They needed to make themselves more appealing to young visitors.
It wasn’t cool or interesting for young people to visit, so they had to find a way to bring them in and then keep them coming back. The alternative was to lose the next generation, and as a result, the future of the institution.
So the leaders moved the main gathering area to an open-air pavilion.
They cranked the music up.
They went with edgier graphics.
And it worked.
Though most had never attended before, once they came, they found they wanted to come again because the experience inspired them and gave them a connection to something they were clearly missing.
The name of the church that engaged this plan was…
Okay, it wasn’t a church.
It was the Chattahoochee River Recreation Area in Georgia, featured in a USA Today story about how many national parks have to change in order to attract and then keep younger visitors.
But that you thought I was talking about a church speaks volumes about the obvious parallels.
Knowing that “It’s a profound experience when youngsters are immersed in nature for the first time,” national parks are doing all they can to lure young people into the parks for that first experience that will mark them for a lifetime. “The underlying goal is to give kids an experience that develops their relationship to a point where they care about the parks.”
Why is this simple lesson, being learned by necessity over and over by other groups, agencies and enterprises, so resisted by the church?
The quick answer is that the church stands for orthodoxy, and cannot change its message with the times.
This is true, of course, but disingenuous. This has absolutely nothing to do with the message. Think about the national parks. Nobody is wanting to water down “nature,” or trying to do away with streams or trees.
It’s not the product that is in question.
The programs offered call for staying overnight, taking hikes and even turning off all electronic devices while there. All things that enhance the engagement of nature at its most pure. The parks are simply hoping to find a way of introducing nature to the next generation.
The point is that it’s not about changing the message, but the methods. It’s not about watering down the experience, but opening the door to actually experiencing it.
The goal is not transformation, but translation.
Which means no one is going after tradition, just traditionalism.
The parks are what they have always been. A new generation needs them, but has never experienced them.
Park leaders know that they must change their ways of introduction and outreach, as opposed to sitting back on their laurels and past success in order to meet the challenge.
As a ranger at the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park said, “We need to engage that next generation in preserving our heritage.”
James Emery White
“Parks change to attract and keep younger visitors,” Judy Keen, USA Today, April 5, 2012. Read online.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying Through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.