Australian Baptist Generational Ministry Research: A Recent Publication on Participation and Priorities

In the last month or so an important and interesting piece of research regarding generational ministry in Australian Baptist churches has been published. In the journal known as ‘Exchange’ Darren Cronshaw has written an article entitled ““Sticky Faith” in Australian Baptist Churches: Surveying Generational Participation and Ministry Priorities”.

It is not often that research is conducted in regard to Baptist children’s, youth, family, and young adult ministries and so I was intrigued to read this. I suppose I should mention that I do know Darren and have worked with him before. However, I hadn’t spoken to him in a while and so seeing this I was enthusiastic to see the results and what he had to say.

This article brings together the data from the National Church Life Survey (NCLS), which is a huge church census conducted every five years in Australia, and interviews with denominational and generational ministry heavies. As Cronshaw writes,

“This article is part of a denomination-wider theological action research project on building capacity for mission in Baptist church, a foundational part of which focuses here on how to better engage with a younger demographic…the article reflects on opportunities and challenges for fostering better practice, in generational ministries”.

And really, the guts of the article, after introducing the topic and outlining the methodology, is all about (1) what the situation is regarding Baptist churches and those in the younger demographic (read: Millennials and Generation Z), and (2) what practices churches can take to retain and grow their churches in those demographics.

Australian Baptist Generational Ministry Research

Considering I’m Baptist and I work with this demographic you can imagine why I’d be interested in such research. Below I will simply outline some of the findings I found interesting or worth commenting on. If you’re interested in knowing further then I’d encourage you to get a copy.

1. Growth in Baptist churches mainly comes from those switching denominations.

I do actually find this a little surprising. I know denominational affiliation has long-ago disappeared, particularly in the Gen Y and Gen Z age group, but for this to be the case in all age groups is interesting. These ‘switchers’, as the research defines them, are more common than newcomers (with no church background) and transfers (those that transfer from another Baptist church – which I expected to be the highest here).

This certainly highlights the challenge for churches and believers to think more specifically and intentionally in terms of evangelism. Growth by transfer and switch isn’t really Kingdom growth at all.

In reference to Gen Y and Gen Z, for us Baptist churches it looks like we would benefit in teaching and communicating Baptist distinctives and values to not only the switchers but also the newcomers.

The research also highlights that one in ten Baptist youth and young adults are newcomers without a church background. This means that nine out of ten of those who come along to church already have some form of church background.

2. Mission and discipleship in the age of unchurched newcomers.

Within the interviews conducted about this section of research there is mention of how generational ministries need to overcome the “internal-focussed inertia in order to meaningfully connect with youth without a church background.” I think this is very true and has become more prevalent over the last 20 years.

With the rise of youth groups in using their main gatherings as worship services the impact can be inaccessibility to those with no church background. I know there will be plenty of stories where unchurched young people have been to these worship-style youth groups and stuck around, but I’m still not convinced this is the way to go for youth ministries to reach those with no church background.

One aspect to overcome this, which is used as an example in this paper, is the rise of programs devoid of any Christian faith content. While I appreciate the need to build bridges and make connections it seems programs like this are a case of bait and switch. Slowly and surely the aim is to gain trust and relationship so that leaders can share Jesus with those who come along. I have found this makes it harder to do so because the group is focussed more on the program, and talk of faith or spirituality becomes extremely awkward and forced. If we are more honest about what we’re trying to achieve from the beginning, and understand that the foundation of our programs are build of Christ and his words, then soon enough conversations and topics about what the Bible says can be more open.

More conversation about how Baptist churches might structure their youth ministries to reach unchurched youth seems to be one takeaway from this research.

3. Retention of children of attendees in Baptist churches.

It would be of no surprise that there are children of church going parents who no longer attend church. This is simply confirmed in the research. As Cronshaw writes,

“In 2016 44% of the children of current Baptist church attenders no longer attended any church”.

That is a phenomenal fact. And what it means is that for every family of four, two parents and two kids, it is most likely that one of those kids won’t be attending church in the near or distant future.

When it comes to those children who are still in the home and under the roof of their parents “results show that younger children and early teens are largely included in the faith practices of their parents”. However, it is still the case that 30% of children aged 15 and over, who live at home, no longer attend any church. And in fact, this isn’t even a new issue. It is similar to figures in 2011 and 2006.

