Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Young Adults

My brother likes to say that young adults are not a field of sociological study, an observation which is especially true for people who happen to be young adults. For young adults, young adulthood is called life, and the tendency for the church to objectify young adults as a demographic to be analyzed and then "reached out to" seems a completely disconnected and sometimes even insulting endeavor.

I personally am dismayed by the almost desperate tendency to pin the "savior" lable on young adults and so-called "young adult ministries," whatever those are. It sometimes feels like church leaders think that, if we can just get enough people under 30 here, everything's going to be okay. All of the decline in membership and ministry and relevance and all that jazz will just magically go away if we can grab a hold of a few twenty-somethings and bring 'em in. My response, simply put, is that the church's approach to young adults is counterproductive. Let me 'splain:

Let's start with the premise: It seems as though there is an effort to get more young adults into the church by studying ways that the church can reach out to them. Now, do you hear that? The question on the table is how can "we" (the church) get "them" (the young adults) involved with "us" (the church again).

So, what usually happens next is that somebody who thinks they are clever says something pithy like, "The answer is to meet them where they are, not expect them to come to us." Have you heard that one before? But notice the problem with that line of thought is exactly the same problem as before - the artificial separation between "them" and "us" is still there. If "we" are metaphorically going to meet "them" where they are, young adults are still objectified and separated from the church, rather than thought of as the church themselves. This line of thinking says that young adults are a mission field, they are not part of the church.

What would happen if we started with the belief that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (i.e. Galatians 3) - and then added to that list OLD nor YOUNG? How would the church engage in ministry differently if we truly believed that and made that idea the foundation for what we do? What if, instead of "bringing them in" or even "meeting them where they are," we just let young adults (ALL adults, in fact) just be who they are and do what they do where they are, and everyone could just be okay with that.

Even my brother misses the mark sometimes. He has this big thing about bringing a rock concert experience into the church worship service. What if, instead of that, we just thought of the rock concert experience itself as worship? What if, instead of trying to find the magic program to install into our church ministry plan to attract young adults, we just gave people permission to rethink what church is all about in the first place?

Young adults, who are the church, could just do what they do, and everyone would be okay with it. Retirees, who are the church, could just do what they do, too, and everyone would be okay with that, too. Youth, who are the church, ... Children, who are the church, .... you get the idea. In fact, young adults and retirees (and youth and children for that matter) might just find themselves doing things together every now and then, and everyone would be okay with that, even.

There is no "them" and "us" - it's all us. Young adults are not the saviors of the church, they are the church, here and now, wherever they happen to be and whatever they happen to be doing.


Anonymous said...

emil anonymously said:

Anonymous said...

Andy, I agree with you on the whole idea. However, braving the step into the minutia, even after strenuously making your point to say that there should be no "we" and "them," but rather an "us" you still go back to using "them" language.

What I see here is a struggle to understand what it means to live as community - where there is no "we" and "them." The glory of experiencing the inbreaking of the reign of God is that it doesn't matter what programs you start or how many volunteers you have signed up to bring snacks for the Sunday morning breakroom or if the sanctuary was 3/4's full or standing-room-only - what matters is that God's grace is freely given to all, brining hope to a broken world and healing to a suffering people.

I think that if we center ourselves on this, we might begin to blur the lines of "we" and "them." Just a thought.


Anonymous said...

I have never in my life been asked to define myself more then when I started seminary. At one point in the beginning of the year someone asked if I was liberal or conservative...when I told them I didn't like to label myself they claimed that this was a liberal thing to say and labeled me that way! Today in a meeting when the concept of younger students coming to seminary came up...all eyes turned to me and I was expected to speak for all those born in the 80's. I get it, labels make society easier to deal with. The concept is that if I can name you I can then understand you. The church then says "If I can understand you I can then package God in a way that you will accept." Part of the problem may be that we are operating under the assumption that people are the church, when church may be a dynamic event and relationship that happens between those people. If we define church as people, which are easily labled, then of course we are going to have weird ideas of how to "program" for them. I loathe lame "young adult programs" I would much rather sit and knit with someone old enough to be my grandparent thank you very much. In imagining church, lets start thinking about relationships that help us see God, then we can say poo to labels.


Deb said...

Very well said Andy. I think I often get frustrated (as a young adult) with the mentality of the young adults as saviors. (Either as the clergy who has some magnetic force field that will miraculously draw her peers, or as the young adults brought in to be the work force of the future). I think we need young adults in the church not b/c they are the future, or we will die without them (note, being part of a church that is categorically or generally "old" leaves me to label a group, of which I am one, as "them"...interesting...). But rather, young adults should be part of our church (e.g., we should seek to reach them) simply b/c they are part of our demographic, unless you live in Leisure world. I'm a bit pragmatic on this point, but I feel the same way about various ethnic groups...if my community's demographic is X% group A and Y% group B, I'm of the mind that the church should be a reflection of that--including if group A or B is young adults. And secondly, stemming from the wisdom of a seminary professor, we don't grow the church through babies (read, "the next generation"), we grow the church through evangelism. Even if there were no future for the church or no next generation to be had (i.e., a known end to the world) there would still be cause for evangelism and church growth--the GOSPEL!

not very complete I feel, but that's what I got...

