Monday, May 24, 2010

Reaching the Next Generation by Building a Sense of Community

Many churches are struggling to reach the next generation. A variety of programs might be utilized in such a situation as a way to reach out to young adults. But such programs come and go. Often what works in one context does not work in another. Perhaps instead of offering formal programs aimed at the next generation, churches might consider how they can build a sense of community for that generation.

Today's young adults are often lacking a sense of community. With a divorce rate hovering at 50%, the American family has been in trouble for more than a generation. The young people who have grown up in those families have had to shift back and forth from one parent's home to the other. They often have to deal with step families and the families of the boyfriends or girlfriends of their parents. Though some of these relationships last for a lifetime, many of them are in flux and it is hard for a young person to know where they fit in this ever changing family context. That leaves many young people looking for a sense of community outside their nuclear family.

It is not just the fluidness of the American family that has caused the next generation to lose their sense of community, but it is also tendency of American's to move frequently from one place to the next. According to the United States Census Bureau, the average American will move 11.7 times in their lifetime. Each time a young person moves he or she has to make new friends, find a new group to hang out with at school or compete for a spot on a sports team. Even trying to find the "right" table to sit at in the lunch room can be a challenge in some schools! All of this movement from one place to the next weakens a young person's sense of community.

Churches can help overcome this lack of community by trying to create a sense of belonging for young people. Though every church has its own unique personality, churches that roll out the red carpet for young people and help them feel wanted and accepted will soon find their seats filled with the individuals from next generation. Since young people naturally attract other young people through their interpersonal networks, once a church begins to draw in a few people in the next generation, others will follow.

There are numerous ways to create a sense of community, but two of the easiest are food and fellowship. When we share a meal together we share more than just nourishing food. We talk, we laugh, we tell stories, and we share our lives around the table as we eat. The meal itself is less important than the atmosphere of family that we create as we break bread together. Once friendships are formed, then fellowship begins to spill over into other areas of life. Soon we are going to the movies together, watching the Superbowl at each other's homes and playing card games until the wee hours of the morning. All of these types of activities help form a sense of community.

Some readers might be wondering what all this community building has to do with reaching the next generation with the Gospel. The reason building community is important is because most of today's young people want to belong before they believe. That does not necessarily mean they want to join the church organizationally. It means they want to join the church emotionally. They want to fit in and feel like it is a family. Once that happens, then they begin to hear what is being said from the pulpit, in small group Bible studies and in one on one mentoring relationships. When they see the Gospel lived out, then they are ready to hear it spoken out. Churches that build a sense of community earn the right to share their theology with each person in the community. Many members of the next generation will embrace that theology if they feel embraced by the ones who espouse it.

If our church wants to reach the next generation, we must resist the urge to get caught up in the cycle of starting one more program. Instead, we should invite some young adults over to the house for pizza and a game night. The rest will take care of itself as the Holy Spirit begins to do His work of building community.


  1. Allen Burns, former missionary to South AfricaMay 24, 2010 at 11:01 AM

    Yes, yes, and amen.

    Building relationships around food and fellowship is a big part of the African community and yielded big dividends. I see it as an essential element/strategy for anyone in church leadership. It is a relaxing atmosphere that builds trust and provides an opportunity to show that what you say is what you really believe. The more relaxed, informal and messy the food, the better the situation. You don’t really know a person until you can see how they eat a piece of generously saucy barbecue chicken.

    I am predicting that you will soon be publishing a book compiling all this wisdom … Let me be among the first to place an order. The internet is good, but having all this insight in one volume would be useful.

  2. Mr. Dorsett, When you "evangelize the youth", Do you evangelize the parents as well?

  3. We are trying to reach the parents, but to be honest, we are having only mixed success. What is surprising is that a number of grandparents are coming because of their teen's involvment in our church. Our worship service is definately not designed to attract grandparents, but they come because they see their grandchildren being transformed by Christ. This might be something for churches with primarily older congregations to discuss. Do they want their grandchildren to come to know Christ, and if so, what needs to be done to make that happen.

  4. Do you think you are going to evangelize the parents if you are continually targeting only youth?

  5. In the past, the concept was that if you did something for someone's children, you would reach the parent too because parents cared more about their children than they did about themselves. Sadly, that is not as true in modern society as it once was. Many parents are quite content to send us their young people to "fix" while they continue going down a path that can only lead to pain.

    I am very grateful to know that if a parent does want to experience new life in Christ but does not care for our particular worship style or the types of ministries we offer, there are a number of other excellent churches in our area that would be great alternatives for parents. We have a number of young people who come to our church regularly but whose parents attend other churches. So long as everyone's spiritual needs are met, the Lord gets the glory.

  6. Youth Desiring GodMay 26, 2010 at 11:42 AM

    I would like to ask again... Are you promoting a culture that perpetuates non-parent involvement?

  7. We are not attempting to create an environment in which there is no parental involvement. We have reached out to the parents, but are only having limited success.

    Of the 180 mostly unchurched youth we are ministering to on a regular basis, only 5 unchurched parents have gotten significantly involved and another 5 are sporadic in their involvment. However, 8 of the grandparents have gotten significantly involved with another half dozen or so loosely involved. I do not know how that compares statistically to other youth focused ministries, but I rejoice in the limited success we have had in reaching parents and grandparents.

    Since we have specifically targeted unchurched young people we rarely get a whole "Christian" family to come join our church, though we have had a couple of those types of families who joined with us in the beginning and do have three such families currently worshipping with us who I suspect will most likely join our church.

    But it is not our goal to suck all the young families out of nearby churches. Instead we are targeted non-churched young people who do not go to church anywhere. That is our mission and we are quite focused on it. We rejoice that other people have other focuii and pray God's blessings upon them.

  8. I'm all for fellowship, but I'm not sure that I've seen movies advertised that are language/content suitable to take my youth to....nor would I promote them staying out "until the wee hours of the morning"...I would have just left it at "playing card games." But that's just my thoughts.

  9. Dr. Dorsett,
    I think it is interesting that you consider your efforts with parents to only have "mixed" results. According to your own words above your church has reached 24 unchurched parents and grandparents. I don't know many churches in Vermont that have reached that many unchurched adults. Most churches just steal members from nearby churches. The fact that you are reaching unchurched people and not sheep stealing is remarkable. I would say your results are "fabulous," not "mixed. You may never reach as many adults as you do teens, but clearly you are reaching more adults that most churches in your area. Keep up the good work and do not let anyone beat you down because you are doing it their way.


  10. The last sentence should say "aren't doing it there way."

  11. The last sentence should say, "aren't doing it their way." LOL