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.