Spirit on both genders and all generations. God seems to have ignored the 20th-century’s focus on one generation.

Return to biblical balance

But the regrinding of the lenses of our minds and a return to a more intergenera-tional church will require some important but do-able changes. And we must change, because an intergenerational church is merely restoring the biblical balance. I’m not suggesting that you fire your youth minister as his or her segment of the market shrinks. No, the 21st century will require more radical thinking than that.

We should now be able to ask: ‘If you have a youth minister, do you also have a minister to older people?’ And we could add: ‘Do you ensure that they work together rather than in those old-fashioned 20th century silos that kept the generations apart?’

But, of course, this challenge is not only aimed at church leaders. People in the second half of life will also have to be challenged to rebel against an unbiblical idea so prevalent in the 21st century. Let’s call the idea the ‘check-out-Saga-mentality’. You know what I mean: ‘I’ve done my bit and now that I’m retired, I’m checking out and going golfing or cruising for the next 20 years.’ I’m burying myself even more deeply into ‘me’ and not into the mission of God through his church. They heard us tell them that they’re not the main focus and now they have the audacity to take us at our word.

Loving family

You see, the future 21st-century intergenera-tional church will look more like a loving family than a results-driven firm trying to reshape its product to meet the needs of different age-defined market segments. We’ll become a people characterised by older folk feeding off the passion and energy of the young whilst allowing them to learn and be mentored by the wisdom of those further along in the journey of life. We’ll start imitating the way a family naturally relates but a firm overlooks.

Historically the future of the church was never dependent on young people. It always depended on all of God’s people working together to show the world that God uses all people and all generations at all times. The demographic reality of the 21st century may well be our cue to return to that founding assumption of church life.

Ian Buchanan is Director of Marketing and Communications for the Pilgrims’ Friend Society.

A survey asking for your experience of older people’s ministry in your church can be found at www.pilgrimsfriend.org.uk