The Younger People Problem

Old South is an older congregation. Average age is probably somewhere in the low 70s. Like other congregations of its age and size, there is a general sense of fretfulness about our circumstances. How long will we be able to continue? Where are the younger people? Do we have any hope in attracting younger people?

Hallowell, the small city where Old South is located, is an older community (median age around 50), but there are some young people around, especially in the neighboring communities (even though Maine continues to be the oldest state in the country). Occasionally, a single young person (and by that, I mean anyone under the age of 40), a couple, or a young family, will join us for worship. They look around, notice the gray hair and wrinkles, and we never see them again—most of the time.

Though not often, there have been times when I’ve been able to have a follow up conversation (or email exchange) with one of these younger people who has come to worship at Old South only once. Usually, they report that the congregation was friendly enough, and the service fine (though traditional), but they want to be somewhere where there are other younger people.

So, we have a problem. We can’t attract younger people without younger people already present, and we haven’t been able to convince enough of those younger visitors to stick with us and to help us change things. If only we could convince all of the younger visitors we’ve had over the last year or two to come on one particular Sunday, we would look different. We would have, though not a large group of younger people, certainly a noticeable number of younger people. And, I don’t think it would take long for us to feel and act differently too. But, younger people don’t seem to want to be a part of the transformation of an established church.

It’s difficult to inspire an older congregation to act “younger,” when they are not. In fact, I have a very vivid memory of an argument I had a few years ago with a long time Old South member. At the time, I was experimenting with some new things in worship (though I can’t remember what it was exactly) and had convinced the congregation to use a little extra pledge money to hire a Christian Ed director (even though we only had a few children). It was an experiment in “If we build it, will they come?”

The long-time Old South member was angry, and angry with me. He asked pointedly, “Why are trying to minister to people who aren’t even here? You should focus on the people you have instead—before you lose them.” He was, obviously, not interested in a “if we build it, will they come” experiment. And, yet this same person frets a lot about our dwindling numbers and our aging congregation.

It’s hard for good church folk to understand that, if they want the church to continue, then they must be open to change—and more than that, they must be willing to be leaders in change, as well as willing participants.

But, I also share their irritation regarding that occasional younger visitor who is looking only for a church that already meets her/his needs, rather than being part of the transformation of an older church. While significant changes will be hard for Old South, there are at least a few who would be willing, I think, to engage in collaborative, transformative work with younger people. It’s frustrating that Old South’s commitment and eagerness to be friendly to newcomers—young and old—is not enough for our younger visitors to convince them even to consider a longer commitment.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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