What does the church have in common with the auto industry (besides big-haired salesman)? They’re both failing to engage Millennials. Reports show that younger Americans aren’t buying cars like they used to, and it may be more than the economy to blame. A closer look at the trends may have something to say to church leaders and not just auto executives.
The American auto industry has made a remarkable comeback in the last few years. After a nearly fatal collapse in 2008, car markers are seeing record sales. But the boom isn’t evident among the young who are failing to buy cars at the same pace as earlier generations. An article in The Atlantic by Jordan Weissmann reveals that automakers are struggling to connect their products to teens and twenty-somethings. The problem isn’t the cars, or even the economy, but driving in general. Fewer young people are getting drivers licenses. In 1998 nearly two-thirds of potential drivers age 19 or younger had a license. In 2008, it was less then half. It’s hard to believe, but trends indicate young people in the 21st century no longer view a car as the symbol of adolescent independence.
As one Toyota executive noted, “Many young people care more about buying the latest smart phone or gaming console than getting their driver’s license.” What’s the explanation for the shift away from the car culture most of us remember from our teenage years? Cities. Millennials are much more likely than earlier generations to live in large urban communities where cars are unnecessary or even burdensome, and when a car is necessary the digital generation is more likely to use a ride-sharing services like Zip Car or Uber. Weissman writes:
“About 32 percent reside in cities, somewhat higher than the proportion of Generation X’ers or Baby Boomers who did when they were the same age, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center report. But as The Wall Street Journal reports, surveys have found that 88 percent want to live in an urban environment. When they’re forced to settle down in a suburb, they prefer communities like Bethesda, Maryland, or Arlington, Virginia, which feature plenty of walking distance restaurants, retail, and public transportation to nearby Washington, DC. If the Millennials truly become the peripatetic generation, walking to the office, the bus stop, or the corner store, it could mean a longterm dent in car sales. It’s doubly problematic if they choose to raise children in the city. Growing up in the ‘burbs was part of the reason driving was so central to Baby Boomers’ lives. Car keys meant freedom. To city dwellers, they mean struggling to find an empty parking spot.”
These urban-loving, automobile-ambivalent young adults pose a significant problem for the church and not just the car industry. Late 20th century American evangelicalism has been dominated by megachurches, and many congregations that do not rank as “mega” have nonetheless had their approach to ministry shaped by these influential churches. But the values inherent to many of these churches are out of sync with what we are discovering about Millennials.
For example, when “white flight” occurred in the 1960s, many evangelical churches abandoned the city. The space they discovered on the edge of metropolitan areas allowed some to expand their ministries to previously unimaginable sizes. The megachurch boom was ignited. In the late 1970s there were only 10 congregations in the country. By 1990 there were over 500. Megachurches remain a predominantly suburban phenomenon that survive by drawing attendees from a wide geographical area. They are predicated on the automobile, as their sprawling parking lots and florescent-vested traffic volunteers reveal.
But how are these ministries going to reach Millennials that don’t drive as much as their parents and prefer an urban rather than suburban lifestyle?
There’s a lot happening in the realm of urban ministry and church planting these days, but what will become of the churches in the ‘burbs and their asphalt halos? The Atlantic article and other research about Millennials should help church leaders recognize that there is no silver bullet solution to getting young people in the church. There are massive social changes underway that are challenging the assumptions held by the American church for generations. Hiring a younger preacher, lighting some candles, and a church Facebook page aren’t going to cut it. Even the auto industry is scrambling to figure out a way to adjust to what’s happening. And in this fluid environment having non-liquid ministry assets, like a massive building in the suburbs, may not be an advantage. But if their big-haired pastors still want to see more young people in their aging churches, then perhaps they should focus on getting more of them into a car.