Wednesday, March 5, 2014

In the door…

My economics-trained wife has told me before about an important business idea- The “barriers to entry” concept, which relates to companies seeking new consumers or venues to sell. Here’s how it works (I think, but ask Tabitha for a full report…). When someone wants to become, say, an electrician or financial planner, it’s not so easy as printing a personal business card. Electricians need training and certification. Financial planners go through licensing. These are “barriers to entry”, basic requirements for participating in a particular market. They’re a mix of government regulations, educational expectations, funding sources and more. And the barriers change depending on the industry. Still, they exist, and impact the economy.
This came to mind when I read a recent Pew poll about Americans’ perspectives on religion. Unsurprisingly, it shows that young adults (18-33) are our country’s least religious group. Partly, that’s a fact of youth. Partly, it’s long-term trends away from organized religion. But what caught my attention were current reasons young adults give for avoiding religion. Fully one-third said it was because they perceived religious groups as hostile to gays and lesbians. I’ve heard general impressions before that younger Americans are more open to the LGBT community than older Americans. But data describing this notion as their reason to not attend church was news to me. Further, the survey found that 70% of American YAs agree that religious groups are “alienating young adults by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues.”

We’ve discussed these issues before. Several of you have expressed anxiety about them, even. And in general, churches like ours frequently avoid the topic. There’s concern that if we talk about it, and especially if we take a further step of advertising we’re open and affirming, we risk anger, division, distraction from ‘bigger issues,’ even splitting the church. At the same time, many of you have expressed anxiety over our demographics. It’s true for lots of churches, that worshipping populations trend older than most prefer. “How can we appeal to young adults?” People wonder. “New Worship styles? Mission activities?” That’s part of the mix, surely, but this survey signaled something else. Perhaps.

Recall that economic concept of “barriers to entry.” The metaphor may be imprecise. Still, if seven-in-ten young adults perceive churches as too judgmental, plus one-in-three claims they avoid church in large part because of “negative treatment” toward or “teaching” about gays and lesbians, it means this issue matters to them. It’s a potentially serious barrier to entry. Many YAs won’t even consider attending our worship, serving with us or joining until we’ve convinced them we’re “not that kind of Christian.” Of course, we still may not be their preferred church, just like not every electrician proves successful. But if we can’t even get them in the door because of preconceived notions, we have no opportunity to ‘make a sale.’

Which isn’t to say we need a rainbow flag on our church sign tomorrow. It’s a complicated conversation for most churches, PCCC included, given our history and diverse beliefs. But this survey suggests that churches may also incur costs by not discussing the topic or avoiding taking a stand. Young adults will simply look somewhere else. After all, young adult Americans express as much spiritual longing as their elders do. They too want close, intimate community that joyfully serves God and neighbors in need, and provides unconditional hospitality. In our suburb especially, there aren’t many- if any- churches who embrace freedom of belief, like we do, while clearly expressing they’re welcoming to gays and lesbians.

Thus, a question- Would it be strategically valuable to publicize “we’re different”? Not perfect, of course, but trying to be open. It wouldn’t provide potential young visitors with everything they want, but might reduce this barrier to entry. If you find that interesting, let me know. I’d be glad to facilitate a conversation. And if you disagree, that’s fine. We’re all different, and God loves that. But we should all want our church to think about how we invite more people into our doors and to the Table. Old, young, and all ages between. That’s what church is for, after all. Amen?

Grace and Peace,

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