Attracting young people to church. Or not

You may have noticed that in industries in decline the workforce becomes increasingly older. It’s attrition. New typically younger workers are not hired, while existing workers hang onto their jobs as their skills age out and become less relevant to industries that are growing and adopting new technologies requiring new skills.

In some industries age of the employees affects demand for the product. There’s a reason you don’t see many fifty year-olds serving customers at Hooters. It’s age discrimination of course, driven by the preferences of the customers.

Hooters in decline is one thing. But in my hypothetical, if management is not allowed to move older employers into less visible areas of its operation it would decline faster.

Some businesses decline because they fall out of favor with young people. Who ever thought that would happen to Levis? But it did, perhaps because boomers never grew up and gave up their Levis. Would you wear the same brand of jeans that your parents wear and think is cool? There it is: another form of customer-based discrimination.

Finally, some businesses face another difficulty with those pesky customers. They sell a product or service, but some customers are more costly to serve than others. The classic example is health insurance, but there are others. Take, for example, banks. Some customers come into the bank frequently for small transactions. Others holding similar bank balances visit less frequently requiring less face time with tellers. For them banking is not the social event of the day. Banks want to discriminate between these two kinds of customers, but aren’t allowed to do so directly. Solution: reduce the number of tellers and install ATMs. Time in line may increase but that’s a cost to the customer. A few customers grudgingly switch to using ATMs. Many gleefully switch to the ATM. Banks that don’t follow suit lose the cheap-to-serve customers.

We know that membership in mainline churches is declining. As is widely known that’s because religiosity is falling among younger cohorts. The knock-on effect is that congregations are getting older. The young prefer to, um, congregate where there are people close to their age — the Levis effect.

The Great Recession is raising the average age of active clergy. As Martyn Marty is just the latest to observe:

I have kept on file last Fall’s Colloquy, published by The Association of Theological Schools. It leads off with frank language which almost summarizes the current situation: “Current prospects for theological school graduates are defined by several trends. * The job openings available to graduates have been steadily declining in number for the past four years. * Increasing numbers of MDiv graduates are undecided about full-time positions expected after graduation. * Those expecting parish ministry positions have declined. * In response to the economic depression, many retirement age pastors are choosing to postpone retirement. * The annual income required for servicing educational debt may limit job options for new graduates. * Placement and vocational counseling services consistently rank low among measures of student satisfaction.” There it is.

There’s a knock-on Hooters effect (how large it is an open question), one pointed out by Peter Brierley, former head of Christian Research:

“Ministers tend to attract members of their age, so to attract young people you need a younger minister.”

Where’s our checklist? Do churches have Levi’s problem? Check. Hooter’s problem? Check.

What about the costly-to-serve customer problem? Yep. Here it is, in the words of Jenny Williams: not%20so%20much.jpg

One of the reasons denominations die is that we pastors are expected to spend a disproportionate amount of our time serving as chaplains. The membership of my own denomination is aging. I spend significantly more time with very elderly people than I do with anyone under 50. I am not intending to disparage these saints of the church or say that vitality only exists in young people. That the pastor is the one who is expected to visit is one example of the problem we have gotten ourselves into. Baptism, not ordination, is the authorization for ministry.

I don’t have an easy answer for that. Many of us give lip service to pastoral visitation from lay persons. But when it comes down to it we want the clergy there, we demand a pastoral church like our parents had. (Members with that attitude are costly-to-serve just for that reason.) Can clergy change these attitudes? How many clergy actually prefer things just that way?

So what do you think? Should we kick off a decade of evangelism (didn’t we try that?) with an early retirement plan funded by the Church Pension Group? Is the time auspicious — has the culture war within The Episcopal Church turned a corner so that young people are less likely to be driven away? Afterall, Mary Glasspool’s consecration barely caused a ripple inside or outside the church, or the Communion.

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