A wise elder in my church was musing a while back about what it is that draws people to belong to Jesus and to his church. I listened carefully and haven't forgotten what he said.
His generation, now over 50, he suggested, were attracted to causes. He's a baby boomer, grew up in the sixties, one of the "Ban the Bomb" generation ("get with the counter-culture, man"). Many of his generation flocked to join a radical church like ours in the early seventies. Indeed, "radical" is a word they groove on. (Younger generations are less keen, maybe because "radical" has come to mean something like "suicide bomber".) They revel in appeals for "blood, toil, tears, and sweat" which make their hearts beat faster and their eyes mist over. (Maybe, somewhere deep inside they long to display some of heroism of their parents, the war generation.)
The middle generation - that'll be my lot, in their 30s and 40s - Generation X as they have been called, are a generation more affected by post-modernity than their idealistic forebears. They can be suspicious of causes because they're suspicious about anything that claims to be "the answer".
But they're big on experience. If it's a buzz, they'll give it a try. Events, excitement, exhileration are three big Es for this middle generation. Trying to get commitment out of them is a tougher call, but key to winning their attention - and beyond that their heart - is to hold out a real, life-changing encounter with something (or Someone) undeniable.
The youth of today? Teens and 20s, Generation Y as some (rather unimaginatively in my view) call them? Well, said my wise sage, they revolve around friendship. It's about your network, your group, your gang - say it how you like, it's about who you belong to, rather than what.
Hence the huge popularity of online social networking with this generation. Many a British 15-year-old will share what he's doing and how he feels about it (banal though both may be) with dozens of his mates, via Facebook, before he even brushes his teeth in the morning. And he'll receive several replies, even if they only consist of lols and rofls and other arcane online acronyms, meaningless to anyone over 25.
For them the key is "Come and belong".
Now, of course, there's a danger of huge generalization in such thinking. Generation Xers like me can, in some cases, be fired up with commitment to a cause. (I like to think I'm proof of this. And I value my friends immensely, too.) Gen Y don't mind some excitement now and again, either, and they too can rally to a heroic vision. As for those idealistic baby-boomers - well, frankly, they're getting on a bit. Sometimes people settle down, if you know what I mean.
But the point is - and this, I think, was where my wise instructor was taking me - if we're going to reach the up-and-coming generation, we have to think relationally. It's most emphatically not about becoming hip and wearing baseball caps backwards in our 40s (as my mate, Aidan, pointed out recently). But church must be a place of love and friendship, not just a boot camp - or diary of coming events. Of course, church, at its best, is precisely that: friends. John the Apostle even calls church "the friends".
We need to rememer this: call them to belong - before they believe (and certainly before they behave!) Major on networking, making links, keeping in touch, being there - even if "being there" means you're their Facebook friend or you let them know you "like" what they're up to, via an online click.
Sure, we want such connections to blossom into face-to-face (indeed heart-to-heart) friendships (see old John again). But we ought to realise that online networking actually counts for a lot with the rising generation. If we oldies are inclined to look down on it as second rate (compared to "real friendship"), we should be careful, especially if we want to win their hearts. For them, friendship is friendship, whatever the medium.
So here's an idea: let's all be friends.