So, what does this mean. As one of the interviewees said,

“It maybe hard to get them (the children) there, it may take a wrestle, it may feel like a battle – but I say, die trying! Do what you can to give your young person every chance of thriving.”

The most important and most influential people in the lives of children are their parents, and this is the same when it comes to faith and church engagement. At the end of the day much of the onus is on parents, but this doesn’t start when they are teenagers, this has to start when they begin primary school.

This doesn’t negate the responsibility the church also needs to take upon itself. The increase in partnering with parents as a ministry strategy now becomes even more important. Operating out of a structure of seeking to engage the whole family rather than the individual kids has to become a priority. The resourcing of parents in order to be able to have faith conversations with their kids is also something that needs to be given intentionality and thought.

This is the kind of research that can make us feel guilty and fill us with despair, particularly as parents. But, we also know that it is God who gives the growth, and as we seek to obedient in bringing up our kids in the ways of faith, within the family unit, we continue to pray for our kids and for God to work his sovereign hand upon their hearts.

Of course, more could be said about all of this, and there is more in the research here. What it does highlight is both parents and churches need to continue to work at engaging their kids in faith, praying over them, and leading them. One of the big issues having read this now is trying to cave out time so that the church can help resources and equip parents in their role as faith-builders and influencers in the home. The resourcing of parents is now vital and a new shift we generational ministries need to be intentional about.

4. Intergenerational ministry, not siloed-ministry.

I know I speak about this quite often at the moment. You can read a few of my thoughts here. But intergenerational ministry, seeing the ministry to children and young people as something the whole church needs to be engaged in, not just the children’s or youth ministries, is important to help foster faith formation.

One of the ways churches are seeking to do this is to place more resources in ‘generational ministries’. Rather than hire staff for children’s or youth or young adults there is a focus on making roles larger so that they encompass those from birth to 30 years of age.

These roles then become more oversight and leadership development – an equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry approach. It is viewing these whole 30 years in one, rather than individuals coming up with their own things in each of the age segments. However, it also means there can be a more clearly unified approach and culture formed throughout the age groups.

I’ve got to be honest, if we’re not thinking about ministry in these terms then I don’t quite know what we’re trying to achieve. There needs to be intentionality across the whole spectrum, not just within the individual youth ministry or the individual children’s ministry. The effort is otherwise pretty futile. If you’re a youth leader in any capacity I’d begin by seeking a coffee with people in the children’s ministry. It’s time to start working more closely. This is a cultural shift, and one that needs to happen ASAP.

Interestingly enough though, the research seems to suggest that,

“Baptist attenders are more likely to value age-related ministry compared to all attenders. Youth, young adults, and mid-life adults were more likely than older adults to value these ministries. Baptist attenders were more likely to be satisfied with what was offered for children than for youth or for their own age.”

When I read this it highlights how much work we’ve got to do to change the culture of churches from a silo-generational into an inter-generational culture.

5. Other comments.

A few others comments worth more reflection than I can be bothered right now:

  • There is an undercurrent of fear in much of this research. And I don’t mean specifically this paper but in all the research that speaks of keeping people in church. With cultural Christianity gone, if it was ever there, why would we be surprised that people are opting out of something they didn’t believe in the first place? This isn’t new. Surely.
  • Furthermore, when we begin to despair about all this we begin to question God’s sovereignty and faithfulness. We know God is building his church, and while there are concerns and things we need to improve on, worrying about many things that are out of our hands doesn’t seem to help.
  • The final aspect of this paper is in terms of investing in generational ministry. There are stories of what churches and denominations are doing about this. Each state Baptist union allocates staff and resources in these areas. I have seen over the last 20 years how this has grown and adapted in various ways. However, it has been going on for 20 years and I’m not sure whether that says something or not. I’m probably going to shoot myself in the foot if I say anything further so I’ll leave it there. Although, I have been involved at the denominational level regarding this for a period of time too so I include myself.

In conclusion it seems Baptist churches need to look at how they can share their distinctives with those of non-Baptist background, and begin looking at how an intergenerational approach to ministry can occur. One of the most important takeaways from this paper that I can see is that of resourcing parents.

There is much to pray for and much work to do.

This is far too long, I apologise.