By Lee Kricher
Our church needed to make a tough decision. In the fall of 2003, I became Senior Pastor of Amplify Church, an evangelical church in the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. Weekend attendance had been in steady decline for several years and was hovering around 200 people. We were on an interest-only plan with our bank because we could not afford the monthly mortgage payments on our church building, which was deteriorating after years of neglect. But what alarmed me most was that the average age of those attending the church was just about my age at the time—50 years old.
My definition of a “new generation church” is one where the attendees’ average age is at least as young as the average age of the community in which the church meets. Since the most recent census indicated that the average age of those in the neighborhoods served by our church was 35 years old, Amplify Church was definitely not a new generation church. We could not allow the presence of a handful of young families and children in regular attendance blind us to the fact that we were one of the fastest dying churches in the city.
We decided to put our hearts into becoming a new generation church. This was not an easy decision. We knew that our approach to church had to change in many ways if we were going to lower the average age of our members and attendees by 15 years. Though our core beliefs and values would remain unchanged, everything else had to be “on the table” for possible change – every program, every ministry, every tradition and every practice.
The framework for change we employed was fivefold: adopt a new mindset, identify the essentials, reduce the distractions, elevate your standards, and build a mentoring culture. These strategies, along with specific corresponding actions, are detailed in the book, For a New Generation: A Practical Guide for Revitalizing Your Church.
What are the best first steps to take when a church wants to get connected or re-connected with the next generation? Here are a few things that made a difference for Amplify Church:
- Identify the average age of your neighborhood/community and compare it with the average age of those attending the church. Determine to do whatever it takes to close the gap.
- Take key staff or lay leaders on “field trips” to healthy churches that have every generation well represented.
- Regularly weave into weekend messages the importance of reaching the next generation.
- Proactively engage church members in one-on-one discussions and conversations in small groups about the importance of becoming agents of change instead of blockers of change.
The Importance of a Mentoring Culture
Foundational to building a new generation church is a commitment to develop young leaders. This is not only critical for churches in decline, but also for churches determined to avoid decline! That is the primary reason that I asked a number of our key leaders to join me as participants in a Leadership Network cohort that focused on creating a Leadership Development strategy. With the help of Brent Dolfo and the Leadership Network team, we framed a document titled Leadership Development at Amplify Church (click to download). It affirms that “the primary role of every leader is to develop other leaders” and that “the leaders of tomorrow are already here.” It also reinforces the importance of shoulder tapping, shadowing and interning in order to build a mentoring culture and pave the way for “perpetual” church revitalization.
I was hoping that our multiple-year journey would go smoothly, but change seldom does. The concept of re-connecting with the next generation was well received, but when things started to change in order to actually reach young people, about one third of current attendees left. One of our top givers said to me, “The kids you are trying to reach don’t have checkbooks.” Then, to my dismay, he added, “If you go through with these changes, I’m leaving the church and my checkbook is going with me.”
Fortunately, most people did not respond in this manner. They began to embrace the hope that our church could more effectively reach the next generation. Their hope was realized as new people started to attend our church. Within two years the average weekend attendance doubled from 200 to more than 400 people. Within five years, our average weekend attendance exceeded 600 people. And 14 years after embarking on our journey, the average weekend attendance at Amplify Church exceeds 2,000 people. Even more significantly, the average age of those attending is just under 35 years old. Every generation is well represented for the first time in many, many years. We have been transformed into a new generation church.
As Scripture calls us: “We will not hide these truths from our children; we will tell the next generation about the glorious deeds of the Lord, about his power and his mighty wonders” (Psalm 78:4 NLT).
Lee Kricher is pastor of Amplify Church, with three locations across Pittsburgh. He is also author of For a New Generation: A Practical Guide for Revitalizing Your Church, available at foranewgeneration.com.