Recent conversations with pastoral leaders in my home Conference (Wisconsin) about young adult ministry share a common theme: there simply isn’t enough interest in the area. Apparently, young adults don’t want what the churches have to offer. Except, this morning when I stopped off for my morning Buzz at Beans ‘n Cream coffee shop, I noticed two small groups engaged in some deep Bible study. One table hosted two fifty-somethings and five college students, the second table squeezed together nine twenty- and thirty-somethings. I stopped and asked both groups what church they were from and got identical answers: we don’t go to church.
Now the default reaction for most mainline United Methodists is, why can’t we get these kids to come to church? They study the Bible — they’re obviously interested in the Christian faith. It seems like they are a prime target audience. They want to grow in their faith, we’re the church — BINGO! But therein lies the rub. Church and the Christian faith are not the same thing, and much of what those inside the church find so valuable, those outside do not. Much of what church members will tolerate, non-church members have no patience for. Attending worship — the meat-and-potatoes of modern United Methodism — is of secondary importance to those seeking spiritual formation in small groups. The sad fact is, we DON’T have what a large population is looking for. They want relationship with God, we offer them relationship with a church (small “c”).
Now, don’t get upset. There is nothing wrong with church. I spend most of my days trying to help churches. I think churches are swell. But I also recognize the gaping chasm between Church — the body of Christ incarnate to serve in the world — and church — where we go on Sunday for worship and may gather during the week for programs, classes, meetings, suppers, and events. For the segment of our population seeking the former, they often are completely turned off by the latter. It is symptomatic of a church whose “busyness” displaces the “business” of the church — i.e., getting members instead of building community.
I have a passion and a deep desire to see strong young adult ministries — but I understand that they will not conform to a traditional vision. Each time I raise the need for young adult ministries in my Conference, some well-meaning NOT young adult pipes in with, “We need to form a Young Adult Coordinating Committee!” I quietly shake my head. When I speak to young people and tell them the Conference wants to form a young adult “committee/council/planning group,” they beg me not to let it happen. The fastest way to kill any kind of young adult focus is to force it into an old structure. Young adults want form to follow function in organize ways — let the purpose and vision define the means of forming community and structure. It isn’t rocket science… but it also isn’t the way “we’ve always done it before.”
Another symptom of this disease are the number of forty- and fifty-year-olds who want to “be involved” in young adult ministry. Young adults are fine with non-young-adults providing resources and support, but if the older generation is running things, then it really isn’t young adult ministry. It is not enough to be in ministry “to” young adults, or provide ministry “for” young adults, or even to be in ministry “with” young adults. Young adults need to be in ministry to and for one another, and beyond themselves in the world. Many young adults are suspicious of the older generations “welcoming them” into the existing structure. We (over-40s) may want them (under-40s) to lead “our” church in the future, but that doesn’t seem to be the highest goal and value of young adults. Living well and doing good are much higher priorities that believing right and being good — normative expectations of the existing church for younger seekers.
In the past twenty years, I have found absolutely no difficulty in striking up conversations about spirituality, God, Jesus Christ, Christian service, faith formation, and transformation — people are starving for such engagement. But during the same period I have found it increasingly tricky to talk about church, religion, membership, and worship with those OUTSIDE the church. These topics seem to be all we inside care to discuss, which is why people outside aren’t that excited about coming inside.
Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world requires structure and resources — but it doesn’t require much of what we have become addicted to in the church: large buildings, expensive music programs, paid staffing, more and bigger and better equipment. Most young seekers after Christ aren’t interested in those things. Mostly, they want coffee (or tea), a table, time, and some compassionate, open people willing to sit with them and wrestle with the questions and concerns that emerge when they seriously wonder “why” and “what for.” You cannot leave the church building without falling over one of them… but if you wait until they come to us, good luck. They’ve already tried the church looking for Jesus, and all too often discovered he isn’t there. But we already knew that — Jesus goes where the need is, and that — more often than not — is out in the world.