Why we are loosing ground with young adults...
I have the amazing privilege of working with spiritual sensitive and passionate young adults from across the southeast every summer. I am also charged with understanding why the Church, and The United Methodist Church in particular, is loosing ground with young adults. Why are they leaving our churches to attend college or enter the job force and never returning? What is it about the mainline church that seems to be alienating young adults who seem to be committed to Christ but never darkenour doors after they turn eighteen. After dozens of conversations during the past year and some in-depth input from the young adults with whom I work closely seem to be some common strands that run through their choice to leave the Church, or at least our version of it. Their reasons include: passionless worship; incongruity in spoken and lived values; greater focus on political agenda than spiritual formation; lack of a clear, unified vision; extreme criticism of things of little importance and finally tokenism regarding their presence. These perceptions that they carry, true or not, determine their actions.
Mainline churches seem to have worship based in the head and not the heart. The perception of passionless worship came up again and again in conversation. The music is mundane and mediocre, the pastor reads a sermon without inflection or conviction and the people fail to respond to either what is sung or what is preached. This is not to say that young adults do not care for traditional worship or liturgy. They just will not tolerate watered down, unexplained ritual and liturgy or poor quality, half-hearted worship. There is actually a resurgence in higher forms of liturgy among young adults, but the churches that they flock to for this type of experience do it very well and make it very clear why they do what they do. There is not the feeling of just going through another set of motions, another set of creeds and movements without understanding. This generation desires to experience God in wholly different ways than did their parents. They want passion in their worship. As long as they perceive our worship as passionless, they will be unlikely to return.
Secondly, the obvious incongruity of spoken values and lived values plagues them. They see this type of behavior in their culture and it sickens them. To see a Greenpeace bumper sticker on a Suburban bothers this generation of revolutionaries. Since their birth they have been told that they can change the world, and they intend to do it. Why do they perceive this lack of incongruity? First of all, within The United Methodist Church, we created a new division, the Ministries with Young People division, but did not adequately fund the division to allow it to do all that is required of it. Our denominational agencies affirm Fair Trade practices but fail to follow them at their conference retreat centers, preferring lower price to the welfare of small, struggling farmers. The rhetoric about wanting young adults in our churches and ministries while slashing funding for college ministers, Wesley foundations and campus ministry offends their sensibilities. Many of our Methodist “related colleges” do not even employ a chaplain and have removed all spiritual focus and demands from their curriculum and academics. Some have even removed the name Methodist or Wesleyan from their names to make them “more approachable.” Is there any wonder that there is a correlation between the percentage of funds going into campus ministry and the failure of young adults to return to United Methodist Churches? Or the fact that more conservative movements are experiencing growth proportional to their investment?
Another factor that plagues The United Methodist Church’s ability to reach young adults is the constant political in-fighting. As the 2008 General Conference approaches the denomination will once again be defined by its political agenda and not its commitment to make disciples for Jesus Christ. Year after year annual conferences fight over the same political issues while their membership continues to decline. Even in growing annual conferences they are failing to keep pace with population expansion. The Church’s persistent nature to make mountains out of molehills seems ridiculous to this highly practical and pragmatic generation. This is complicated when it becomes apparent that even our clergy do not have a clear understanding of our theology. Whatever happened to Wesley’s mandate to be clear in our focus and to follow his statement: “In essentials unity; in all else charity.”
Much of this confusion stems from a lack of clear, unified vision. Without grassroots understanding of the Church’s purpose and its vision for the future, it is difficult to reach young adults who desire clarity in a world filled with uncertainty. The abandonment of our heritage’s commitment to balancing social justice with evangelism leaves us without the needed bifocal emphasis that would be most appealing to young adults. They want to change their world and they realize the necessity of beginning at the local level. We must find a way to clarify our vision and renew our commitment to making disciples and changing our world.
Criticism of things of little consequence also drives young adults from our doors. Churches that balk at having a young person with blue hair or a pierced nose as part of their congregation are essentially assuring their absence. This is a generation of individuals seeking community. They are striving desperately to identify who they are and where they fit into a loving community. If that accepting, loving community is not found in the local church they will find it elsewhere. Does it really matter how many piercings or tattoos they have?
Finally, the Church’s token attempts at placating is actually alienating and not attracting young adults. Implentation of miserable “90’s style” praise services designed “for” them and not “with” them. A complete disregard for their input in the mission and vision of the local church and hypocritical statements about their importance and then complete disregard for their input. This is a generation of “doers” and not “watchers.” They do not want to send money to missions as much as they want to go be part of a missionary endeavor. They desire to put their hands where their heart is.
There is hope, however. The young adult movements that are growing have some powerful similarities. First of all they are sharply focused on spiritual formation. These movements worship with complete abandon in services filled with symbolism and depth. They realize that this is a culture of micronarratives and Myspace© accounts desiring to tell their own story and how God intersects them where they live and listen to them. They put young adults in positions of influence and responsibility and they empower them to live and lead boldly into the future. These movements have a clear understanding of their purpose and vision and are guided by them. Lastly, movements that are growing have the bifocal focus of local mission and a global vision to change the world.
Panic is setting in as The United Methodist Church continues to grey and its young adults continue to stray. Conferences are seeing their membership drop by hundreds, sometimes thousands, per year. We are loosing our connection with the next generation of church leaders allowing them to either leave the Church or migrate to other places of worship. There are several steps that will have a dramatic impact.
First of all there is the need for the Church to validate youth and young adult ministry as a primary calling especially for the best and brightest of up and coming United Methodist clergy. For years the Church has made college chaplains and campus ministers feel like they were not doing “real” ministry because they were in an extension connection. Since they were not in revenue generating ministry positions, their ministry was not considered valid. Most have stories about fellow clergy asking them when they are going to return to “real ministry” in the local church. These women and men are on the front line of ministry but often feel as though they have little connection with the Church that needs for them to be there.
Secondly, we must seal the hand-off gap between church youth groups and college ministry. Pastors need to make actual contact with the campus ministers where they are sending their youth. More than just completing a form, these interactions need to include introductions, information and contact details. Then, the campus minister needs to take pastoral responsibility for these new members of their “flock.” The lines of communication between the local church and their college students must reinforce the importance of spiritual connectivity.
The Church must reinvest in campus ministry. This may mean capital improvements to outdated facilities that have deferred maintenance due to fund shortfalls. Salaries for campus ministry must be comparable enough to be attractive to the best and brightest.
Additionally it is time to call our colleges back into the connection to claim their spiritual heritage. These institutions were founded with for the purpose of combining academic study and spiritual formation. It is time to encourage them to either take this charge seriously or for them to break their ties with the Church.
Lastly, the Church must empower entrepreneurial ministry including the intentional planting of emerging churches. Churches must be planted, in missional ways that are designed to reach young adults with the understanding that these will be mission churches rather than revenue sources for the annual conference. They will require greater investment that typical church plants and returns will need to be measured in life-change rather than in offering plate receipts.
It is not too late for those of us in the mainline trying to reach youth and young adults. The key is to redouble our efforts and refocus our mission toward being prophetic and effective in our intentional ministry toward them. We must stop with token attempts and make the next generation a mission effort. The