Reaching Young Adults
Last week I attended the Princeton Theological Seminary Conference on Emerging Adulthood, where people in ministry gathered to hear research about "emerging adults" and to wrestle with how the church should be in ministry with this (my) generation. All of the presenters did a fantastic job, and I came back with enough material to blog on for months. For today's purposes, though, I'll try to focus on a small part of my initial reflections.
First, why aren't many emerging adults (which, generally speaking, refers to roughly ages 18-29) in the church today? A lot of factors are at play here. For one thing, there is a great deal of transience and transition during this phase, and so even if EAs are able to find a local church where they feel at home (which is a challenge in itself), they will probably end up moving away anyway! And of course young adults have grown up steeped in a cultural understanding of religion that says that church is a place to learn to be good, but its not the only place and it might not even be the best place to do so. We have inherited previous generations' skepticism of religion without the cultural expectation that we should at least pretend to buy in. People of faith know that there is more to our faith than morals - that the point is life-giving relationship with God, but this central point is often obscured by the do's and don'ts. This is not a new problem - go take a quick look at most of the controversies in church history.
So why am I still in the church? I am actually a pretty good example of what can happen when the church gets it right. One of the strongest predictors of young adults staying active in their faith (this holds true for other religions too) has to do with relationships. It always comes down to relationships, doesn't it? Parental involvement in the church is key, but in addition if a young person has supportive relationships with adults in the church who aren't their parents, they are far more likely to remain active. It makes sense - the power of grace is lived out in relationships where we are accepted and loved even if we don't live up to whatever spiritual criteria we perceive to be important. It's so simple! But so difficult to do. I certainly had an abundance of wonderful people of faith take part in my life, but I know plenty of my peers who grew up in the church or sporadically attended, without adults making connections with them. So the simple answer for reaching this generation is to go back in time and make sure each young person is nurtured and discipled by people of faith 15 years ago!
Just kidding. But I fear the answer that I've come up with for how to reach the young adults is going to be a tough sell to churches. Many people who study and work in ministry with young adults are finding that EAs want to be mentored (the book Big Questions, Worthy Dreams does a great job of making the case). The challenge is that for this generation authenticity is way more compelling than authority. In other words, many of us will not respond well if you just try to tell us how to live our lives or how to be a Christian or how to be an adult. That's not to say that we don't respect the wisdom of our elders, but that credibility has to be established first. And I would suggest that we also want our potential mentors to understand who we are before they try to make suggestions about who we should become.
The other great challenge is that as I have said, the church as an institution has no inherent authority for many Millenials. Many churches who would like to reach young adults focus their energies on programs that they hope will attract EAs. This is important but perhaps not the most important thing, especially because its hard to know what kinds of programs EAs will be attracted to.
So, what do we do?
I have a three alternative suggestions for us to consider as people of faith. These are just my thoughts after a few days of processing the material... ok some of this is also a result of being an emerging adult in the church who is trying to do ministry with people my own age.
1. Help our congregations to welcome people of all ages, rather than just focusing on age-specific programs. Being a part of intergenerational worship is another predictor for young adult religious involvement. This is one place where mentoring relationships organically arise as people interact with each other! But, we need to do this in ways that meet them in whatever life stage they find themselves, and affirming their part in the community of faith.* There is a small but significant subset of people who naturally drawn to the institution of the church, so we need to make sure they find their niche.
2. Encourage intentional interactions between younger and older individuals within our communities of faith. I know that I have learned a great deal from members of the church who are in different life stages than myself (both older and younger than me!) and hearing their life stories is infinitely meaningful and helpful. This means more than just hiring a person to do youth or young adult ministry (although that helps). One person can not possibly develop deep and meaningful relationships with every young person in the church - it takes a village, as they say!
3. Take that relational ethic outside the church walls. This is the toughest sell (but the most Wesleyan!) because I think that if we simply focus on building relationships to bring people into our churches we are going to fail. There's something about that tactic that can just feel so disingenuous. Instead, what we need is for people of faith to develop relationships with younger adults out in everyday life. I don't mean imposing our influence upon them (that feels creepy) but actively taking an interest in their lives. Being in conversation. Offering support when it feels like a good idea. Many people who are trying to figure out how to be adults are doing so away from their families and communities of origin. Even if they/we may be resistant or suspicious initially, relationships with people outside our age demographic help us to work through who and what we becoming.
Why are we doing this anyway?
The scary part for the Church is that suggestion three is probably the most important but it won't necessarily bring flocks new people into our churches. But as people of faith are we called to preserve our institutions or are we called to make disciples for the transformation of the world? Are we called to bring people into our way of doing things, or are we called to extend the love of God to others? And suggestion three is not just important because it could help us to extend our sphere of influence into the world, but because wonderful and beautiful things are happening in the communities that young people are creating for themselves, and the Church will be renewed and inspired by those stories. We will all be blessed when we create connections between our communities.
The church is being reinvented as we speak - that is what happens at different points in history. This doesn't mean that the traditional mainline institutional church is obsolete, but it means that the Spirit is moving in communities in new ways and we can either buy into that or we can get left out. I believe that the our religious traditions are still relevant, and the Gospel is still a life-giving reality that we need to share. The question is whether we will translate it ways that preach to the people who are not in our churches already.
*Here's an example/tangential rant: I have learned a great deal about marriage and parenting from my friends in church, and someday I hope I will be blessed with a husband and kids with which to apply that learning. But I have heard so many variations on the message that "you will never really understand love until you become a parent." What does that say about the diversity of ways people can experience of God? What does that say to people who will never have kids for one reason or another? I also know young adults who are married and/or parents who have sometimes been treated in church as if they don't know what they are doing, rather than being accepted as fellow parents/adults. I give thanks for the people in my life who share their life experiences, but make a point of affirming what I have to offer as a single 27-year-old woman of faith.