Jin Kim maintains that creativity and trying new things are crucial to drawing young people back to the church. That was a focal point of a session on reaching the post-boomer generations during the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s third annual Big Tent meeting in Louisville, Ky.
Speaking Aug. 3 on the topic of attracting young people to the church along with Presbyterian Mission Agency Young Adult Catalyst Rob Fohr, Kim talked about the need for more innovation in drawing the younger generation into the church.
“Presbyterians are a modest people. Our functioning congregations do our education and missions. We’re fine and not worried about succeeding as much as we are not failing,” said Kim, pastor of Church of All Nations in Minneapolis, Minn. “We’re not creative. We don’t try new things. We get things going to minimal viability, sort of like being on life support. If that’s the case then we should lock the doors and shut down.”
Kim said churches need to take a high-risk, low-anxiety approach to attracting millennials (those people ages 18-30) and conducting worship, adding that young adults are needed if the church is going to survive.
“We know if young adults do not join the church then there will not be a church,” he said. “The church is one generation away from extinction. I will serve the PCUSA loyally, but our congregations need to be prepared for a post-denominational dispensation.”
The PCUSA lost 100,000 members in 2012, dropping its membership to around 1.85 million.
“As a living church, we are looking at one more generation,” Kim repeated. “Why must the church continue in its institutional form? I don’t know why we are obsessed with saving the PCUSA. We don’t need to let things die with grace, but we shouldn’t commit euthanasia either.”
Kim reiterated a need to be bold in trying new things.
“We need to be daring, growing, learning, about trying new things,” he said. “Our sessions are scared to try new things for fear of failing. We need to try innovative ventures. We need to be attentive to how the Holy Spirit is moving, and if it keeps moving, we need to catch it, wherever it blows.”
Kim labeled the PCUSA a “culturally conservative denomination” that is “membership poor but real estate rich,” calling for that property to be put to use to help young adults who have debt, may not be in the job they want or need, or have adequate housing.
He said Church of All Nations, where he is pastor, had empty Sunday school classes that were opened up to provide housing accommodations for young people in the Minneapolis area.
“You construct a community young adults are looking for,” he explained. “You open up the space to create a community, it brings them into worship, and they invite others. It provides a family system.”
Kim admitted that the phrase, “We’ve never done it that way,” often is muttered by church leaders and members alike. That’s the point.
“Be creative, be innovative in reaching young people,” he said.
Observing that young people are looking for interaction, Kim stressed the need to offer stability and concreteness for them while expressing authentic faith.
“There’s no institution better suited for that than the local church,” he said. “We need to be real with one another and share more testimonies of what is going on in our lives. That’s real.”
He spoke of pastors monopolizing the pulpit and the need for the church to be given back to the people, in an orderly fashion, to help with the renewal of the institution.
“If we take the time to understand, care for and minister to these young people, we have a serious opportunity to reach them and engage them in worship,” Kim said. “It’s not just about the pastor. The members are responsible for evangelizing and making disciples. It’s the pastor’s job to equip members to do that.”
The multigenerational church
Fohr looked at ways to reach millennials by engaging them with older generations within the church.
“We, as a church, have a tremendous opportunity to connect with young adults and help them experience that transformation for Christ,” he said. “We have to find how that (18-30) generation fits in with other generations of the church.”
Fohr cited a passage of lamentation and hope from the Book of Ezra. The passage, taken from verses 10-13 of the book’s third chapter, refers to the temple not being what it once was, leading some to shout praises to the Lord while others wept aloud. Some lamented over what it once was; others saw hope and new possibilities for the future. It’s a comparison that can be made for today’s Presbyterian Church (USA).
“The church is a place where generations of all ages can come together and associate,” he said. “Yes, we need young adults, but we need other generations as well. They need each other for the church to survive.”
Noting that the average age of PCUSA members is 61, Fohr referenced a multigenerational perspective from a 2011 article entitled “Mix It Up,” written by Adrienne Fox in HR Magazine. He examined six generations dating back to 1901, explaining what was going on during that specific generation and what kind of people emerged.
Millennials, those born between 1981-1995, have lived through an age of advancing technology, are Internet savvy, have been exposed to more diversity and have been brought up in a peerlike parenting model. They tend to be well-rounded, optimistic, have a desire to be coached and receive feedback, and have a need for increased responsibility.
He also cited a statistic that showed a fifth of the U.S. population and a third of those under the age of 30 have no affiliation with religion and are classified as “Nones.”
The millennials the church is trying to reach have a desire to put their faith into action. Fohr said they seek societal transformation (behaving), they reflect theologically on their faith in action (believing), and they seek a community to carry out such acts of faith (belonging).
Fohr added that the church can offer the opportunity for young adults to engage in such actions if it breaks free of some of its institutionalism and seeks more creative and innovative ways to connect with them, as Kim proposed.