4. The Challenge of the Ages

March 29th, 2012

Some time ago, National Geographic magazine included a poster of the most typical human being on earth, a composite representation that interweaves physical features of the single largest demographic niche. The single most common human being in the world is a Han Chinese male who is 28 years old! There are more 28-year-olds in the world than any other single age; the largest ethnic population on earth is Chinese; and there are slightly more male humans on our planet than females.*

Wouldn’t it be interesting to explore a similar exercise with The United Methodist Church worldwide? What about for The United Methodist Church in the US? Or for your own congregation? How might this compare to the demographic profiles of the communities that surround our churches? The results might surprise us.

For instance, does our perception of the United Methodist family acknowledge our strong growth in Africa and the Philippines? Of the 12 million United Methodists in the world, more than 4 million live in Africa, nearly 150,000 are in the Philippines, about 80,000 are European or Eurasian, and just over 7.5 million live in the United States.

The median age of United Methodist members in the US is between 55 and 59, and women outnumber men 58% to 42%. In our US churches, we are 90.5% white, 5.8% black, 1.1% Asian, and .9% Hispanic.** These numbers present a sharp contrast to the demographics of most of the communities in the US that our churches seek to reach.

If the only statistic we could fully comprehend about The United Methodist Church in the US is that our median age is approaching 60 while the median age of our culture is 35, we would see with stark clarity the missional challenge we face. There is an age gap of nearly two generations between the average US United Methodist and the local mission field. And across that gap lie significant differences in perception, spirituality, musical tastes, community, life experience, use of technology, and cultural value.

A few years ago, the research of Lovett Weems and the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, identified our most critical challenge: how to reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people (see “Reaching More Diverse People,” 2009). Lovett has succinctly identified what it takes for us to fulfill the mission God gives us right where we live. In the US, the population is increasing, becoming younger, and becoming more diverse while the church is declining, becoming older, and struggling to reach across ethnic boundaries.

How do we reach the next generation when most of our leaders and people with authority are one or two generations removed from the people we seek to serve?       

And yet there are among us many young followers of Christ who are eager to serve and lead. They are not the church of the future but the church of today, the doorway people whom we do well to listen to, to trust, and to follow. Many more young adults will be present at General Conference as delegates than in previous years, and this is good. They help us remember the future in every conversation. Their ways are not our ways, and that’s why we need to learn from them.

One of the tasks of leadership is to pass the mantle to the next generations within our congregations, conferences, and the general church. Unfortunately, this often takes the form of inviting youth and young adults to serve on committees, boards, and agencies that were formed for the purpose of the church in the past. We squeeze them into our mold, urging them to play the role we used to play and do things the way we used to do them. This is not what passing the mantle means.

Much of how we do things—our worship styles, internal squabbles, organizational structures, and approaches to ministry—seem impenetrable, archaic, and out of touch with real human need and authentic spiritual hunger. The old ways of petitions and resolutions, of dividing between us and them, of lengthy processes and inaccessible procedures—these don’t make sense to those simply motivated to a deeper spirituality and ready to serve a hurting world. Younger people offer a wonderfully prophetic critique of our generation.

How can we offer an ancient and true message in fresh and compelling ways? Maybe this is something we (most of us in our 50s and 60s) can’t figure out on our own. Maybe this is something we learn from our younger sisters and brothers. One young pastor told me, “We have a foot in both worlds. We’re stuck in the nether region, recovering from past models that don’t connect while waiting for new models to emerge.” We need reverse mentoring, an intentional process for listening to younger people who see challenges from a different perspective.

For the young among us, I pray that you let your voices be heard, that you offer your best and highest, and that you don’t allow cynicism and frustration to overwhelm you. We need a church that goes where young people go and cares about what young people care about. You are a part of the picture of United Methodism, a member of the body, and we belong to you as you belong to us because we all belong to Christ. I pray for your passionate, patient, and persistent leadership.

Paul writes to Timothy, “Don’t let anyone put you down because you are young. Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity” (1 Timothy 4:12 The Message).

For the rest of us, I pray that in our deliberations, we find the courage to get out of the way sometimes and to balance our vision with fresh expressions of ministry.

* National Geographic, poster insert, March 2011.

** Statistics from 2009 General Council on Finance and Administration report.


What would a church look like that goes where young people go and cares about what young people care about? How well does your congregation do at cultivating the spiritual life and leadership of young people?

What would you estimate is the median age of those who attend your congregation, and how does this compare to the community you serve? What does this mean?

How do we unintentionally put people down because they are young?

Take another look at 1 Timothy 4:11-16 using  The Message for a different angle on a familiar passage.

Check out a personal perspective on youth in the church: http://www.umportal.org/main/article.asp?id=8616.

Several authors have done excellent work exploring the spirituality of young adults: Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, Chuck Bomar’s Worlds Apart: Understanding the Mindset and Values of 18-25 Year Olds, and The Slow Fade: Why You Matter in the Story of Twentysomthings by Abbie Smith, Chuck Bomar, and Reggie Joiner.

Get the Remember the Future series daily in your inbox

comments powered by Disqus