There are many different churches throughout the United States. Beyond big and small, even beyond the denominational differences, there lies the differences of target demographic that provides the most character to churches. Sitting through one service, it should be easy to identify the crowd the church’s leaders aim to reach.
There are a few ways to do this – look at the people in the pew next to you. Listen to the word choice of the lead preacher. Consider the song choices from the worship team. Soon you will be able to tell within a reasonable margin, who the church cares about most.
I don’t say this to insinuate that a church can only care about one type of people group, or that by focusing on one demographic that they cannot also aim to reach those outside of their target group. No, I say this to point out that a church cannot reach everyone at every stage of life successfully without having access to nearly unlimited resources that most, if not all, churches do not have access to.
The average church in the United States is arguably small. The Hartford Institute measures the most common size of churches to have between 100-500 congregants. A church of this size does not have unlimited resources or a small army of staff members to lead and teach each day. They have a modest budget, a passionate pastoral staff, and the mission to reach people for Jesus.
This is where the interesting economics comes into play.
With a limited number of resources available, a church must determine who to target as their key demographic when building their ministry. Do they take the traditional approach of focusing on family, aging the church as their members age as well? What of the churches which now host both modern and traditional services, aiming to reach the aging population without altering their reach of their family contemporaries? Not to mention the most economically interesting churches of them all – the young adult churches?
It’s easy to understand why family churches are the most popular model to build. They focus on middle-aged parents with young children being the target congregant and these churches become very successful. Parents love churches where their children are well taken care of, and churches love parents with full-time jobs that give a healthy tithe to the church. Youth Pastors spiritually feed these kids through their youth until they take off for college while the leadership focuses on stewarding their parents to give their tithe, their building fund offering and their mission offerings.
It’s not that these pastors or these churches are bad – it’s that churches need money in order to operate. With mortgages on their buildings, tens of thousands of dollars invested in sound systems and Sunday morning technologies, these churches need the reliable financial support of their congregation in order to provide the experience their congregation expects each week.
This is where the young people come into play. Young people don’t have money. They also don’t have roots. When a church stewards a married person with children, they can comfortably expect that congregant will be a long-term member of the church. When a young person is not married, doesn’t own a home or have children in school, a church organization cannot have a reasonable expectation that the young person they are stewarding will be a part of the church for the next decade.
For a church to focus on young people, lets say ages 18-25, they must be willing to build the church on an unstable foundation. They have to build on potentially smaller tithes, irregular attendance, and lower long-term membership rates.
The average income of a high school graduate $30,000 is while the average income of a college graduate is just under $50,000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That means that the expected dollar value of the attendance of these young people to a church is somewhere between $3,000-$5,000 in annual tithing.
While this income isn’t much different from that of their older counterparts, the major difference between a young person’s tithe and that of a, lets say 40-year-old congregant, is that of longevity. Financially – it makes more sense to steward an older congregant with a $3,000 tithe than it does to steward a younger congregant with a $5,000 tithe over the long-term.
If a young person leaves the church after 2 years, they’ve given $10,000, whereas their older congregant who stays for the next 20 years will have given $60,000. (Never mind the pay increases the older congregant may receive, increasing their overall giving throughout their lifetime.) As an organization with bills to pay, it makes more sense to steward a reliable $3,000 giver every year for the next 20+ years rather than to invest in an insecure $5,000 congregant for an indefinite number of years.
So what then is a church to do?
If the church is not going to focus on the younger demographic as their target audience, and does not wish to dedicate resources to cultivate their spiritual wellbeing; as a leadership body – the church must determine if the financial value of a young person outweighs that of their spiritual growth and relationship with Christ.
The church must place a dollar value on one’s relationship with Christ. When considering the young person – the church must determine if their potential overall giving to the church outweighs that of their current needs to be spiritually fed. When the young person donates more money to the church above that established value, then it becomes more important for them to remain a part of the congregation rather than assist them in seeking spiritual fulfillment.
Is the annual tithe of a young person more valuable to the church than the knowledge that, as a church, they are helping cultivate the young person’s relationship in Christ?
The way I see if – there are 2 responses to that question.
- Yes, their tithe is more valuable. The young person’s tithe helps contribute to many other ministries in our community, thus helping cultivate many other’s in Jesus. The hope is that the young person is spiritually fed elsewhere while still attending this church and as they age, should they remain in this congregation, they will be better spiritually fed as they grow into our target demographic.
- No, their tithe is not more valuable. The young person’s relationship with Christ is far more important than that of their present giving, thus as a church it is our responsibility to help direct the young person to other ministries in our local area that will do a better job of tending to their needs and spiritual wellbeing even though it will result in a financial loss for ourselves and our ministries.
None of this is to say that your church’s particular response to this question is good or bad – it is simply a statement of priority.
I believe though, that there are 3 outcomes to a young person’s experience with a church that does not feed them.
- They disconnect from their congregation, attending only Sunday morning services while connecting with other ministries outside of their home church to be fed.
- They disconnect from their church, leaving to go find another ministry entirely.
- They disconnect from God, blaming their lack of spiritual wellbeing not on the church’s failing, but on God’s absence and perceived indifference.
As a church, it must be determined if these three potential outcomes are worth the financial incentive to ignore a young person’s spiritual needs while not also providing them with other ministries to engage with and grow within.
The response may be different for each church, as well as the action taken by the church to ensure their young people are tended to in the way Jesus wants them to be tended.
So I ask you this; how has your church chosen to answer the question of how to handle their young adult congregants? What is the target demographic of your church? What is it your church can do to help support and feed the young adults in your congregation should they not be the target audience of your ministry?