The United Church of Christ, Social Media, and Connecting with a Younger Audience: A Case Study (Part I)

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While taking the Millennials Changing America Tour through the New York tri-state area, I was fortunate to be able to visit my mother in Milford, Connecticut on Sunday morning. We attended service at the United Church of Christ (UCC), a mainline Protestant Christian church that has outwardly liberal views of social justice issues. Based on observations from my stop this weekend (and every other time I have attended a service), the church (this one in particular was the Woodmont United Church of Christ) boasts absolutely no members between the ages of 15 and 30**. While the the tour is focused largely on talking with millennials, the lack of young people at this service spoke louder than any three hour interview could have. Comparing the values of the church — which include acceptance all members — with the social values increasingly attributed as important to millennials, it might be difficult for one to understand why there wasn't one teenager or 20-something in sight.

This problem is, however, one that many nonprofits, especially those that hope to appeal to young people, are also facing. While the church or organization's values are congruent with many of those in the generation, the efficiency of attempts at engagement with young people on a resonant and organic level are failing as evidenced by lackluster turnout.

While at service, I spent some time reflecting upon my time in the church. I was a regular attendee until age 12, my parents separated, and I stopped attending service altogether. I would soon find a series of communities online that touched me on levels more complex than I then felt the church was capable.

In the October/November 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs, Walter Russell Mead confronts the issue of the shrinking in size of the liberal Protestant church. He explains that "liberal Protestantism tends to evanesce into secularism: members follow the 'Protestant principle' right out the door of the church." In order to find strength in the shadow of this complicated weakness, the church is faced with the difficult project of reaching out to young people, engaging them spiritually, offering them opportunities for meaningful social action, and to do all of this via media where they will encounter the outreach effort. Further, they need to have an identity strong enough so that when they are reaching out to young people, they have something attractive and authentic to say.

Based on the attendance numbers that I observed this past Sunday, nearly any other time I've attended that same church, and my own experience, where I preferred the autonomy that came with self-discovery online rather than in a pew, the liberal Protestant church will need to speak to some of the 80 million millennials before its current attendees either grow up enough so as to not be concerned with what the church has to offer, or die out. Evangelism on the part of the church and its members has long been a part of keeping congregations strong. Members and the church should be selling the merits of the good they do, and the importance of joining their community so as to gain strength in executing their overall mission, but as the ways young people communicate steadily change, the church is faced with keeping up or dying off completely.

Over the course of my next three posts, I will be taking a look at the UCC's social media presence, talking with young people involved with the church, and assessing what part of their plan appears to be working and what parts could use strengthening based on the successes and failures of current methodologies. This case study is intended to offer a critical look at an organization that is, more than many others, faced with stepping up or dying off, and thus its example should prove helpful to nonprofits facing similar problems in connecting with millennials. It is intended to aid organizations facing similar crises in asking necessary questions and considering important steps in accordingly connecting with a young base of support.

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My mother added: "Some of our older youth went off to college and are still there.   And then there are some that went off to college and never came back to the area. You are correct we do not have a large number in that age range but in all fairness we do not have a large number of members in any age range."