A few months into my 5th year of ordained ministry and 6 months into my 3rd congregation, a constant lament I have heard from Boomer generation, and older, parishioners is something along the lines of, “Why don’t young people come to church anymore?” or “What can we do to get them back?” or “Young people don’t come to church because they can play hockey or go shopping on Sunday morning instead”.
As a Pastor, you hear this enough and it certainly makes you start wondering what you are doing wrong. It is even worse when you are a “young person” yourself.
I also get to go to a lot of church conferences, conventions, seminars, educational events, etc… And sure enough, every time there is a church gathering with some kind of expert guest speaker, someone will ask that question, “Tell us, expert, how to get the young people back”.
Almost always I think these thoughts:
1. The young people you remember were here 25-50 years ago.
2. Those young people are now you – and not young anymore.
3. We never had most present day young people to begin with.
And invariably, the “expert” doesn’t want to give the answer above, and usually fumbles around some answer of not being sure what to do or hoping that things that worked for a while a decade ago might still work now. I have heard suggestions like using 80s/90s christian rock in a Friday night worship service, or having youth conferences (Boomers love conferences) or having Nickleodeon / Lazer tag, or sending youth on short-term mission trips to build houses or whatever thing kind of worked but really didn’t a decade ago. I have also heard lots of experts simply say they have no idea.
I was recently at yet another church conference where I got to hear Nadia Bolz-Weber do some “cultural anthropology”. The basic gist of what she said is that generations have different experiences… obviously. But particularly, the experience of the Boomers is one of marketing. The age of advertising and the prominence of Madison Avenue took off in the 50s and 60s, just as the boomers were growing up. Advertisers knew that if you made a product that boomers wanted, and found a way to get them to buy it, they would be loyal brand customers. From cars to cigarettes to toothpaste the marketing took place. And often today, boomers will likely stick with brands they know.
And for the Boomers’ part, their generation had immediate influence and power in their world. They were the generation of civil rights and tremendous social change. They transformed or toppled the prejudiced social institutions around them in favour of individual rights. Governments, schools, corporations and even churches were transformed. They lifted up the cause of the individual and the minority in the face of oppressive systems.
The boomers were the marketing, political and economic focus of society.
But it was also the beginning of a shift from social accountability to individual freedom.
Churches bought into the Boomer centric meme too. Figure out what people want, get them to come and they will be loyal. Church members were shifting into church consumers.
So Boomers, who have been the social, cultural and ecclesial (church) focus their whole lives, now run most churches. And they are struggling with the fact that the millennials (their kids) are absent and are turning to what they know – marketing.
The next part of Nadia’s point was that Millennials have been marketed to as well… but we resent it. We have experienced marketing as manipulation and disappointment. Now I am not the spokesperson for my generation by any means, but my sense and experience of millennials is that this is true. Yes, we are often the ones who camp out for three days to get the newest iPhone… but Apple has historically done no marketing of a product before it is launched. And maybe that is part of the point.
My sense is that millennials are more content driven. Sure it might be cat videos and inane Facebook updates or celeb-gossip. And maybe it is getting that new phone to see what the features are rather than being told how it will make you feel. But just like our parents who were the masses behind civil rights, many millennials are interested in the issues (content) of our day. The environment, wealth inequality, globalization, food security, gender issues, political corruption, wars in foreign lands – these things are most of my friends are posting about on Facebook along with their cat videos. Marketers have already caught on and are using what is called “Native Advertising” to mask marketing as content (advertising pretending to be news, opinion, facts, educational material).
At the same time, I think Churches have been reluctant to put our content out there because we have been busy being brands. We have been reluctant to engage questions and discussion about what the content of our faith, our churches or theology is. We have been good at giving boomers what they want, a product to be loyal to – a church building, a pastor, a budget, a regular worship service and in my case a Lutheran brand.
But over the years I have been surprised to hear many Boomers will say things like this to me, “Oh, I don’t know what the Bible says or understand it” or “That was a really interesting adult study, I didn’t know most that stuff (despite being a life-long church attender)” or “You are the expert pastor, you are the one who is supposed to know all this bible/church/history/faith/theology stuff.”
On the other hand, my experience of non-church-going millennial friends is that they will ask me things like, “well what do Christians actually believe about that” or “What does the bible say about this” or “I am not sure I agree that all Christians think that way given what I see in the media.”
The balance of my experience is that Boomers tend be brand loyal, and millennials tend to be content adaptive.
So is promoting content the silver bullet for marketing to millennials? No. We will still resent being marketed to, in my humble opinion. Is making church less about brand and more about content the trick then? Probably not, but it might be the first step. Branding is controlling the message and we like control. Yet, putting our content out there is risky, because you never know what people will do with it.
But, I also heard about this Jesus guy who put his content out there too… I should see if I can find more about that on Twitter.
Have something to say about Church Marketing to Boomers and Millennials? Think this post is spot on? Think I am totally nuts?
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