Props are due to the Kansas City Star for noticing that some churches in its area are attracting, and not, apparently, repelling, the young cohort of worshipers that could be grouped under the banner of "millennial."
Indeed, the message is up front in the story's headline: "Bucking a trend, these churches figured out how to bring millennials back to worship."
Once a reader gets past a nice setup anecdote about one of the newly booming congregations, we get these salient points:
In 2015, a wide-ranging Pew Research Center study concluded that America was becoming less religious due in part to millennials distancing themselves from organized religion. Only 27 percent of Americans born between 1981 and 1996, the study found, regularly attend weekly services.
As a result, some area churches and synagogues have created special programs that cater to younger members.
But a handful, most notably, perhaps, City of Truth on the East Side and The Cause on the West Plaza, now cater almost exclusively to millennials.
This is a solid, well-reported story in which I can find few flaws to note. The Star is to be congratulated for this kind of coverage. Hence, you won't find any "big" journalism problems highlighted in this blog post.
So why write this post? As tmatt would say, "Hold that thought."
As readers find out from the story, City of Truth serves a largely African-American congregation, while The Cause's members are mostly white. The services times on Sundays may differ, but they apparently remain one of the most segregated hours in America, as the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., once observed.
Such changes did not come without a price for City of Truth, as the story explains:
A few months after becoming pastor of Parkway Baptist Church, a 21-year-old Armour D. Stephenson III, or “AD3” as he is affectionately known, sat down with his deacons -- almost all men over 40 -- and laid out plans for his own version of the great flood.
“The entire dynamic of our church was about to change,” AD3 recalls of the fateful 2006 meeting. His first decree: “Stop wearing suits on Sundays.”
No suits? In a black Baptist church? One deacon later compared it to an NBA coach telling his players they could no longer wear sneakers. AD3 was just getting started: Services would be shorter -- and start later. Hymns would give way to contemporary gospel. And the choir would now be called “the worship team.”
The congregation’s response? An exodus. Membership dwindled from about 300 to a low of 85. “Any time you’re shifting culture, there’s going to be some casualties,” AD3 says.
The chief casualty appears to have been the loss of older members at the former Parkway Baptist congregation. However, the pastor and his wife, known as "Lady J," are taking steps to keep non-millennials on the rolls:
Still, the church strives to make older members like [53-yer-old Deacon Earl] Bradshaw feel appreciated and welcome.
Veteran members train or run a number of church programs, including the deacons, ushers and outreach team. Each month the church holds “Connect 40,” a meet-up that allows AD3 and Lady J to share meals and fellowship with members 40 years and older.
The Cause, by contrast, only began its outreach in Kansas City in 2009, and was framed to reach a younger demographic. Thus, the newer church didn't have the cadre of older members a leadership team would have to worry about.
Thus, here is my one quibble: I do wish the Star would've asked a few more questions about the theology expressed by The Cause's pastor:
Like City of Truth, The Cause strives to free younger people from the rigid rituals and judgment of more traditional churches.
“So often people approach topics putting the focus on sin,” [Pastor] Kyle [Turner] says. “For people to change their life, they need to see that God is good, not that God is a tyrant. We have to authentically care about people. I’m not worried about your sexuality right now. I’m not worried about what you did Saturday night. I’m worried about what do you know about Jesus and how can I tell you more about him. Not let me tell you why God is upset at you.”
That's fine, to a point, but many traditionalists would say a church does need to discuss sin every now and then. As someone observed, "Jesus will take you as you are, but He loves you too much to leave you there." I'd like to have asked The Cause's Turner what he thinks of that notion.
But, again, the Kansas City Star gave its readers a good look at an emerging church trend, and other Godbeat journalists might do well to observe how it plays out in their cities and towns. Perhaps there's a trend here.
First image: Millennials at the 2013 Future Music Festival, photo via Wikimedia Commons.