What young people want

August 21, 2016

Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Timothy 4:6-12; Luke 13:10-17

Nearly every week I hear the lament:  “I wish there were more young people in the church!”  Our faith, is precious to us, and we want to share it with succeeding generations.   Many wonder why their own children or grandchildren show no interest.  Surely God is working in their lives as God has worked in ours!  Scripture has many stories of the young being blessed and called by God, from the young boy Samuel who heard God’s voice speaking to him in the night, to Jeremiah the prophet who was “a youth” when God called him.  Jesus himself was a young man by today’s standards – possibly somewhere in his 30s when he was baptized and began his ministry.    If the Spirit of God is still working in the world – if God has not ceased speaking to the young – then why aren’t those in the 20something to 50something bracket in church?

We all know about the growing secular culture, the work/church conflict, the sports/church conflict, the shopping/church conflict, the multiple options for spiritual and religious practice that now fill our lives.  So it’s really not surprising that there are fewer people attending churches on Sunday mornings.  What IS surprising to some is the growing interest in spiritual issues and practices among young to middle aged adults.   Perhaps at least some of this is the Holy Spirit working OUTSIDE the church – which, after all, the Holy Spirit has been known to do.

God doesn’t stick to the rules, even religious rules!  If God wants to do something, God does it, even if it outrages our sense of what is religiously appropriate.  Today’s story from Scripture is a good example of that, and there are many others.  Elsewhere when Jesus contravenes Sabbath rules and is taken to task, he says, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”  Perhaps today Jesus might say, “The church was made to meet people’s spiritual needs; people were not created to meet the church’s needs.”  Painful, but true.

Maybe it’s true today that the Spirit is sometimes working apart from our traditional religious practice, because our traditional religious practice is not speaking the love of Jesus to the hearts, minds and need of many in this age group!  I did a little informal poll of some people I know and asked what, in their opinion and experience, the spiritual and life issues are for the 20 somethings to early50somethings.  I’m in this age group myself, so I can really relate to much of what they said.

Then I thought about how the church can meet this group of people where they are –  instead of expecting them to meet us where we are, in the ways that are most comfortable for us.  The church has much to offer this age group, when we take a closer look at what matters most to them.

Here are some of the things that were named (recognizing that it’s always difficult to generalize based on a small sample).

  1. A regular spiritual practice that feels authentic to them. Some of the practices mentioned are Buddhist meditation, various forms of energy-healing based on Hindu or Chinese practice, A Course in Miracles –psychically-channeled messages from Jesus (yes, that’s what they claim!), variations on Positive Thinking like “The Secret”, singing gospel or inspirational music.  In Christian circles, spiritual practices can include healing touch, choral singing, Bible or topical studies,  Christian meditation and centring prayer, labyrinth, pilgrimages (like the Camino hike in Spain) and regular worship that young people actually connect with in spaces they will feel comfortable entering.
  2. Finding a balance between work and the rest of their lives, especially their family life. If church is seen as something that upsets the fragile balance rather than helping to support and preserve it – well, you can see why it wouldn’t be attractive to younger people, especially given that for Millenials especially their greatest goals are to be good parents and to have a happy and successful marriage. (http://spiritualbutnotreligious.ca/millennials-spiritual-but-not-religious/)

This is why it’s so important to encourage whole families to participate in something together– so that spiritual time is also family time, not in competition with family time.  This makes effective ministry to men essential, as the vast majority of women come to the church without their spouses.  Any ideas folk have to reach that missing demographic, I’d love to hear!  I’m pretty sure it’s not going to start out in the pews of the church, though.  This is where chaplaincies play a big role: military, hospital, university, inner city, residential care, rehab centres – and maybe it’s time for workplace chaplains too!

