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Refocus the Conversation: About “Attracting Families”

Is your congregation attempting to reach out to “young families?” Jan Edmiston works at the Presbytery of Chicago and has a personal blog at at achurchforstarvingartists.wordpress.org. Below is part of a recent post on the topic:

Almost every church I’ve ever known has wanted to Attract Young Families.  The reasoning behind this includes the following:

  • If we don’t regenerate, everyone will eventually get old and die.
  • It’s energizing to have young people around.
  • Younger members can do the work that older members can’t/won’t do anymore.
  • Older members tend to be on fixed incomes and younger working members are needed for their pledges.
  • Young families (i.e. mom, dad, and kids) remind us of church when we were (or wish we were) part of young families.

There are a few things wrong with this reasoning, including the fact that “attracting” people in general feels manipulative – as if people are “targets” to be used for our own purposes.  Yuck.

Let’s be honest about the “why.  Are we saying that we want these rare and valuable Young Families for what they can give to us?

What if  – instead – the “why” of this demographic quest was about feeding souls and sharing authentic community?  I always hoped – as a young mom – that church would provide adults that could help me nurture my children.  I always wanted to know that – if my kids couldn’t come to me or HH with a problem – they would have other trustworthy adults to whom they could go (and they did.)

Young families are great.  Old families are great.  Families made up of child-free couples are great.  Families of single people are great.  Imagine if every church simply wanted A Pastor Who Could Bring In Broken People.  Now that’s a church.

Also, the days are gone when Young Families were present in worship every Sunday.  The statistics are in about how the definition of “regular worship” has changed since the 1950s.  (“Regular” used to mean weekly.  Now it means once or twice a month.)

Instead of seeking a Pastor who can bring in those vaunted Young Families, we need to call a Pastor who knows how to shift congregational culture. [read more of the post here]

Jan goes on to discuss how the changing expectations in American culture have impacted the local congregation, and the congregations need to recognize those changes and work with them.

What would your congregation do if it wants to be more open to young families? Jan suggests you take a look at your congregational culture — what are the expectations for behavior (particularly for children, or, for another example, breastfeeding mothers)? What about expectations for time or financial commitment? What does it mean to have to change your congregational myths and stories about the glory days of the 1950s and 1960s to focus on the changing and innovating needs of the current culture?

But beyond congregational culture, it also is important to consider the ecology the congregation finds itself in. What cultural changes have happened outside the congregation that are affecting the life of the church? Surely there are broad cultural changes, such as increased involvement of children in sports and other activities, more dual-income families, and competing time demands. But there may be other changes — perhaps the types of jobs have changed from primarily union-based, factory positions to service industry jobs where workers have less structured work times. Perhaps the community surrounding the congregation has shifted from one ethnic group or socio-economic status to another.  Understanding the effect of these changes can better prepare a congregation to think differently about how they reach out to new potential members.

But how can a congregation tackle these big questions? Take them one at a time. If you’re looking at expectations for behavior and commitment, you may want to ask questions to two different sets of people — one would be potential members, new members or members who are in the target demographic to see their perceptions of what they would need to feel comfortable and accepted. You may also want to ask established members of the community about their expectations. If you have a message of openness to squirming children and noise, but then the community members give side glances and frowns to the parents, you will have conflicting messages. These conversations can take place as an interview or as a focus group. Interviews, of course, can be more private and allow people to share some personal views. Focus groups, on the other hand, may spark new comments from various viewpoints through the work of the discussion.

You may also want to try a Congregational Time line with a group of your congregants to talk about the stories of its past — when was it strong? What did it do then? And how did the change or decline happen? And what does that past have to do with your recommitment to a joint future?

To understand the changes in the ecology, you may want to check out the changes in the census for your community. Some denominations provide access to online programs that will allow you to see direct changes in your neighborhood or community based on a number of variables, but you can also check out the US Census website. We have a quick overview here. The Congregational Time line will also involve discussing questions about changes to the local community, such as factories closing or large organizations opening.

The key here is to combine the question you want to ask — whether it’s about expectations for young families or changes in your community — to a particular research method.

Ellen Childs
About the Author
Dr. Ellen Childs holds a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Notre Dame. She is Website Director at StudyingCongregations.org