For churches in decline who wonder why the "younger people" don't feel the need to attend their services, Ethan Watters' observations are astute, if heartbreaking.
Watters' 2003 book Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family and Commitment, offers a compelling sociological explanation as to why post-Boomer generations are delaying, or altogether circumventing, inclusion into the two institutions that evangelicals believe are the very pillars of civilization: the family, and the church.
TIME magazine ran a brief article in February of this year, offering a perusal of the generation they identified as the twixters (i.e. a group between childhood and adulthood) Why is it that emerging generations are delaying marriage and children until their 30s? Why is it that in great numbers, many seem to be avoiding marriage altogether. And why is it that so many feel they have no need of the "ministries" offered by the modern church? Although Watters doesn't purposefully attempt to tackle these questions, even a casual reader can find the answers by examining his observations.
Families, for example, have taken a backseat to others. Watters observes that "Tribes sometimes hijacked holidays from traditional families" (56) While most still make it home for more notable celebrations, like Christmas, many in the emerging generation opt to spend birthdays, Memorial Day, and New Years with their "tribal" friends.
In the final analysis, it must also be offered that emerging generations are finding those things the church should be providing in what Watters calls the "urban tribe." A few examples follow:
My group of friends also came together to tackle group projects such as painting a living room, critiquing someone's rough cut of a documentary, or caring for someone who had fallen ill. We moved each other's furniture, talked each other through breakups, and attended each other's parents funerals. Those who had money loaned it it to those who didn't. Everything we owned, from books to tools to furniture to cars, was shared, or loaned, or given away on an ongoing basis (from page 37) Cross reference what you have just read with Acts 4:32.
. . . .or, how about this observation of how the group members compliment each other?
As I studied people's descriptions of these roles, some enticing patterns emerged. It was clear that there needed to be a certain balance between some roles. There were no groups with all cynics, or, for that matter, all organizers or all advice givers. . .For every Bill, there seemed to be a need for a Jenny, Libby, Sylvia, and Mark. ( from page 47) Sounds strangely like the employment of gifts, doesn't it? (Romans 12:1-8)**
In fact, as I continued to read, I saw all the markings of what Scripture says a faith community should be . . . expectations for "core members" (pp.51-52), compassionate ministry to each other (pp.54-55), a sense of collective history, or "narrative momentum" (p.58), struggles between "fellowship" and "outreach" (pp.63-64), and the effort to understand context. (p.64) And according to Watters, all these things seemed to come naturally, almost as if these people were created specifically for this kind of community!
Again, one might be tempted to see all the marks of a true community of faith. . . .with several very important things absent! For one, Watters observed a problem with knowing how to exercise discipline among the group members. In addition, there seemed to be no higher purpose outside each "tribe" than the relationships themselves. Watters notes that if you "examine a single friendship while ignoring the other interlocking relationships the friends share, and the thing you wanted to examine might vanish. It was the high clustering coefficients that kept some of these relationships together" (49) This issue led to the most troublesome of all the caviats of the urban tribe; namely, that there seemed to be no true "center." In short, the emerging generation as a whole has tried to re-create the family and the church, only to end up with a cheap substitute! The tragic consequences of this substitution are two-fold.
The first result of choosing the replica is that, sooner or later, the genuine article will die. We are already seeing this trend as the nuclear family is becoming more of an artifact of a bygone era. The church is also feeling this, as is evident in the more than 2500 congregations that close their doors for good every year in North America.
But even more tragic is that the emerging generation is also dying, most of them without even realizing it! Watters notes that many who belong to "urban tribes" were elated to see their group finally classified sociologically. Sadly, many will take the observational science Watters has employed and use it to make value judgements to justify their lifestyles. In effect, they will turn the truth of God (in this case, revealed generally through sociology) into a lie (by stating that it is only natural that they behave in these ways) [Romans 1 and 2] The result of this is a group without center or circumference. Or, to put it more succinctly, a group without the presence of Jesus!
But the final polemic must be laid at the door of those two institutions our culture claims to have held up as precious. Could it be that the rejection of the family by this generation comes ultimately from our astronomical divorce rates and broken homes? Could it be that their aversion to the church comes not because they have rejected the Gospel, but instead never actually heard it over all our noise about building programs, finances, and ecclesiastical beauracracy?
Or maybe the way to reach them is to plant seeds of the Gospel among them! This incarnational approach to church planting will begin, not with church structure, but with personal relationships. As individual members of the "tribe" are transformed, the tribe itself will eventually also be transformed. Their relational structure is already in place, and they aren't about to trash it for the structure present in the existing church. But what they are missing is a center (Jesus), a circumference (Scripture) and a purpose beyond themselves (the glory of God) If we can empower their existing relational connections with these things, we will see a movement of new churches that rivals the first century!
**Currently, there is pneumetological debate concerning when spiritual gifts are given. The more traditional understanding is that they are given at the moment of conversion. However, it has been suggested that "spiritual gifts" are special abilities that are "hard-wired" at conception, and then empowered with supernatural capacity at conversion. Of course, the jury is still out on this one, and will be, I'm sure, for quite some time!