Wednesday, June 19, 2013

"What Young People Want In Church..."

...is something that I am not actually sure of.  But I am going to make an effort to identify some of these things.

I am in a preaching intensive class this week at Luther Seminary.  Yesterday one of my classmates (a woman in her late fifties) delivered a sermon in which she used powerpoint slides.  Her reasoning for doing this was that "Young people want this in a church and they are more likely to come to our church if we do multimedia sermons."  Ummm...no.

I felt compelled to speak out on behalf of young people.  The three of us in my lab but also young people everywhere.  By no means do I have all the answers and this is just a starting point.  But I do have some unique qualifications to speak to this:
-I am a young person (I'll be 30 in a month)
-I have spent a lot of time in non-traditional congregations over the last few years
-I am training to become a pastor
-I have a call to speak change into the church

So here are some of my thoughts about this.  Please chime in as you feel so moved.

1. Young people want innovative things in church.
Now, this is going to seem to stand in direct opposition to what I said above, but bear with me.  Far too often faith communities latch onto the word "innovative" and think it means media in worship services, contemporary bands, and so on and so forth.  This is wrong.  This was maybe innovative 20-30 years ago.  Maybe not even then.  When I say innovative, I mean different from ordinary life.  I have a smart phone and a laptop that are with me constantly.  I am constantly connected and surrounded by a multimedia, multi-sensory experience.  In the church that I attend, I want something different.  We actually want to be fully present and have an experience of the divine.  We are not looking for entertainment.  Which leads me to my next point...

2. Young people want church to be part of the world
Congregations have gotten into a nasty habit of trying to appeal to young people, or furthermore any new people, by trying to make their churches as much like the "outside world" as possible.  This rests on at least two problematic assumptions.  First, that the church is separate from the world and, second, that we want to be isolated from it.  This is not true.  Just because your congregation has a coffee cart in the narthex, doesn't make me think you are cool and certainty doesn't make me want to come attend worship.  We want churches that are in touch with their neighborhoods and our country and our world.  This is not limited to once-yearly Habitat for Humanity builds or mission trips (that is another post entirely) to Mexico once every couple years or collecting food for the food pantry.  No, young people want their congregations to share life with their communities.  The good, the bad, and the ugly, which leads to...

3. Young people want church to be a place where they can be real
Coming of age as a young adult right now is a lonely and terrifying proposition.  We are disproportionately unemployed.  We are the first generation who are "worse off" than our parents.  We are drowning in debt.  We are putting off getting married and having children and owning homes.  We will likely never realize the American dream as it has been known in the past.  We are being bombarded with demands to "hold it together" and maintain a certain image because networking is important and we "never know what contact will help us get a job".  There are very few places where we can be truly who we are.  Where we can share our pain and disappointments and joys and fears. Church can be that place.  But most of all, we want to be heard in all of who we are, which brings me to...

4. Young people are tired of having assumptions made about them
"Young people" are often seen as a commodity.  And furthermore, seen as THE commodity that will save the church.  A church is seen as thriving if it has young adults and we sometimes feel only like numbers and a bullet point in the strategic plan.  We are talked about and around and all sorts of people have ideas about what we want and what we need, most of which is wrong.  There is a pretty easy way forward.  People could ASK us what is important to us, which leads to...


5. Young people want to feel valued in the church
We want to have opportunities to serve and learn in faith communities.  But it is not as simple as keeping the existing structure of volunteer positions and leadership structure and plugging in young adults.  How about getting to know us and identifying and nurturing our gifts?  This is an entirely opposite approach than currently exists and it is scary.  If you want us to lead, you might have to step out of the way to make room for us. Which leads me to...

6. Young people aren't interested in maintaining the status quo in church
The Derek Penwell article, What if the kids don't want our church?, has been floating around for awhile  and I have even written about it on this blog before.  This is painful but I am just going to say it, we don't really want your church.  This is not a value judgment.  It just is.  The Baby Boomer generation is perhaps the first in American history that has had such a wide swath of products and experiences targeted especially towards them.  They received this well.  And this huge and gifted generation has assumed that everyone else wants the same thing that they do.  We do not.  We want the same opportunities that you all have received to re-imagine and re-shape what church can be.  Which opens the discussion of...


7. Young people value authenticity
Authenticity gets thrown around as a marketing tool, particularly in churches.  Young adults have a finely tuned ability to smell inauthenticity and nothing is more pathetic than a carefully crafted facade of being "authentic."  We want congregations to recognize their own gifts and identity and live into that. Not every congregation can stand for everything and not every congregation is going to be able to be a place where young adults find a church home.  But that is okay, because we need to leave room for the Holy Spirit to do what she will and form and reform our congregations and our leaders which leads me to my final points...

