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. ah yes, my favorite 21st Prophet…(yes — you, Mr. Dan Dick !!!)

    –People Who Make Us Uncomfortable
    –the POWER STRUGGLE !!! which makes me ROTFL
    because position and power in a local church are
    neither !! pure outright DROSS
    –Earning your “place” (a.k.a being able to eat
    at other than the “kids table)

    just 4 of some of the issues that I see that are dysfunctional conduct and “policy” and unfortunately, accepted (bad) behaviours that we/us “church folks” apply to what we think, what we do, what we say, and how we treat “new people”.

    How easily we forget the basic Scriptural Directives, Central Message of the GOSPEL, and, not-withstanding, our rich tradition of the WESLEYAN UNDEDRSTANDING of how to conduct our lives?

    May God Have Mercy On Us All
    Todd Anderson

  2. It is also good to honestly ask why we want to attract young adults. We know what the answer should be, but it is awfully transparent to young adults when the true, but unspoken reason is that it makes us feel better about ourselves as a church, or it will impress our judicatory leaders, or we think it is what we need to do to survive as a congregation.

  3. Loved this: “Impress newcomers with your integrity and impact, not smiles and cookies.”

    In fact, quite a few of us younger folk really do NOT want to make friends at first. Few things make me more uncomfortable in a church than being put right on the spot, asked my life history, and being touched by a bunch of strangers.

    • Shannon – that’s not just for younger folk! I’m over 50 and I do NOT like being put in the spotlight by a bunch of strangers either!

  4. Thanks Dan. I needed that blog today. It can get very easy to try to push the right way and a spiritual home on my young friends. The statistics and analysis you offered are wonderful. But what really hit me as an important reminder today was your closing: “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.” Great lessons there–for me anyway.

  5. I have not read anything as right-on about what this demographic is seeking until now. Were these some of the findings 10 years ago or are you reflecting on the culture today? We (as UMs) do a lot of studies, but never seem to do much with what we’ve learned.

    • I haven’t done anything new with the research since 2008, but between the seeker study in the early 00s and my dismissal in 2008 I spent hundreds of hours on college campuses, in coffee houses, and in conversations with post-high school young people entering the workforce. Some things changed slightly, but there are some striking similarities between groups as they go through different phases of life — graduation, leaving home, first full-time employment, house-hunting (buying/renting/leasing), marriage, children, single-hitting-thirty, etc.

      I believe the biggest difference between the research I did and what I have seen others do was the amount of time doing face-to-face interviews rather than surveys and small group sampling. I couldn’t get my head around the life experiences of the 18-34 year olds without talking to a whole lot of them a whole lot of the time! That may be why some of it resonates more — I try to relate stories and specific quotes rather than generalities (though I make some of those, too — see Ben Gosden’s comment and my reply). It broke my heart that the General Board of Discipleship decided to pull the plug on my Seeker research and nothing got published. I have my notes, but I found out recently that all the raw data and verbatims were trashed, so they never will see the light of day. Sigh…

  6. “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.”

    Just a little push-back from a pastor who happens to also be a young adult (28 years old). Young people aren’t necessarily approaching church from this sort of utilitarian angle. On the contrary, I think the power of technology has led many of us to desire actual community even more. There are, however, a couple of caveats from the “boomer value” you mention. 1) Flexibility: the church has to understand the need for flexibility and mobility and how the two interplay in the lives of young adults. 2) Authenticity: You’ve done a great job of already describing this. The simple way to describe is that young adults won’t hang around very long with a church community that is a community in name or association only. It must come with a gradual move toward a more complete reflection of a life as a disciple.

    Big fan of your work, Dan. I’d love to have more dialogue with you on this topic sometime.

    • I think we’re on the same page, Ben. The point I hopefully am making is that relationships, while important, may not be the driving factors in the same way Boomers and older describe them. I can’t tell you the number of interviews I had where people said, “I can make friends almost anywhere. What I want/need from the church is what I can’t get other places as easily — a deeper understanding of God and a deeper understanding of my own purpose in life.” I got the distinct impression that if these two values weren’t being met, the person wouldn’t stick around no matter how much they liked the other people. This is overstating — there are exceptions to every rule — but I know of “older” generations where people will stay in a church that isn’t feeding them spiritually — where they may even disagree with the theology and teaching — yet they hang around because of their friends. I don’t see that same trend with many folks under 40. I think this may be one reason that so many “hospitality” efforts fail with younger people — once they get past the warm welcome there simply isn’t any substance to help them move toward discipleship. Being friendly is a far cry from being a friend and I do think all ages look for the potential of building new relationships, but from the conversations I have had with the 18-34 crowd relationships come in third behind relevancy and faith development.

  7. Time for a new kind of missionary, a new apostle, to call the church into being where young people are? One who looks and thinks like they do, a young person. One who leads by example, drawing their peers to service (and piety?). How do we find, equip, and SUPPORT this missionary? Do we fear their competition for our members (or who we think should be our members)? Do we allow them to create new congregations in our “territories”? Do we need to RETHINK what that congregation might look like, what membership might mean? Can it even fit in our Discipline? Does it have to?

    • OK Rex – you hit one of my hot buttons – RETHINK CHURCH. I really wish the Rethink Church was truly rethinking what church can and could be. Instead it seems to be a re-has of Igniting Ministries – how to make people feel comfortable in our churches.

      Isn’t that part of the problem with the younger people? They don’t need to feel comfortable – they need to feel that they can make a difference. Maybe we need to make the exiting members of our churches a little uncomfortable by challenging them to make a difference!

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