Written by: Emily Swanson, Owner/President of Holy Cow! Consulting

The Study Make-up

Beginning in early 2019, Holy Cow! Consulting asked responders to the Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT) which generation they are a part of with a given list of choices.  Responders can pick one of the following: 

  • Traditionalist/Silent Generations: Born 1928-1945
  • Baby Boom Generation: Born 1946-1964
  • Generation X: Born 1965-1980
  • Millennial Generation or Generation Y: Born 1981–1996
  • Generation Z or iGen: Born 1997–2012[1]

Out of the hundreds of mainstream denominational congregations who have taken the CAT since 2019, HC!C looked at 110 congregations who responded to the generation question, to see what can be learned from that data.  This data set was comprised of 11,408 individual responses.  Within this dataset the percentage of responses by generation are below: 

Denominationally, 31% of the congregations were Presbyterian (PCUSA), 22% were Episcopal, 10% were Evangelical Church of America, 17% were United Methodist. The rest of the congregations included congregations with the following denominations: United Church of Christ, American Baptist and Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.[i] These churches are within different regions of the United States, including 34 states with congregations in urban, suburban, smaller communities and more rural settings. 

For this study, the responses are for individual that are already a part of a congregation in one way or another.  This is not a way to understand those who are “unchurched” but rather a way to better understand those individuals who want to be a part of church and are committed enough to respond to the CAT so their opinions and perspectives can be considered.  

This is what we want, right?

In 98% of over 6,000 congregations in our database one of the top three priorities is to grow with families with children and youth.  When asked why this particular growth is necessary, many church leaders will state that it is because they are older, tired, financially insecure.  There is also the fear that when they are gone, the church will also die.  Some church leaders will also cite the Great Commission that is the church’s calling to create disciples.  When these groups are asked “what does this younger demographic need from church” the same church leaders are often unable to answer that question.  This leads anyone truly listening to conclude that what congregations need from the younger generations is their work, time, money and longevity of membership with unclear ideas of how what they can give those younger generations in return.  While anyone could say they would have a relationship with Jesus and be able to worship with us, the question of “what do the younger generation need from their relationship with Christ and from worship” is equally met with lack of clarity and a lot of guessing.  To state the obvious, we don’t know what we don’t know.  

While society has changed and is often cited for many of the issues regarding religion and church attendance, we also need to admit that perhaps our churches have not changed and that stagnation could be equally, or at the very least partially, responsible for the lack luster response of younger generations when asked about attending church.   Often mainstream denominational church has stayed focused on the generations who began attending church as young adults in the 60s, 70s, and 80s while not taking into account what might be meaningful or engaging for the younger generations they are wanting in their congregations.  Arguably, this disconnect has become detrimental to both the vitality of our congregations and those we seek to serve. 

This leads to two very important question that every congregational leadership needs to ask: 

  1. Do we truly want to meet the needs of the younger generations in our congregation, even if that means we might not all like the change that requires? 
  2. How will we find out in a clear way what the needs are of the younger generations that we are inviting into our congregation? 

This last year, I was with a church in rural Ohio where the average age of attenders was 71 and the church regularly has 45 people in worship.   They, like many, wanted to grow with young families. When pressed to talk about how they would take steps for this type of growth the response was they did not want children in worship making noise, they did not want to make any adjustments to what they enjoy in the current worship, and they wanted to make sure any new people gave money and time to ministry.   I recited back to the group that they wanted a young family to come with children who were not welcome in worship (because children are the very definition of noise), have no opinion about worship beyond what is already offered, and have extra time and money to give.  There were nods around the room but also chuckles because in that moment they knew they were asking the impossible.  I am often reminded in these moments that mirrors under particular lights are harsh, but they are still mirrors. 

1 Corthinians 13 is often a favorite passage for weddings but as I have worked with congregations over the years I have often thought it is best used within its original intent which was, in part, to heal divisions in the church and give clarity around healthy leadership.  The Apostle Paul writes: 

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

So, while the two questions listed above for congregations to consider are important, perhaps the most important question is the third one, which asks: as a congregation are we committed to truly love the people we want to reach? 

What are We Measuring? 

As a consulting company, Holy Cow! Consulting has talked for years in one way or another about the overreliance on count data in our churches and in our mainstream denominational systems.  Churches typically rely on the number of members, or those in attendance, and financial as a measure of vitality.  This is not a clear indicator of a healthy system.  Over and over, the data indicates that churches with large attendance numbers and robust giving can be riddled with internal issues such as systematic conflict, a breakdown of trust in leadership and low hospitality.  There are also many smaller congregations with high vitality, strength in ministry and high levels of care for each other.  Count data is not a way to measure anything in the church except to convey how many people and how much money.  What we need to understand instead is what people are experiencing or what we call “witness data.”

 The true measure of vitality for a congregation is determined by the level of a congregation’s satisfaction and energy.   This is a common way to measure organizational health through-out many industries and the church is no exception.  Satisfaction in this context means a feeling of peaceful contentment with meaningful belonging and an absence of discord.  Energy is a compelling sense of purpose or passion with intention.   Both satisfaction and energy are needed to have a vital congregation.  Satisfaction on its own leads to stagnation and a lack desire to make necessary change. Energy on its own leads to changes made for change sake and mission creep.  Satisfaction and energy together at a vital level lead to both clear missional alignment and wise adaptive change.  