8. We are open to where the Spirit is leading us and we want our churches to recognize that
Those of us who are a part of faith communities are incredibly faithful.  Our religious practices look different.  We want to discuss theology in bars with our friends.  We want to experience worship, not just attend it.  We want to sing hymns loudly and badly in pubs with our congregations.  When we start becoming engaged in congregations, it might look different than our parents and grandparents, but it is no less valid.  

9. Those of us who sense a call to serve want to be raised up as clergy in the church
We are young.  We are faithful.  We are LGBTQ.  We have tattoos.  We sometimes swear.  We have made mistakes.  We will continue to do so.  We are no different from you, yet we are so different from you. We need to be mentored by you, but we also need for you to allow us to fly and to be moved by the Holy Spirit.  

10. We want to hear when we need to step back and let a new generation lead
We won't be young forever.  Even though we are often the youngest in congregations, we will continue to age.  And if our church communities are doing what they hope we will, we won't be the youngest.  And we need to learn when to get out of the way for something new to happen as well.  At that point, we will need you to help us know how to gracefully step aside.  

This is not an exhaustive list and I would love to have this conversation continue

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Really appreciated this blog. I'm in my 50s but even I would like a lot of what is mentioned! I haven't attended a church in a long time. The ELCA churches around here are stuck in a time warp. The evangelical churches know how to get people involved and spiritually nourished--but I don't agree with their doctrine. I'd like a good small-group Bible study that doesn't lump us into categories (men, women, seniors). I'd like worship on a Saturday evening. I'd like liturgical worship done well. Don't get me started on so-called contemporary worship! I think it hasn't changed since the 70s.

Aram said...

I know what they don't want. Via my 27 year old daughter: they don't want to be catered/pandered to.

Ellen H. said...

Awesome, Amy. So agree. Our daughter has visited churches in LA and has felt that she is being marketed to, as if they are trying to speak the "cool" language of youth. Bleh. She doesn't go back.

Katie Riggs said...

Thanks! I feel a lot of this. I'm in my mid-20s, and recently moved (and so was "church shopping"). I like my current church but they could do a lot better-- I feel in many ways that I'm a token "young adult" and still treated like I've just graduated Sunday school. I agree authenticity is so important, but what may be the most important to most people in this demographic is being able to connect to people who aren't treating you as a demographic. I want to be able to connect to people living out the same struggles I am, and help me grow spiritually.
That's the other thing-- people in their mid-20s are generally not in the same place in their spiritual life as the boomers in their churches, and it can be pretty hard to find the right niche for real exploration or growth.
But as you say, I'm just one person with one voice and one experience.

Debra said...

Thanks for this. I have spent some time with young adults in the church and my own experience as a spiritual director is that young people-and I would think all people-want a church that is real and that isn't afraid to be itself.

Adrian said...

Amy,

Good truths, keep pressing on into those points. "He Who has an ear, Let Him hear". Rev.

The Church is evolving and changing and nothing will prevent that. It is obvious you are not fighting it but going on and being a part of the beauty in it.

dbuck said...

Thanks Amy. All good stuff. In keeping with the spirit of your first nine points, I'm making an assumption about your tenth point. I assume, instead of meaning "step aside," you meant "make room for the new?" One of the biggest surprises I've learned, having just gone "north" of 70 y.o., is that many of my contemporaries are NOT of the WWII, wing nut, I'm-right-and-you're-a-lazy-liberal mentality. To the contrary, many of us are praying that the Spirit of God will breathe fresh on us a new revitalization that sweeps the old ways out, but not the older people. There is a justified perception that, once a person reaches 60 y.o., the younger people, because they have no money, want the "old farts" to write the checks and then get out of the way (step aside). Many of the older people are desperately wanting to be included in the "new thing that God will do." My hope is that far from "stepping aside," a way can be found for all generations to use their gifts and graces for the community of faith and the parish. Many of my age group, when they cry out about the need for young people, are really saying that they want a younger version of themselves. But that's not true of many, many of us. Many of us have boundless energy, flexible thinking, and a missional heart. Don't ask us to step aside, ask us to "make a large inclusive space" for those younger. btw, I've just finished my Mdiv, have completed all requirements, and am seeking my first call. Blessings upon you, girl, and shalom.

Harry said...

Another thing I would add — as a 60-year-old spouse of a gay Episcopal priest — is that the young people in our church want to love us. They want to be close enough to us to ask us intimate questions like "Are you more or less afraid of death when you get old?" They want to be able to talk about sexual mores in an open and frank way. They want to know our histories and they want us to listen to their dreams. They want us to be aware that they are different from us and they want to celebrate how we are different from them. They want to say the creed with us without having to buy into any implied confessional. And ultimately, they want to be brothers and sisters in a metaphysical journey that laughs at itself. They want us to listen, and they want to listen to us.

