Monday, January 07, 2008

What's the model for the church?

A good friend and missions pastor at my church wrote some thoughts before Christmas:

Subject: Reaching the younger generations

A friend was telling me about going to a Christmas concert recently at one of the more traditional churches in town to see a friend who was involved in the production. He said everyone was dressed to the max and most of the crowd was over 60 and the music was targeted at that audience. My friend, a visitor to the church, said he couldn't find a seat. He was there plenty early but everyone had programs, coats and various articles of clothing strewn about to save seats for family members and apparently whole Sunday School classes. No one said much to him and very few stayed around after the program to fellowship. Based on my friend’s experience, it doesn’t seem like the church was much concerned with the visitors or the lost but mainly interested in pleasing their members.

It reminded me of the experience on our recent vacation cruise to the Caribbean. We were with mostly older people (older than Barbara and I and that is old) and had the same kind of trouble finding seats at the big shows. It dawned on me how much the traditional churches and cruise lines have in common. Like many churches, the cruise experience has stayed virtually the same for the past 50 years. And like most churches, the cruise ships are filled with mostly older people. Until just recently on most all large cruise lines there has been a strict dress code for the meals at night and always two formal nights when you absolutely had to wear a coat and tie. The shows generally were song and dance type of entertainment, to suit an elderly audience. Most of the shore excursions catered to the older crowd also. I don't know if the ships just program for the elderly because the elderly are more inclined to cruise or younger people don't cruise because many ships seem to cater only to the older crowd. But it has been my experience that 80% of those on the cruises are retirement age and up.

But that seems to be changing. Barbara and I were curious about a cruise ship line that we noticed in the Caribbean that we had never seen before. It was the Ocean Village line. I looked them up on the internet and found that they are a new cruise line targeting the 30 - 50 something age. I found it interesting that the cruise line business is just now making an effort to reach out to the younger generations. The Ocean Village line has no dress code for meals and no formal nights at all. The shows have more rock bands and comedians that appeal to the younger group. The shore excursions are more about activities than site seeing.
I can see the traditional cruiser complaining about how the cruises are changing and just going to hell. But the cruise line knows that there should be no reason why younger people don't take cruise vacations. They are a cheap, convenient and very practical way to vacation.
Theologians also know that the young need Christ as much as the old. They have asked some of the same questions about why so many churches have so few young people. Do young people stay away from church because the church caters so much to the older generations or do church leaders feel compelled to program for the elderly because their members are mostly old?

Grace Point is much like the Ocean Village Cruise Line. We purposed several years ago to reach the young and hopefully we will continue to be a vibrant church that is open, evangelistic and concerned about those who do not know Jesus Christ. There is a reason for our style of worship, the encouraged casual dress and the application oriented preaching. We want to reach the lost and the next generation of Christians. Let’s continue to strive to be a church always willing to change its methods without ever compromising the message of the Gospel.

Have a merry and Christ-filled Christmas. And bring your unchurched friends to our Christmas services. They are designed for them.

Here's my response:

These are good thoughts! I have been out of the country during the holidays, and only now getting a chance to dialogue a little about what you say here…No doubt the Ocean Village Cruise Line is a great model for reaching my generation with cruises! I’ve only been on one, and it was a lot of fun, but it sounds like I would really enjoy Ocean Village!

Some questions arise for me though when we compare the two cruise line models to the church. Don’t get me wrong, I think that the GP model is vastly superior to the country club model of so many churches in the US today! But some of these questions still nag at me, and I’d love to hear your and other’s thoughts:

How does a church decide what its target audience is going to be? Is the selection of programming for 30-50 year olds with kids mean that churches are excluding those outside the target? Certainly these are the realities of the business model that you are talking about, commonly called “church-growth”. If you market a product to the young, the old won’t want it. If you market for adults, teens and tweens won’t want it. Etc.

Should we band together as churches, and everyone pick a different market? GP can have the 30-50 group, but someone else has to take the 55+ group, and someone else the 20s, etc. Or should individual churches try to offer something for each group (probably a challenge for the average church)? What about different ethnic groups, or different languages; can we market something for everyone (okay, that would be challenging even for large churches!)?

And probably my most naggiest question: how come so many evangelical churches in the US, especially those who have the church growth model, end up picking middle-class families 30-50 as their target? How come the business-like church growth model doesn’t have a lot of examples of working among the working-class poor? Does the model work without funding?

It seems to me that models are used to get people in the door, or not. But only authentic community both attracts and keeps people in a church. “Look how they love each other” was the lost person’s exclamation of the early church. Is there a model for that?


pablo said...

I like this conversation. Here are my thoughts. Why do so many American "church-growth" churches target middle-class families 30-50? I can think of three reasons. One, they are seen less and less in non "church-growth" churches (that is, until they join that vicious circle of targeting to them). Two, they bring children and teenagers with them, and many churches are judged by their children and youth ministries.

Finally, for good and bad reasons, non-retired people don't like to walk into a church full of retired people (unless, like you say, the church is a warm and loving bunch). So they invent ways to attract younger families.

What I'd like to see is a church in a poor neighborhood, made up of poor people, that is attracting wealthy families because everyone can sense the Holy Spirit there!

Arnie Adkison said...

Amen to the poor church attracting wealthy people!