By Pam Ekey
Rev. Ron Watts, senior pastor at La Croix United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau, is intent on creating the kind of church your children would want to invite their friends to attend. During the Bishop’s Learning Time on June 4, he shared his insights on how to reach the younger generations.
When young pastors start a new church, the trend is for the average age of the congregation to reflect the age of the pastor. As the pastor ages, so does the congregation. Through the deliberate efforts of Rev. Watts, La Croix UMC has defied that trend.
La Croix has tracked the average age of its members since its founding in 1988. Watts was 28 at that time, and the average age of the congregation was about the same. “It was easy to reach people I had a natural affinity with,” he said. Pastors tend to have affinity with people who are 10 years older or younger than themselves. As Watts aged, so did the congregation, until in 2004, the average age was 42. “I realized that in about 20 years we were going to look around and say, ‘Where are all the young people?’” he said.
The result was an intensified effort to reach the younger generations. “We have continued to try to stay young and reach younger people,” he said. He began by recruiting and hiring a young associate pastor and has continued to hire young staff members. He and the church staff continue to study everything they can about the younger generations.
In planning for any activity the staff continually asks the question, “How will this thing we are going to do – new class, outreach, activities, worship – how will this speak to the younger generations?”
La Croix has always worshipped in a contemporary style. Watts reminded the conference that there are many forms of contemporary. Ten years ago he realized the “contemporary” music used in worship would have been current in the 1980s, but now was dated. They resolved to use music that is currently being played on the radio, and they turned up the volume to reflect the tastes of Millennials.
“Contemporary is temporary,” he reminded. “What we call contemporary worship today will no longer be contemporary five years from now.”
In addition to hiring younger staff, Watts began to include younger people in preaching and worship leadership.
“When people first come to church, they ask, ‘Will I fit in here? Will I want to come back?’” he asked. If they look at the stage or chancel area and see people who are the same age, gender or race, they see people who look like themselves, the newcomers think they also might be accepted in this church.
He also is intentional about having younger people design the worship service. “Who designs worship determines who you reach,” he said.
He encouraged congregations to tap into the millennials’ desire to make a difference. Millennials have a desire to get involved and to change the world. As a result, La Croix is focused on external outreach and mission. The congregation is actively focused on projects such as Feed My Starving Children, Backpacks of Love and safe water in Mozambique.
Being relevant to the next generations means being authentic to our faith and being authentic to our roots in Methodism. It requires personal piety but the social gospel as well. “When we do that as a church, when we make a difference, it speaks to the younger generations,” he said.
Most of all, in order for a church to grow younger, spiritual maturity is required on the part of senior adults. He quoted Romans 12:10 in which Paul admonishes his followers to be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. That advice is relevant today as well.
“We have to speak to younger generation on their terms. We have to model for them because 20 years from now they will have to set aside their preferences for the next generation,” Watts said. “Isn’t that living out the Gospel, to deny ourselves, to put others ahead of ourselves? That’s what I call spiritual maturity.”