Kelsey said...

Good points. This is the kind of conversation I would love to have in person. I would have some points to add from the perspective of a twentysomething who came to know Christ as an adult. I see many evangelical churches who know how to put butts in seats and 'recruit,' but cannot follow through with an educational, growing ability to lead all Believers closer to Christ, whether that be new Believers or those who are mature in their walk, or anyone in between. And some churches speak directly to Believers alone and do not preach with the intent to bring new Christians into the Church. There are no clear answers, but discussions with many perspectives always help.

Roger Wolsey said...

I just want to observe here that, contrary to popular perception and certain recent blogs, not all young people are fleeing the Church. Some young people very much want in and here's what some of them are looking for. : )

May God bless your current and future ministries Amy.

Roger Wolsey author, "Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don't like chrisitanity"

Robin Donnelly said...

Religion isn't about judgement or superiority over others. Religion should give people hope, make them feel welcomed, loved and like they belong, not segregated and less than.

You can't tell people in one breath they were known to God before they were even born and God doesn't make junk, then turn around and tell them they will burn in another breath. If there's a God, he can judge behaviors and lifestyles, it's not the job of the congregation to do that. Big turn off.

You should walk into any church and feel better than when you walked in- not the other way around. That's what the Jesus I think existed would want. If you want to reach people of any age, this is what they want. Just my two cents.

Blake said...

As a 23-year-old, I really appreciated this post. I will soon be moving to Minneapolis and I'm so excited for "church shopping," and reading this helped me reflect and center on what I really value and need from a faith community. (Which, by the way, is basically everything in this post.)

Amy, you mention we like churches to not be afraid to be what they're meant to be, without trying to be everything. I couldn't agree more. As a little anecdote, I once attended a very tiny Methodist Church in a small town in Northern Minnesota with my Aunt and Uncle. This church had done some serious reflection, and had decided that their "niche" was retired people and radical hospitality. I was probably the only person in the church without an AARP membership on that Sunday, but because they were so proud and secure in their identity, I felt much more at home than if I had been pandered to. They gave me a coffee mug during the service, sang happy birthday to me (it was my birthday the next week) during their potluck lunch (which they have every Sunday), and weren't afraid of being a bunch of retired people with a 20-something in their midst. Instead, they engaged me like they would anyone their own age, and it made me feel like I belonged more than any other church I've visited. While I wouldn't permanently join that church, that sense of identity and purpose is exactly what I'm looking for.

Bryan Kearney said...

I don't want to be preached to at church. Yes, you read that correctly. It is difference between hearing this on Sunday - "You know what you ought to do." and hearing this "You know what you can do." - slight difference in words, huge difference in meaning that produces an authentic experience for EVERYBODY not just the young. Where I live, there are very few churches that don't require you to check your brain in at the door, I don't need to be told what to do next by others who pretend they have answers. It is Christians like those on "Kissing Fish" on Facebook that keep me coming back each Sunday. It has been my experience that most churches deserve to have the young, old and whatever demographic you wish to count, fleeing out their doors.

Heidi Solberg Viar said...

I'm a middle-aged, second-career college student. I've been involved with Lutheran Campus Ministry and with evangelical parachurches. I found that the parachurches cared a great deal for how many people attended weekly meetings, how many people they "saved," following a curriculum, etc. In newsletters sent out to potential donors for all aspects of their ministries, that's what seemed to appear most in the "praises and prayers" sections of ministry reports. What I've found with LCM is the authentic, "let me be me, you be you, and let's let God work between us to make us the Body" openness and intimacy that young people crave. So, even as a middle-aged non-traditional student, I can make connections with people half my age because of this authenticity and our mutual goals in ministry, among ourselves and in the world. We are to be "in the world but not of it," and this does not mean isolating ourselves, as you say, but being out there as Christ's representatives, doing "Kingdom business" from our true hearts, every day, every hour.

Mountain HIgh said...

This is all very confusing for a 70-year old Methodist. "What Young People Want In Church...is something that I am not actually sure of." ?? They don't want powerpoint slides...(ok) "We actually want to be fully present and have an experience of the divine" (so, how do we set this up?). "Young people want church to be part of the world" (does this mean grappling with social and political issues? - there are plenty of those and I'd like us all to get engaged). "Young people want church to be a place where they can be real - where we can be truly who we are." (Does this mean social/study groups to get at these issues?) "...not as simple as keeping the existing structure of volunteer positions and leadership structure and plugging in young adults" (Then how do young adults enter into the life of the church?) "...we don't really want your church. We want... to re-imagine and re-shape what church can be" (and how would you do that?)
...and, what does "Authentic" really mean? Need more specifics!

Diane said...

yes, I am in my 50s and I want most or all of what you are saying as well.