Out of 2,800 churches that have taken the CAT in the last 6 years, 10% of mainstream denomination churches are growing in attendance.   These churches have the following: 

  1. Exceptional Worship
  2. Skilled Conflict Management 
  3. High Trust in Lay Leadership 
  4. High Hospitality 
  5. Systematic Flexibility 
  6. Quality Educational Programming 

To be clear, this is list has not changed in the last 15 years.  In fact, internally at Holy Cow! Consulting, we have this list memorized because there is rare notable deviation from this list and high congregational vitality.  They go hand-in-hand and though, from one church to another, this list of six might look different in terms of style, format and execution the fact remains they need to be done exceptionally well within that congregation.  

There are two things that receive a lot of focus that do not create vital churches.  They are spiritual vitality and theological prospective.  

Many mainstream denominations in the last 15 years have created assessments focusing on the individual spiritual vitality of church  members.  The assumption of assessment takers in church then becomes if we are spiritually vital individually this is then reflected in the health of our church.  While this day to day relationship with Christ is important, it is a misnomer to assume that a group of people with a deep spiritual walk come together and create a healthy system.  

Looking at this another way we can all love coffee (apologies to the tea drinkers) and enjoy our local coffee shop.  But putting together 10 people who love coffee and a daily walk to their favorite coffee place doesn’t then make a group of people who can successfully design, open and run a café.  We might think we can, but we can’t.  Church is more than an individual love of God or the call of Christ in our lives.  It is a coming together of people who can work together to create something beautiful and meaningful for the group– this requires and leans on many strengths beyond just our daily spiritual walk.  

Likewise, whether a church is theologically progressive or conservative does not indicate whether a church is vital or healthy.   We have become quite comfortable in dualist thinking.  This thinking assumes there are only two contrasting, mutually exclusive choices or realities. It looks at the either/or, bad/good, negative/positive.  As Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, writes: 

This is the ego’s preferred way of seeing reality. It is the ordinary “hardware” of almost all Western people, even those who think of themselves as Christians. The church has neglected its central work of teaching prayer and contemplation, allowing the language of institutional religion itself to remain dualistic and largely argumentative. We ended up confusing information with enlightenment, mind with soul, and thinking with experiencing—yet these are very different paths.

Recently, I was working with a Presbytery Strategic Planning Team and one of the team members was a business consultant.  The group was looking at two paths to address an issue and the consultant in the group said “why is this not a ‘yes and’ solution?”  This changed the trajectory of the plan and opened everyone up to bigger possibilities not limited by the either/or. It took everyone out of dualistic thinking and leaned into imagination and creativity. 

While we can blame social media or other cultural influences, the reality is dualistic thinking is easy. It allows us to ignore nuance and removes doubts.  But easy is not the same as healthy.  When we ask churches about their view on scripture, education, historic faith commitment, and conversion to Christ, none of these responses indicate the vitality of the congregation.  Whether the congregation takes a more literal view of scripture or claims that to create a better society the first step must be conversion to Christ, the congregation can be an extremely vital system or be mired in unhealth.  Neither side of the theological spectrum indicates what the experience within the system is. Instead, the conclusion of the data is that there is no “right way” to think theologically but instead a healthy way to be church together.  

What have We Found

Over the next month we will be sharing our findings of generational divides in three areas: worship, hospitality and connection, and outreach/ministry.  As we have reviewed the data these three areas need attention in order to ensure that younger generations feel welcomed and accepted into the life of the congregation.   We look forward to sharing this information with you.

[1] A portion of the Gen Z population was and is under 16 years of age and therefore not typically eligible to take the CAT assessment.

[i] Presbytery of Charleston Atlantic, Presbytery of Chicago, Presbytery of Cincinnati, Presbytery of Detroit, Presbytery of Eastminster , Presbytery of Giddings-Loving, Presbytery of Hudson River, Presbytery of Missouri River Valley, Presbytery of National Capital, Presbytery of New Hope , Presbytery of Peace River , Presbytery of Pittsburgh, Presbytery of Northern Kansas, Presbytery of Baltimore, Presbytery of Tropical Florida, Presbytery for Southern New Jersey, Presbytery of Seattle 

Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas, Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, Episcopal Diocese of Colorado, Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida, Episcopal Diocese of Georgia, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, Episcopal Diocese of Northern California, Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota , Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma, Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia, Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina 

La Crosse Synod ELCA, New England Synod, ELCA, New Jersey Synod, ELCA, Northwest Wisconsin Synod, ELCA, Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA, South Carolina Synod, ELCA, St. Paul Area Synod, ELCA 

Illinois Conference of United Methodist Church, Iowa Conference of United Methodist Church, Michigan Conference of United Methodist Church, Northern , New York Conference of United Methodist Church, Ohio Conference of United Methodist Church