Wanted: Young People (Some Restrictions Apply)

Going through some files, I came upon a folder of interview notes from the UM Seeker Study I conducted almost a decade ago.  There is a wondrous and troubling paradox in the old UMC these days when it comes to young people: we say we want to reach young people and bring them into the church.  We say we need to listen to them to find out how to reach them.  But when we hear what they say, we argue with them and criticize them for not accepting us just as we are.  Which raises the question: do we really want to reach young people or do we only want to reach young people who are exactly like we are?  And who, exactly, are these “young people” we are so keen on?

Last question first.  When we look at young people, ages 18-34, we’re looking at three distributions: education, economics, and values.  About 58% will finish college, about 21% will get some college, and about 21% will have no college.  About 55% will make between $30,000 and $70,000, with about 15% making more and 30% making less.  About 50% will hold moderate values spiritually and politically, 30% conservative, and 20% liberal/progressive.  Young people who are less educated, conservative-to-moderate, and making less income are five times as likely to go to church as their counterparts.  This group is most attracted to larger, newer, independent churches with the widest variety of programs and services.  Across the board, young people are not joiners, and 18-34 year olds are unlikely to step into leadership positions in traditional structures — they are more interested in doing ministry than talking about doing ministry.  Those with a higher education will hold the church to a different set of expectations.  Of the 21% who do not go onto college, the basic expectations are: a simple story, clearly told, with very clear instructions on right and wrong, good and evil, salvation and sin.  This group will not “over-think” the gospel story, nor will they be attracted to deep theological reflection or the complexity of reconciling belief with behavior.  Of the 21% with some college, the expectations shift to include a deeper understanding of the Bible and the Christian story.  The hunger for “answers” shifts to a deep desire for “meaning.”  The moderately higher-educated will be less interested in knowing “the truth,” than understanding how to live a life pleasing to God.  This group will wrestle more with inconsistencies and will seek ways to resolve the inner conflicts that their faith brings to bear on complex social issues.  This will be a questioning group, unwilling to take most anything at face value.  (In The United Methodist Church, we’re not really sure we want people who will come asking a lot of questions — especially when we don’t know the answers…)

The great challenge before us today is the last segment — the 58% that will have a college education and beyond.  A few comparative studies indicate that of all the people who have left the church (or never even started in it), those with a college education lead the way.  There are many factors that impact this, but looking at a few basic expectations of this group — both those who attend church and those who do not — is illuminating.  This group, for the most part, has been taught to read, think, and critically analyze.  They take virtually nothing at face value.  “Why?” is a driving question.  This group wants evidence and multiple-sources — they are not satisfied with one person’s interpretation or opinion.  Information is a tool with this segment of the young adult population — the only good information is that which can be used to accomplish something.  The story of the resurrection may be fascinating, but it is in the teachings of Jesus and Paul that we learn HOW to live the Christian life.  Virgin birth?  Not an issue for discussion or interest.  Sermon on the Mount?  Now we’re talking!  Practical, though difficult.  Relevant, though rare.  Specific, though daunting.  The Sermon on the Mount instructs.  For this reason, the teacher Jesus is of greater attraction than the abstraction of “the Christ” for many younger adults.  Equally important, the church is a means to an end and not an end in itself.  Younger adults are not looking for a church “to join,” they are looking for a congregation that can offer them two things: 1) a place for personal spiritual growth and development, and 2) a place to get their hands dirty through on-the-job training.  Contrary to much current hype, they are NOT looking for community or relationships (that’s a Baby Boomer value that we try to impose on everyone else…), but a place that offers them help and assistance in growing in their relationship with Jesus.  If they find a robust environment for spiritual formation and a wide variety of opportunities to engage in ministry one of two things will follow: they will either forge new relationships as a fringe benefit or they will bring others with them with whom they are already in relationship.  Our fastest growing “young adult” congregations are not growing because of worship or program, but because spiritual seekers who find what they are looking for are among our very best evangelists.  Visiting one Florida church that has literally hundreds of young adults, I discovered that two young women were responsible for getting over 70 other young adults involved.  Key connectors.  And they got involved because they found a congregation that offered seminary-level spiritual formation and faith development groups and required everyone to connect with some form of hands-on ministry.

