Here’s The Church: Where Are All The Young People?

Oct 3, 2012

At 5:30 on a Sunday afternoon, the chapel at Hope Presbyterian Church on Walnut Grove has the feel of a rock concert. The lights are dark and the music is loud.

The more staid, traditional service is in the morning, but this late service was designed to appeal to a younger and less conventional crowd. It’s called The Stirring.

When Pastor Eli Morris climbs to the stage he’s wearing jeans and a black t-shirt. Morris isn’t part of the target age-group. He’s 58 with long, gray hair and a goatee, but he clearly enjoys the free-wheeling atmosphere.

“I think it is a sin to bore anybody with what you consider to be the best news on the planet. But the church has had this historic problem with boring people to tears and I just don’t do that. I will not do that. I will quit before I get boring,” Morris said.

According to research by the Pew Forum, one in four young Americans say they are not religiously affiliated. That’s double the number of young people who said the same thing in 1970s and 1980s. Young adults are also praying less and attending religious services less.

Hope Presbyterian Church has more than 7,000 members and they work hard to keep in contact with them, so Morris says the church noticed it was losing its young members around the time they went off to college. Some of those young people switched churches, or moved away permanently, but Morris says too often they are in the Memphis-area and simply not attending church.

“We did understand that although we have been very successful with Baby Boomers even with Gen Xers, the next generation, the Millennial kind of person, they don’t seem to be coming back,” Morris said.

The church makes phone calls and sends mailers, but Morris says the best way to get a lapsed Christian back to worship is to have a friend invite them. That’s what he is trying to do with The Stirring.

“You try to put together a service that is winsome enough that somebody might want to bring a friend,” Morris said.

Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church has had a similar problem keeping connected with its young members. The church now streams online, tweets, and sends DVDs of Sunday worship services to college dorm rooms.

Youth Pastor Dan White recently bought a better phone because, as he puts it, “Young adults, they’re tech savvy, so they want to text you.”

White stresses the need for fellowship for young adults because while technology may draw some young people in, it won’t keep them coming back.

On a recent Friday night, 30 or so young adults came to the church to snack on chicken wings and play board games. Janae Pitts-Murdock was there. She’s a pastor and has always been involved with a church, but she says youth outreach hasn’t always been easy.

“One of my greatest challenges is finding the church that fits me … that has the mix of relationships and the type of people that I can actually connect with.” Pitts-Murdock said.

One church that has a healthy young adult following is New Direction Christian Church, which has locations in Hickory Hill and Collierville. New Direction was founded by the former youth pastor at Mississippi Boulevard when he was in his 30s and unlike Mississippi Boulevard, New Direction says most of their members are under 40.

When Sunday service starts at the New Direction Youth Campus on Winchester, the lights are dim, but the music is very loud. About 130 teenagers sway and dance. During alter call, some even weep.

New Direction has also noticed that many of its teenage members stop going to church around the time they go off college. To combat this trend, New Direction Youth Pastor Jerrod Gunter spends as much time as he can outside of the church.

“I’ll show up at your prom; I’ll show up at your basketball game,” Gunter said. “It is about relationship—relationship, relationship.”

Alexander Jackson is 19 and plays electric bass during the New Direction youth service. Jackson is studying music education at the University of Memphis and says he has noticed a lot of his peers move away from the church.

“I’ve missed church a couple times due to college life,” Jackson said, but he’ll keep coming back. As a member of the band, he’d be missed if he stopped showing up.