Technology is quickly evolving, causing significant changes in culture that affect churches as they seek to engage younger generations, according to the Rev. Carol Howard Merritt.
Although church members from other generations do not have to embrace the technology and methods of communications of those in their 30s and younger, it is important to have an understanding of how those technologies and cultural changes affect how the younger generations lives, said Rev. Merritt, who is leading the annual Theologian-in-Residence lecture series at Tusculum College. The Theologian-in-Residence series is co-sponsored by the Holston Presbytery and Tusculum College with funding assistance from Ron Smith.
“Many churches were formed in a certain time period and now we must realize that this is a time when the family structure looks different, work structure looks different and our society looks different, said, Rev. Merritt, author of “Tribal Church” and “Reframing Hope” and co-host of God Complex Radio and blogger for Christian Century and Huffington Post. “It is difficult and oftentimes it can cause intergenerational tension.”
Three things that often get in the way when churches try to minister in a new time and a new way, she said, are the differences between customs and traditions, the “invisible rule book” and desecration of the sacred.
Author Diana Butler Bass has written about the differences between customs and traditions, defining customs as things that people do year after year and defining traditions as those things that embody who a congregation is and have a greater historical meaning, she noted.
For example, Rev. Merritt said when she served as a pastor at a church in urban Washington, D.C., she was charged with getting more of the young families to come to the Wednesday night dinner. The custom was the Wednesday night dinner and the traditions it represented included building relationships and studying Scripture together intergenerationally.
When she implemented changes she thought would attract younger families such as making child care available and implementing new programs, still no one came. Finally, one member told her that their work schedule and family responsibilities made it physically impossible to return to downtown D.C. for the dinner.
In discussing the issue, one member suggested that Wednesday night dinner be taken to people’s neighborhoods. Families from the church in various neighborhoods began hosting the dinner in their homes and then having Bible study afterwards, Merritt continued, and attendance went from six people to a 100 people meeting at homes throughout the D.C. area.
“As church leaders, we may not always be able to keep customs going because work structures look different and the culture looks different,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that traditions are not important. They are important to the identity of the church, who we are as Christians, who we are in our communities and our work in the community.”
The “invisible rule book” can also be a stumbling block for new members and young adults, who may not know the unwritten rules that are just understood by long-time members, Merritt said. Interested in becoming involved, they may find their suggestions are not given any positive response and become disengaged, she noted.
Church leaders have to find a delicate balance between being open to new ideas and getting people involved and looking to the wisdom of history, Rev. Merritt said.
The desecration of the sacred also causes some intergenerational friction, she continued. “When you have something holy and something sacred and someone comes in and tries to take it or change it around, you have a gut reaction to want to defend it.”
“Imagining our intergenerational ministry and trying to engage younger generations using technology as a way in which we tell our stories while realizing the importance of the sacred things – keeping and protecting them, can be a incredibly difficult job for many of us. So many pastors tell me that sometimes they feel like they are pastors of two different churches.”
A recent Pew survey showed that an increasing number of people who say they are spiritual but not religious which contrasts with a survey about 50 years ago when a large number of people said they are religious but not spiritual, she noted.
Some experts say that this reflects anti-institutionalism embraced by the younger generations and the narcissism found in society, she said, while others say that it shows a longing for God, to connect with God and worship God in a meaningful way.
The average adult in their 20s and 30s has been affected by the rise of school debt and uncertain employment situation, which has resulted in many having part-time jobs or having to change jobs frequently, she said. They have also been told they need to wait to get married until they are financially stable, Rev. Merritt continued, but then it seems you need to get married with two incomes to be financially stable.
“It is important for churches to understand that sometimes they are not able to commit to community and churches,” she said.
Young adults may be hesitant to come to church because they feel as if they must have a good job, spouse and children to be accepted, she said, and others who wait to get married until they are older may be ashamed of that fact.
This nomadic generation has learned how to remain connected with each other through such means as Facebook and Twitter, she said, and the church needs to be open to how it can make connections to this generation.
“As the body of Christ, we need to realize the promises of God are not just for us, and we need to always think about how we translate it to a new generation, to our children and our children’s children.”
Many young adults are not interested in being a member of a church, and Rev. Merritt said she talks to them about membership using the metaphor of being the member of a tribe, “to be cared for mind, body and spirit and to be able to care for others mind, body and spirit.”
Merritt will continue her discourse on Feb. 19 with a session about the importance of stories to younger adults. The series will conclude Feb. 26 with a look at how churches can faithfully respond to changes in culture.
The sessions begin at 10 a.m. in the Chalmers Conference Center in the Niswonger Commons on the Tusculum College campus. There is no charge to attend the lecture series, but reservations are required as lunch is provided in the college’s cafeteria. For more information or to register, please call 423-636-7304 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.