Pitfalls to Avoid in Reaching a Younger Constituency


Reflecting on a failed attempt by Public Broadcasting Corporation to reach a younger audience, Lovett H. Weems, Jr., offers advice to churches about reaching younger persons in a manner consistent with the Gospel.

There is no more pressing need for most American congregations than to reach younger people. The average age of church members in many denominations has increased tremendously. While the goal of ministering to a younger constituency is noble, there is never only one value or goal at stake. The goal of reaching younger persons cannot be accomplished unless it is achieved in a manner consistent with other core values.

The recent death of economic journalist Louis Rukeyser brings to mind an example illustrating this point — the example of public television’s counterproductive efforts to remake Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser. With so many television programs today focusing on the economy, it is hard to remember that in 1970, when Louis Rukeyser started his show, he pioneered business broadcasting. Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser, produced by Maryland Public Television (MPT), took off and enjoyed great success. At its peak, it attracted three million viewers and was the most-watched financial show on television.

In 2002, Rukeyser was 69 years old and had been hosting the program for 32 years. MPT was concerned that the average age of the show’s viewer had increased to 62. Knowing that the average age of Fortune magazine readers was 49, they felt something should be done to reach a similar, younger demographic. They offered Rukeyser a “senior correspondent” position, with someone younger taking over as host.

What happened next was not pretty. Rukeyser began his next program with a rant about his bosses, which resulted in his being fired immediately. MPT changed its program to Wall Street Week with Fortune. Angry viewers bombarded their PBS stations with protests about the treatment of Rukeyser, who got revenge by starting a competing program, Louis Rukeyser’s Wall Street, on the CNBC cable network.

The two rival shows together never drew a combined audience anywhere close to the audience of Rukeyser’s original program. Six months after launching his new program, Rukeyser developed bone cancer and had to leave the show. It folded a year later. Meanwhile, the MPT show lost $6 million in underwriting fees, forcing a fourteen percent staff reduction. The new program never achieved the audience Rukeyser had, and MPT yanked the 35-year series from the air in June 2005.

As in any troubled situation, there undoubtedly was blame to be shared by all of the parties. But the church can take some lessons from MPT’s failed attempt to reach a younger audience:

  • Stay faithful to core values. In remaking Wall Street Week, PBS strayed from its core mission — to provide programming not totally dictated by the market-share standards of commercial television. In reaching young people, the church needs to keep its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ always at the forefront.
  • Value all persons. Some people are not more valuable than others. As the church intensifies efforts to reach young persons, older persons are never expendable. But conversely, the church cannot continue to exclude young persons by privileging the preferences of older folks. The church, like Moses, desires that everyone reaches the Promised Land.
  • Focus on areas of change where there is agreement. MPT acted despite disagreement between those who wanted the change and those who did not. Reaching a younger audience was only one of the challenges facing its program. If MPT had forged a common action within a zone of good will, it could have addressed some, if not all, of the needed changes — and perhaps done so with the support of the host who had single-handedly shaped the program. Churches often make similar mistakes.
  • Talk with others, especially those with different opinions. In the church, we call this “Christian conferencing.” Many of the harmful, self-defeating actions taken by leaders could be avoided if they simply discussed their plans with others before moving forward. Narrowing our conversation partners can lead to the kind of decision made by MPT, when virtually any randomly selected group of people could have predicted much of what was to occur.
  • Nurture new leadership development and succession planning. Leadership diversity and successor planning need to be part of an organization’s culture. If you wait until a pivotal leader is 69 to start thinking about it, it is probably too late.
  • No good purpose can excuse ungrateful or graceless acts toward others. There will often be disagreements in the church. And sometimes, these will even lead to a parting of the ways. But there is never a good reason to treat others in any way not befitting a beloved child of God.

In any time of change or difficulty, it is important for the church to remember that we are about something more precious than a tactical victory for a cause. Reaching younger persons is an essential goal that must be achieved in a manner consistent with the Gospel’s call.

Related Resources


About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems Jr. is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.

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