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Listen and learn to why they leave

One of the questions I have received from this column relates to the issue of how an older congregation might go about developing the capacity to meaningfully engage with younger generations.

Many Uniting churches have lost generations who now have nothing to do with church. We must take responsibility for this. It hasn’t been intentional, but nor has it happened inexplicably.

Many churches in Brisbane are full of young people. If ours isn’t, there are reasons. Church historian, Richard Fletcher quips that “the church is only ever one generation away from extinction.” If we miss a generation, we must prioritise re-engagement.

This is a journey I personally experienced at Toowong Uniting Church as the congregation transitioned from being a smaller, elderly congregation to one predominantly made up of young adults and young families. It is a complex issue, but here is a starting point.

We need to see ourselves through the eyes of younger generations. At Toowong, I used to invite young secular friends to attend church. I would offer to shout them lunch afterwards if they would candidly tell me how they found the experience.

I pressed them to be brutally honest and searched for the barriers that prevented them from connecting. Feeding their insights back to the church council, it was telling how much of what we thought was “normal” appeared dreary, irrelevant and weird to people who had not grown up in the church. It provided insight into why generations had left.

Our churches offer the world an opportunity to experience God’s amazing grace. That hasn’t changed at all in the last 2000 years, but the packaging (language, culture, idiom, style) of our services is such that people can’t see the treasure. In other words, our way of doing church is so unusual to the non-churched that we might as well be speaking in a foreign language.

Until we carefully listen to the reasons why people aren’t coming, things are unlikely to change.

Of course, we then need to decide on our willingness to remove the cultural barriers that are preventing younger generations from participating in the astonishingly good news of God’s love and grace in Christ. Understanding the barriers is the easy part. Laying aside our preferences and making the necessary changes is the hard part.

To this end, we might give Jesus the final word: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

Simon Gomersall

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