Churches can keep young people loyal by becoming important to them, say the authors of a book on how the church can be essential.
Essential churches simplify how they make disciples, deepen the content they provide members, raise expectations and multiply themselves, said Thom Rainer and his son Sam Rainer at a conference April 28 at Apex Baptist Church.
The Rainers wrote “Essential Church: Reclaiming a Generation of Dropouts” based on a recent study of 1,000 people and 20 years of previous research.
The conference was the first event other than the Baptist State Convention (BSC) annual meeting to be live-streamed over the BSC web site. BSC officials said about 45 people watched the conference over the Internet from as far away as Ohio, California and overseas. About 150 people attended in person.
Thom Rainer is president of LifeWay Christian Resources. Sam Rainer is an associate pastor at Sarasota Baptist Church in Florida.
Sam Rainer said 70 percent of people who leave the church, drop out when they are 18 to 22 years old. About 78 percent of those who stay in church say it is important or essential to them, but less than three in 10 of those who drop out say that, he said.
“It’s a problem of urgency, and it’s a problem of mission,” he said.
Taking a break
The top reason young people give for leaving is that they simply want to take a break from church, Sam Rainer said.
“That breaks my heart,” he said. “Church, to them, was a chore.”
The second highest reason for leaving is because church members seem judgmental or hypocritical.
Other reasons include going to college, work responsibilities, moving, too busy, not feeling connected to the church, disagreeing with the church, choosing friends over the church and went to church only to please other people.
“Valid or not, it is what they perceive, and it’s what we must deal with,” Sam Rainer said.
The Rainers offered four ways churches can become essential.
First, they should have a simple, clearly defined process of discipleship.
Thom Rainer suggested aligning the church’s mission statement with that process.
Essential churches will also provide deep, relevant content.
Sam Rainer said there are four myths about church dropouts — secular universities push them away; they’re planning to leave; the media is to blame; and depth and relevance are mutually exclusive.
“It’s a myth that you cannot go deep and connect with the younger generation,” he said.
Thom Rainer talked about what makes people stay in church.
“You’re going to lose a generation if you do not take them deep in God’s word,” he said.
Three components of depth are the pastor and preaching; small groups or Sunday School; and personal devotion and Bible study, Thom Rainer said.
Essential churches raise the bar of expectations, and churches that are “nonchalant about membership” make themselves non-essential, Sam Rainer said.
Two thirds of young people who stayed in church said they could not see themselves as vibrant Christians without the church, he said, even though they knew their churches weren’t perfect.
Thom Rainer said churches can raise expectations in small groups, through the pastor and in an entry class.
About 83 percent of people who are still in church five years after joining got involved in small group.
Sam Rainer said high expectations begin in the pulpit.
“Your church does listen to you,” he told pastors. “They do put a lot of weight in what you say.”
Thom Rainer said entry point or new member classes should include information about the church and expectations of church membership.
Essential churches also multiply, according to the Rainers. Sam Rainer talked about reclaiming people who are no longer involved in church. He said church members should invite their friends and family, and the church should be tight knit.
“Our churches used to be where it all happened, good or bad,” he said. “We’ve lost that sense of community.”
Thom Rainer said statistics show that older people are much more likely to attend church than younger people.
The younger people who attend, though, are serious about Bible study and ministry, he said.
“They’re even serious about dying for the gospel if necessary,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you reach this generation, you’re reaching a missionary force.”