When I started traveling to Europe on business in 1999, airplanes looked and behaved more or less the same as they do now.
Seats were cramped, screen maps showed progress on a long flight, lavatories had a certain chemical odor, people burrowed into reading, watching movies, working or napping.
And yet my latest flight from SFO to JFK felt entirely different. Not because the aircraft or the flight experience has changed, but because I have changed.
I brought technology on board with me that I didn’t have 15 years ago: Internet access via Wi-Fi, books on my iPad, articles to write, email to answer, social media posts to send, a new issue of “Fresh Day” – an online magazine – to prepare, a ministry to coordinate at 35,000 feet.
To me, this five-hour flight was five hours of pleasant, uninterrupted work time. Nothing like my first flight from Newark to Rome, which I thought would never end.
I see others around me engaged in the same multi-tasking. Some are younger professionals, for whom carrying three tech devices is normal. Others are folks like me who have learned to work this way.
I think church leaders should learn from this experience. Our settings, in most cases, are unchanged from a decade ago, maybe from five or ten decades ago. Our liturgies aren’t much changed. We are singing more or less the same songs. Clergy come and go, but there’s a certain ”type” that each congregation tends to hire.
Has anything changed? Yes, we have. The people have changed. Those who were around in 1999 are 15 years older now. Our life-stages are different, our life-experiences have re-molded us, our interests and values have changed. Marriages have ended, children have left home, jobs have altered or been lost, sickness and dying have come near.
Many weren’t in these pews 15 years ago. They have no
memory of this place at that time. When the congregation talks history, their eyes glaze over.
Children are missing, at least in large numbers. Today’s young adults are largely absent from our pews because they can’t connect with who we are and what we do. We don’t even use the technology they depend on.
On my recent flight, everything looked the same, and yet everything human was new. An airline that ignored that newness would die. Hence the offering of Wi-Fi, better food, seatback screens and a constant flow of bottled water.
What would a church in a similar situation do? Encourage worshippers to tweet their friends during worship about what they are experiencing. Text questions for the preacher to answer at the end of worship. Put water bottles in each pew. Become radically inclusive of children and strollers.
Offer child care and food at a midweek event designed for community-building. Offer playgroups, day care and preschool for young families. Have regular exchanges at which parents can swap baby clothes, play gear and strollers.
Adapt similarly to the needs of other generations. Don’t just assume that what you did for them 15 years ago will touch them today.
You will have many other ideas. Entire websites exist to show you new ways. The starting point, though, is to recognize that, while the venue looks the same today as in 1999, the people in it are profoundly different.
TOM EHRICH is a publisher, writer, church consultant and president of Morning Walk Media, based in New York. He recently launched Fresh Day, a digital magazine presenting “fresh words about faith.” Go to freshday.org to learn more and to see a sample.