What makes this last group scary to existing churches is that it is highly motivated to DO.  Highly motivated young adults invite immediate power-struggles — they have been trained and equipped to be leaders in various disciplines and fields and they bring that vision of themselves to church.  For long-time, complacent church leaders the arrival of highly motivated young adults resembles the arrival of the Barbarian hordes at the gates — it feels like a coup d’état.  The invaders are more than willing to play nice with others, but they will not hang around trying to “earn” their way into leadership.  This is one of the reasons why young adults don’t stick around too long in our long-established churches.  They find resistance and they look elsewhere for a place to fit in.  Established churches often “want” a stylized, idealized type of young adult — one that is acquiescent, appreciative, quiet and accommodating, who will produce well-behaved children, will attend worship weekly (weakly?), and will make a regular (sacrificial) gift to the church — somewhat like what we had in the 1950s.  Well, guess what?  That ain’t gonna happen no more.

College-aged students, young singles fresh out of high school, young couples, and groups of young singles post-college now outnumber young couples with children.  Many couples are waiting to have kids until after they “graduate” the young adult label.  This makes hash out of almost any definition of “young adult ministry.”  Too many of our churches still want to provide ministries “for” young adults, or be in ministry “to” young adults instead of seeking ways to be in ministry “with” young adults, or create opportunities for young adults to “be in ministry with” each other.  Another factor is that people in the 18-34 age category tend to only stay connected with a church for about two years.  any hope of building a long-term ministry based on the leadership of a particular group of young adults is pretty much doomed before it begins.  Our best efforts to help form young people as Christian disciples means we are creating effective leaders for other churches.  Yet one more cause for concern to long-established congregations is the growing segment of spiritual hybrids.  It is not unusual to find a younger person today that attends worship on a rotating basis in a number of churches (of different denominations and theologies), is part of a small discussion group at another church, works at the food pantry of a different church, who meditates twice a week at the Hindu temple, and goes on mission trips with a variety of other churches.  This individual is not a “member” anywhere, but is “active” everywhere.  To some long-time members, this appears to be a lack of commitment, while to the spiritual seeker it feels like the very highest level of commitment.

So what?  Is the only way we are going to reach young adults to do it on their terms?  Yes and no (wasn’t that helpful?).  Young individual seekers have the same level of control that everyone else has — no one makes us go to church once we reach a certain age (or maturity level).  We go where we feel connection.  We go where we feel fed and nurtured.  We go where we grow.  We go where we are equipped to live our faith in the world.  If we don’t get something of value, we don’t go.  That hasn’t changed.  We, as the church, are not in the business of changing people to suit us.  We can’t change young people into cookie cutter clones of our ideal young Christian church-goers (shudder…).  What we can do is prepare the soil of our own congregational fields in a few key ways:

  1. make it okay to ask questions, even in worship
  2. put as much attention and focus on spiritual formation and Christian service as on worship
  3. share power — let new comers have ideas, responsibility and authority (this does NOT mean put them on a committee!!!)
  4. understand that the “radical hospitality” that 35 and olders enjoy is not the same as the under 35 crowd; be friendly, authentic, and respect boundaries — most under 30s are not coming to church to make friends (yet); they are scoping out the lay of the land to see what the church believes, what it teaches, what it expects, and what it can do to help the individual grow.  Impress newcomers with your integrity and impact, not smiles and cookies.
  5. know thyself!  Young adults are very interested in what the congregations knows and believes.  Anything that sounds canned or rehearsed will be viewed with suspicion.  Any question that can’t be answered will cause raised eyebrows.  A young woman asked a person sitting next to her what position The United Methodist Church holds on the death penalty and the woman stammered “An eye for an eye, I guess.”  I leaned over and told the visitor about our Social Principles and that we are opposed to the death penalty.  The long-time Methodist looked at me and said, “Social Principles?  I’ve never heard of those.  Who made those up?!”  These kinds of situations are a real turn-off to newcomers of all ages, but especially to younger seekers who highly value understanding what a church believes and how it behaves.

