If you read enough church related blogs you will realize that the Holy Grail of Church Growth is getting young adults (for want of a better indicator 18-35) to be an active part of your church. I’ll be 49 before the end of the year so I’m not a young adult. But this problem of attracting young adults to the church existed when I was under thirty-five myself.
A lot of remedies have been tried. Some people are sure that the answer is contemporary worship. I love contemporary worship, I’ve led and planned contemporary worship, and I can tell you that in most mainline churches it is a Baby Boomer phenomenon. Now if your church is short on Baby Boomers (and a lot are) then there is nothing wrong with having a contemporary service to meet the needs of boomers. But if you are starting a contemporary service to get young adults you may be disappointed.
This year while I was at the Academy of Parish Clergy Annual meeting Carol Howard Merritt, a young adult PCUSA pastor and author, told us “if you start a contemporary worship service you will not get me, you’ll get my parents.” In fact right now the next worship model that seems to grab the interest of some young adults is “Ancient Future.” But it is too early too see what impact it will have.
Another way that people are sure that they will get young adults into the church is by getting the solutions from the young adults already in the church. Now I have to say that this is a step in the right direction. So I see the UMC and many denominations seeking to increase the numbers of Young Adult clergy, I see a lot of blogs by young adult clergy and I see Conferences putting young adults in leadership. I applaud the effort!
However, I’m still not sure we have gotten down to the right people yet. You see young adults that already attend church have already found something in church that meets some need or calling in their lives. They are already, to some extend, church insiders. So for me the big question is, do young adults who already attend church actually know what young adults who don’t go to church would want from the church or find in the church that would change their desire and behavior to become a part of the church and the faith of Jesus Christ?
I know when I was a young adult I certain knew why I was in church. I knew why I felt led to follow Christ and to follow God’s leading to enter ministry. But really most of my friends, most of my close associates from college and beyond were active Christians. Since I left public High School and began college to move into church ministry I moved into circles largely occupied by active Christians. At the time I was asked to teach young adult seminars and even served as the Chair of the Young Adult Caucus for my then denomination (ABC/USA) but I look back now and wonder, did I really know what unchurched people needed from the church?
So for me it comes down to the obvious answer that maybe staring all of us in the face. Have we ever really honestly asked unchurched young people what their needs are and how the church might help them fill those needs? Yes, I know we want to offer them the gift of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. But can we do that effectively when we don’t know them, their hopes, their dreams, their goals, the fears, and their needs?
We want young people in our church in part because of our need for them to be a part of the life of church. But we can’t minister to people to fulfill our need and we cannot minister to people we don’t know or understand.
Is the answer that simple? Maybe, but it is far from easy. Because to find out what people really need we can’t just offer a program, create an outreach model, or write a new vision statement and tie it up in a bow. We are actually going to have to do what Jesus did. We are going to have to be out where those people are outside of the four walls of our churches and build relationships. And after we build relationships and find out where they really our we have to make, not church members, but disciples.