As churches reach out to surrounding culture, age has become ‘passé,’ according to demographer

As churches reach out to surrounding culture, age has become ‘passé,’ according to demographer

For years Christian communities have been intensely focused on serving baby boomers, millennials and other groups demarcated by age.

But that focus alone is no longer going to cut it for churches genuinely interested in being relevant to the culture — or cultures — around them, says an expert on social and religious demographics.

“If we stop with just birth and generations, we only have some very generalized and even stereotypical understandings of what people are looking for when they are looking for God,” said Thomas Bandy, an author and demographer who focuses on the relationships between faith and lifestyle segments — or subgroups in society.

Demographic research

Bandy made his comments during a FaithSoaring Churches Learning Community conference call in early October.

Bandy has recently delved into demographic research as it impacts the Church. The kind of research he uses has matured thanks to the digital age and was pioneered by the corporate, medical and nonprofit sectors in search of hyper-detailed information about their customers, he told listeners during the call.

Bandy said his term for such information is “granular,” which describes the detail available to churches and researchers through search engines such as Mission-, with which he works.

It’s why broad concepts, such as millennial, are outmoded, he said.

“Corporate and nonprofit and health care planners are not using these old age-based demographics anymore,” he said.

While the variety of information about social groups has grown much more complicated in recent years, it is available to church leaders and congregations.

Digital comparisons can be made between the groups around and inside a congregation, he said.

Those who take that challenge will learn about the behaviors and attitudes unique to different lifestyle segments, Bandy said. Demographers to date have identified 71 such groups, compared to 40 that were known a decade ago.

71 lifestyle segments

Each one has preferences in retail choices and in churches and religion. Their quests for meaning and for God also differ from segment to segment.

Those faith expressions are “driven by different kinds of existential anxieties and each comes with a different set of expectations,” Bandy said.

It’s those anxieties and expectations that churches must discern in order to shape the kind of programs and ministries they need to meet them, he said.

In a Christian context, each of those segments has a unique understanding of Christ. Some want Christ to rescue them, others to heal them or transformation them, Bandy said.

To become or remain relevant, churches must become aware of these layers of yearning and hope permeating the culture, he said.

“Life is a good deal more complicated than we think, and Christ is more mysterious than we think,” Bandy said.

Leadership also becomes more complicated as traditional clergy models may be outmoded.

Ministries based on age also are challenged, Bandy said. For example youth ministry is becoming outdated because multiple segments exist among young people.

“We used to talk diversity in congregations by age,” he said. “Age is passé in the church.” (BNG)