There is so much more to say, yet I really should not be the one to say it.  Most of what is being taught and talked about concerning 18-34 year-olds is coming from 50+ year olds like me.  The most we can share is what we have heard and observed talking with the 18-34 year old segment.  And perhaps nothing more can be offered than this:  we simply need to listen — non-defensively, non-judgmentally, non-threateningly, and will a deep desire to understand and grow.  The church we have is not necessarily the church for everyone.  Unless we are willing to adapt and change, we will never be transformed.  And so much of the energy and spirit we need rests with the people who most challenge us to do church differently.  Let’s not make it any harder than it already is for young people to find a spiritual home with us.

30 replies

  1. I agree entirely with this! As a young adult…
    I’m looking for a church that can answer all my questions, and I’ve found that each answer leads to more questions.
    I get really frustrated with churches who say and talk and preach, but no one ever DOES anything. I don’t want to talk, I want to change the world.
    I was the youth pastor of a small town church for a while, and I would get everything from raised eyebrows to calls to have me fired when I quoted people calling Christianity a “revolutionary religion” or took my kids downtown to feed the homeless. That always made me sad.

  2. Dan,

    I agree with your assessment about the general difficulties involved in church research. It is truly of variable quality and usefulness, and if we don’t even have access to the questions asked we can’t draw valid conclusions across studies with any confidence.

    On the affiliation question, however, the Pew reports DID factor in atheists and agnostics, and the finding was these were a relatively small percentage of the “nones” and of the “disaffiliated” (folks who had been affiliated but no longer were). These numbers were small enough not to make much statistical difference in the overall sample, though they could be identified.

    I would see the multiplication of congregations to be a)and artifact of the massive church starting work happening when Christianity was growing in the US (which it no longer is) and b) part of the reason we have fewer viable congregations overall… too many choices in a shrinking market is not sustainable for them all to survive.

    Intuitively it would seem a congregation(of whatever age demographic) that isn’t proactive about connecting with its public in this glut market would have less likelihood of longer term survival.

    But I guess I’d note that I haven’t seen any rigorous research that actually demonstrates that intuition, or, as importantly, teases out the relationships of various factors (dependent, independent, correlating, contextual– including issues of size, culture, and longevity) that would be descriptive if not completely predictive of thid intuited outcome.

    Who can we find to do this rigorous work?

  3. It’s not clear to me that this is limited to a generational cohort effect.

    The Pew Report on Religion among the Millennials shows rather convincingly that religious dis-affiliation across the board– for nearly all religious groups– has outpaced religious affiliation for about 70 years in the US– and in the past 20 years or so, dis-affiliation has rapidly escalated, again for all groups. While the overall “nones” rate among all Americans now sits at 16.1%, for persons 18-25, that rate is 33%, and steadily climbing.

    These patterns are similar elsewhere in the first world global North and West as well, just even more accentuated in Europe, England, Australia and New Zealand.

    So to treat this as a generational issue unique to United Methodists or even unique to mainline Protestant Christians would be misleading. It appears to be part of a much larger trend.

    The deal is, we don’t know what this trend means. Pew was the first to document it so conclusively, but the rigorous work to unpack what it means just hasn’t been done. Plenty of guesses out there, some more educated than others. But no definitive answers except this one: we cannot predict or directly control where it may head as a trend.

    What we can do, and what we should be doing all along, is to build discipling relationships with others of many ages, supporting each other to follow the way of Jesus.

    We we know is NOT working now, with few exceptions, is the notion that the first opening to this is a worship service that will “attract young people” (or name you “target audience”) to come to us.

    • Those who read me regularly know that I don’t hold generational theory in high regard, nor do I accept our current numbers concerns as a recent phenomenon. The other obfuscating reality is that research in relgion done over the past 100 years is all about comparing apples and oranges. Different questions are asked for different purposes with different definitions and then the results are compared as though they are measuring the same things. Look at research from the 1950s. There was a category often used labelled “unaffiliated”. Agnostic and atheist were often not even accepted or reported in the first half of the 20th century. Today, all those from the former unaffliliated category are place in agnostic or atheist. The conclusion? That these two categories are among the fastest growing!! Come on… Trend research is much more art than science, and those creative enough can find research (or design it) to “prove” anything they want it to (yes, even myself). In the time that our U.S. population tripled (X3), the number of churches (of all types and flavors) increased eleven-fold (X11) — you do the math. Why have many of our older, more rigid, less outreaching churches declined? Hhmmmmmm, I wonder.

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