  1. Related to this is time pressure – how to find quiet and calm in a 24/7 world. This is another place where ancient Christian spiritual practices can be a gift. Prayer services that promote quiet time and quiet music can also help, though they may not be the first thing some young people gravitate to.
  2. Supporting, assisting and caring for both their children and their aging parents. Ministry in this area used to be a great strength for the Christian church, with its armies of caring and committed people ready to bring a casserole, help with gardening, take a child to the playground, or visit a lonely pensioner. It still is a strength of churches with strong pastoral care teams and enough healthy members that they can go out and help others.  As we age, we may have to look into some creative ways to help make this happen despite our own increasing frailties.  Perhaps arranging meet-ups via social networking between those with skills and time and those who need help might be one way to do this.
  3. A passion for the natural world and what is happening to it in their generation. Many churches have community garden projects, or adopt a piece of road way to keep free of litter, or operate on “green” principles for energy.  Many also are strong advocates for environmental action, grounding the concern in the sacredness of God’s creation and our role as stewards of that gift.  Our own church began Langford’s first recycling program out of a care for the environment.
  4. Various types of addictions – either their own or a family member’s. The 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous that has brought so many people help is rooted in Christian teaching and practice; in fact, I’ve often thought that if churches looked more like AA that would be a good thing.  Did Jesus not call the church to seek and to save the lost?  This is one reason why churches like ours host so many different 12-step programs.   Due to the commitment of these programs to remain non-partisan, they will never be a place for preaching or teaching Christianity explicitly. But they will always be a place and time for Christian principles and practice such as confession, atonement and reconciliation to transform people’s lives.  Over the years, a number of people who attend programs in our building have found their way to a relationship with Jesus.
  5. A need for community. Social isolation is becoming a huge issue for all ages, despite online social networking. Church communities can provide opportunities for people to get together both virtually and in reality – but they’re going to have to look different from a Sunday morning church pew for most people in this age bracket.  Our community dinner is one example; West Village Church’s and Canvas Church’s community barbecues and fun days are other examples.  Many churches sponsor home groups where people can share a meal or munchies and informal conversations about faith.  Remember the Adult Sunday School Sherri Beecroft used to run?  That was a great idea!   It might even be time for your minister to actually put on a clergy collar or have a wee sign made and hang out in the coffee shop instead of hanging out at the church!
  6. For younger folk in university, a sense of meaning and purpose for their lives. They don’t want to be defined by their future employment prospects – especially since those employment prospects might not be what they hope. How to live and earn money while following their sense of calling and vocation in life is a real dilemma for people these days.  Discussion groups geared at young adults, such as the ones sponsored by our Interfaith Chaplaincy at UVic can be really helpful to this age group.  ALL United churches need to support these ministries any way we can.
  7. The gap between expectations of what life would be like at a certain point and the reality of life as it is. This is an expensive region to live in, and it generally takes at least two incomes to maintain the standard of living. Younger people are, for the first time, looking at having a lower standard of living than their parents. Many have been raised with privileges, treats and extras that their parents couldn’t have imagined, but are now experiencing a kind of downward mobility, or racking up large debts to keep up the standard they’ve come to expect.  Many are finding it hard to get into the fields they’ve studied in, and many too, are finding it more difficult to build lasting relationships with a partner, or to build a family together.  Delays to marriage also lead in many cases to problems conceiving – a devastating experience for many couples.  The church can offer support and a place to ask questions and seek ways to live with what their life is, or to find support in pursuing a deeper and more purposeful life.

Something that I noticed wasn’t mentioned, but I’ve heard from those who actually come to the church seeking guidance, is

  1. A sense of values and a moral compass for their children. Many parents are alarmed by the cultural values represented in the media their children consume:  YouTube videos, Facebook posts, online games, TV, movies or music.  They’re looking for a place that will support them in promoting generosity, kindness, compassion, justice-seeking, simple living, environmental awareness and inclusivity.  These are values embodied in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and solidly represented in the teachings of Jesus.

So it is not as if Christianity and the Christian church have nothing to offer this age group.  In fact, the reverse is true.  As faithful Christian people who love Jesus and want to share him with our neighbours, we’re going to have to get creative about how we do this.  A recent study from the U.S. that looked at young adults of 18-35 who actually participate in church, reported that churches with larger portions of young people (critical mass is considered 15%)  were

  • “Better at incorporating newcomers into the congregation
  • More spiritually vital and alive
  • More caring and supportive of members
  • More willing to meet new challenges
  • More social justice oriented
  • Different from other congregations in their community

In churches where increasing numbers of young adults attend, worship is central and often seen as innovative in some ways. …Coupled with the quality of the worship is greater emphasis on reaching others through worship, incorporating technology, and often modeling diversity.

While worship is the primary way young adults participate in church, half of them engage in activities beyond worship. …this is a pattern that matches members of thriving congregations as a whole. This tends to point to a congregation with a strong mission that elicits passion and participation by all members well beyond the worship service. Young adults tend to worship where there are groups specifically designed for young adult fellowship. Community service also ranks high for young adult participation.”  https://www.churchleadership.com/leading-ideas/churches-young-adults-attend/

So there we are.  God can speak to the hearts of modern-day Samuels, Isaiahs, John the Baptists, Miriams and Hagars without us, but those people need a community to support and uphold their faith.  That’s our job!  Some of that ministry may be outside our walls, some of it may be inside, but I’m guessing that one way or another much of it will not look like what we have now.

No church can be all things to all people – but all churches are called to cooperate with the working of the Spirit in the world.  So we keep our eyes open, pay attention, and when we see miracles happening and lives being changed, or even just the beginnings of a hint that something is happening in the lives of this group of people, let’s not get in the way or become jealous or rigid about what God is doing.  Instead, let’s celebrate it, work with it, build on it, and see where the Spirit takes us.  You can guarantee it will be somewhere exciting, challenging and life-changing.

In the end, it’s really not so much about what young people want, or about what seniors want, but about what God calls us to – and that is a vital, thriving ministry of sharing the Gospel in word and deed across the generations and into the future.  May it be so.

 

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