Dots Dying to Be Connected

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.

38 replies

  1. As a young adult going into campus ministry, I applaud you for this post. You hit the nail on the head.

    The truth is, after 28 years of attending church with my parents, I still sometimes skip on a Sunday for no good reason. Usually, because driving to church to hear a sermon and sing some songs when I can do that by turning on iTunes, isn’t really my deal.

    But what brings me to church? The chance to go deeper into the Bible and ask questions. The chance to debate. The chance to build relationships with others who are further along in their walk with Christ than I. The chance to serve. That’s my theory as to why you saw those people at the coffee shop.

    You might be able to get YA’s in originally by offering free food, a place to study, etc… and these are all great ideas. But if you don’t offer them something deeper once they’re there, it won’t be long before they’ll find something else.

  2. Yesterday evening (2/17/10) at about 5:30 I stopped by the Pizza Hut delivery store at 2nd street in Coralville ia to pick up a pizza. A man stopped in to pick up 7 pizzas for the Grace Methodist Church youth group. The clerk brought the pizzas to the counter and the man handed her a check. He then picked up the stack of pizzas and pointed at the sign in the store that says; “If we don’t show you your pizza, it’s free.” He then took his check back from he clerk and walked out with the pizzas and the check. The clerk was visibly shaken and said, “He didn’t give me a chance to show the pizzas. He just picked them up off the shelf.”
    I assume that the cost of the pizzas will be taken out of the clerk’s pay check. (Probably about 2 days wages.) The man was so good at his scam that it seems he has done it before.
    If that is the kind of leadership that the Methodist Church provides for youth groups I feel sorry for the youth in your church.

    • I hope stories like yours are the exception rather than the rule. It does, however, make me think about a time a few years ago, sitting with a large group of denominational youth leaders at a national event, listening to the group share stories of people they took advantage of, made to look foolish, tricked, scammed, or otherwise treated poorly. I remember driving back to Nashville from Knoxville fuming and feeling sick to my stomach. I know we aren’t perfect and that I can be an old prude, but it hurt me deeply to know so many leaders with youth and young adults thought taking advantage of others was acceptable and funny. We can only shine the light on such stories and work together to be better… and we’d better get better soon, or we will continue to lose credibility in the eyes of an already sceptical world.

  3. Why would a young adult feel suspicious of older, churched adults? If he attended church as a child, he was taught that God came to earth as a baby, and that his own life is precious. Sometime before he reached puberty, he discovered that the law of the land would have allowed his mother to abort him. During his teenage years he noticed that in the public square, the mainstream Protestant church doesn’t have much to say about abortion. And now, if he peruses long enough, he may find that since Roe v. Wade, the United Methodist Church has been a founding member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, courtesy of the boards of Church and Society, as well as Global Ministries (through United Methodist Women). Recent polling provides evidence that young adults are more pro-life than are baby-boomers. They have good reason for their mistrust of us. Suggested remedy:

  4. I honestly agree whole heartedly with this blog. As a 25 year old who didnt start going to church until I was 15 and lost touch with it when I was 19 Im still puzzeled by many things. I still struggle with my beliefs. I know God is calling to me and I am trying to answer his call. As a child religon never played a big part in my household. So there are many things I have no clue about. I try to dig into the bible myself and then my head swarms with questions and I have to stop. I know that I could turn to people at my church (which I am trying to attend again) but it is a little intemidating at my age to tell someoneolder than you have no clue what this particular verse means. “My” church tends to be very intemidating actually. I think this is why I stopped going.

  5. Jen has brought up a good point. Something I would like to add is my own confusion as to why a Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice was ever formed. Did our apportions pay for that? I see the mainline denominations as resembling government. Let’s form a committee to study something for a year, come back and vote on it, debate it on the floor, have a parade or demonstration about it, then let’s see nothing change 5 years later. In the meantime, secular, non-Christians simply go out on the street and hand out food. Which group would you want to be in? Young adults want to put into action what Christ taught us – even many of the ones that don’t follow Him!

  6. I love this post. It points out a severe disconnect between church (little c) and authentic discipleship. And I love the question, “Why can’t we seem to connect the dots?” Dots between discipleship – worship – small groups – and ministry. It seems that making disciples requires more than just attending worship and more than just getting together for a “cool” bible study. It requires a willingness to commit to authentic community and to a journey of faith that encompasses important pieces of disciple making.

    Problem is – most churches don’t have authentic community. We trade the hard task of digging deeper for unengaged-attendance at worship. We smile politely and pass by one another in the hallway as we find our pews and face one direction – usually focused on the back of one another’s head instead of looking at one another’s face. We take our hymnal or look at the screen and sing, at least we should be singing – but more often than not I see people unengaged in worship. We stand, shuffle our feet and then sit back down having failed to connect with one another or with God.

    We fail to connect with God, in part, because we fail to expect God to show up. We’ve made worship an institution instead of an inspiration. Granted, it’s easy to kick at an institution for not providing authenticity, but it is, as Sally Morgenthaller has deemed it, plug and chug worship. You just take last week’s service, plug in the new scripture, music, liturgy, and screen image, and chug right along. Perhaps leadership has forgotten what it is like to sit in the pew and long for something new. And, no wonder people in the pew feel disconnected when leadership fails to connect with the living God in a fresh way.

    That being said, I don’t’ think it is a failure of one or the other – church vs. un-churched, clergy vs. laity – but both. We’ve both failed to create an environment that allows for passionate, transforming, and connecting worship. Leadership has failed to put forth the effort to make worship real. Laity have failed to engage when the call to worship is given. The harsher reality is neither are bringing their best offering to God’s table. One is plugging and chugging; the other has decided it is someone else’s job to feed them and have not brought their best to the table either. Both need challenged. Both need redemption. Both need to quit focusing on the past, and ask – what do we do now to help people engage in holistic discipleship that transcends the sanctuary and the coffee house?

  7. A few years back, my wife and I were the leaders of the Youth Group. We took a three week mission trip from Missouri to Maine via the church van loaded with 16 teens. We shared many great times together, but my favorite was at a rest area on the interstate in Ohio. We bumped into a youth group from a different denomination in the parking lot, and accidently discovered they were running on a very tight budget. Our group pooled the money they had brought along for souvenirs, and treated their new friends to lunch and fellowship. I like to think this represents how most youth groups think and act.

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