I read an article this last week that says our Council of Bishops approved a plan to make The United Methodist Church ten-year’s younger in a decade. I thought, “That can’t be right.” Just doing the math, we would need 70% of our existing over-50 membership to die or go to another denomination. Then I realized we were talking about the even less-likely scenario of attracting approximately 3 million 20/30-somethings to become United Methodist. There is always a lot of merit in wanting to introduce new people to a lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ. I hope we do this well. But as I look at what it will take to reach our goal, I have a few suggestions:
- Make sure the bishops working on this are all 40 and under (I’m being ironic or sarcastic here, I can’t remember which…) — we know for a fact that Boomers and older Busters can’t do ministry for younger people. This is a no-brainer. The church for the young needs to be the church of the young. Oh, no — not either/or, but both/and. We need the church we have to welcome in baby brothers and sisters. Older children need to learn to share their toys with younger children — and even let younger children have toys of their own — or nothing much good happens.
- Make sure the consultant to the process is 20/30-something — I just love all the old guard (my age) telling all the other people my age how important it is to reach young people. Give me a break. I was at the District Superintendent/Director of Connectional Ministries training. I know what it looks like when Baby Boomers try to dance and sing and clap to alternative rock music. It isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s skeevy. And every under-40 person knows and acknowledges this. It is the older generations who are in denial. For us Boomers, the ship has passed. Time to let a new generation take the tiller.
- Make sure the 12-person steering committee has all its own teeth and hair (and some piercings and tattoos as well) — on the metaphorical ship I was talking about above, another name for a 50-something team member is “anchor.” Let younger people seek counsel when they need it. Let’s not just assume they cannot possibly function without the wisdom of our years. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. If we want to kill a youth movement fast, let’s let old people play.
- Let’s NOT do another online survey — let’s allow younger church leaders to create an online community for discussion and networking. Let’s not turn it over to an institutional agency. Let’s not let Baby Boomers anywhere near the design of it. Let’s trust young leaders to lead. The let’s listen to what they say. Then let’s not bring up words like “budget implications” and “disciplinary restrictions” to kill the passion and enthusiasm.
- Let’s not worry about the median age of United Methodists — age is a terrible measure of our impact in the world. We should be seeking meaningful ways to be in ministry to all people. Americans are living longer, and by God’s grace they will go to church longer. If we are a healthy nation, the median age will go up. Our great commission is to make disciples not make the church younger. By all means, let’s do a better job reaching young families and singles, children and youth, and let us be faithful evangelists that promote a healthy relationship with God in Jesus Christ — whether they join our church or not.
You may have noticed that I put on my “rant robe” for this one. We talk so much about this, but we seem to refuse to make the changes that will actually change anything. We love change that we can step back from and say, “Oops, well that didn’t work.” But the kind of true transformation we keep saying we want requires fundamental bridge-burning. Current leaders MUST share power. Young leaders MUST be allowed into the decision-making, direction-setting ranks of leadership in our denomination. Existing structures MUST make room for radically different systems and processes. And the older MUST get out of the way of the younger — if we truly value and honor those we say we want to reach. No more time to waffle, no more time to study, no more time for task forces, and no more time for saying we want something, then maintaining the status quo.
I hope The United Methodist Church does become the church of choice for young people in these United States — but because we deserve it, not because we merely want to preserve the institution.