Adam said...

Hey Andy,

Good post. As a young adult myself, I feel you on the icky feeling that if we just had more young folks, we'd be ok.

But I don't think its wrong to have an "us" and a "them". Because in talking about the body of Christ, isn't it a fair assesment to say there are those that are a part of the body and those that are not?

In my church community, we try framing it up like this: Think about a family reunion. You've got your grandparents/great-grandparents, uncles, aunts, parents, and kids. So its wonderful to eat with everyone, play some washers with your uncle, maybe push one of the wee ones on the swing, but there's also something to be said about hanging out with your cousins around your age too.

I think young adults do have specific needs, but those can be addressed not just in a vacuum among themselves, but within the entire life of the church.

Lisa73 said...

And wouldn't the Church be really compelling for all ages if we honestly got back to the elements -- the fire, the water, the Spirit . . .


P.S. I think we crossed paths at a young adult clergy forum at GBCS a few years back?

Adam Caldwell said...

I'm gonna go with Mustoe on this one. Perhaps the most important aspect of all ministry is if it is truly transformational or not. I think the question then becomes, how or is what the church "does" (i.e., "doing what they do" as you state) transformational. If it's not then we need to look at it again. I don't think we need to have an us vs. them mentality but we certainly need to have an us AND them mentality in order to celebrate and love the differences.

I hear your frustration, but part of me thinks some may read this post and use it as an excuse to maintain the status quo. That would be sad.

Patrick Moore said...

I say three cheers for the status quo. And I say four cheers for Andy's post. I hope he will use his power as Dean of the School of Ministry and pursue this line of thinking in lining up speakers and topics. The church will not die out...we have always had enough old people to make it happen. I am a 38 year-old pastor, I have to confess that a church full of 20 somethings seems strange. I want to say to them, "what are you doing here...go out and live and make mistakes so we can use the 'carrot' of forgiveness to keep you here when you get older."
Peace out, Moore Boy

Kyleinkc said...

For me the question is why is the church not reaching more people regardless of age? I do not think it has as much to do with programs as it had to do with out dated thinking of we have always done it this way and that is has it has to be this way. I think one reason non denominational churches have taken off is they do not have to follow all the political drama of mainline denominations. I also believe many people do not believe in treating any people as second class citizens and therefore they do not participate in churches that do.

Andy B. said...

Great conversation here, y'all.

It is possible to eliminate "us versus them" thinking while still celebrating our differences. Saying "it's all us" doesn't have to go the next step to say, "and all of us are just the same." Far from it, the beauty of the church is the diversity within its unity. (Or maybe its unity at the core of its diversity.) And Adam GL is right, its about the fullness of community and learning how to flourish in a community.

Lisa - Yes! I was there.

Patrick - I'm thinking of a theme for Ministers' School 2010 that would be something like: "Change, Schmange: I Say Leave Good Enough Alone." What do you think? ;)

Brad said...

Alright, I'm a little late in response, but since I got called out by name twice in this post, maybe I should add my two cents.

I wrote a brilliant and eloquent comment and then realized it was longer than Andy's original post, so here's the bullet point version.

~No "us v them" would be great, but it doesn't exist RIGHT NOW. It is something to work towards and for which to strive.

~The struggle of the church right now is NOT generational. Authenticity, relevance, community, application are questions for every church in every context serving every group of people.
~That said, young people speak, learn, play, listen, serve, give, commune differently than older generations. And the church must learn together with young adults (yes, bishop, this is me raising my hand like a 3rd grader who needs to pee)how to work within this new reality. It's what Luther did with giving the Bible to the common folk, its what the Wesley's did with language and music, it's what my Dad's trio did in the 60s, and it's what we must do now. IT'S NOT THE CONTENT, IT'S THE METHOD.

Something I regularly leave out of posts on this subject is that i truly believe that God is alive and working in this world, that God is deeply involved in the lives of 90 yr olds and 9 yr olds and that if there were no UMC, God's ministry of truth, justice, peace and love would be just fine. And, I'm excited to be a part of it.

Oh, and just because I didn't make you Minister of Boring Classical Music and Opera, doesn't mean you have to call out the Rock Church. It's simply a pipe dream of mine of a new definition of worship experience for a certain context within the community of the churh. I still don't know if I'd call Eric Clapton's concert worship. But, here's the facts, I experienced God's presence, I was reassured of God's love for creation and I was awestruck by the capacities and abilities God has given us. Hmm, sound like worship?

One sinful pastor who desperately wants the world to know the staggering truth that the God of the stars loves us deeply, Brad

Brad said...

Oh, and three big loud boos and heckles for the status quo!!! Sorry, Patrick, but I'm on the absolute other end on this one...

Patrick Moore said...

I am just saying the status quo is all we got, meaning reality. Reality is all we have. We tend to miss all the good stuff like Eric Clapton concerts, Indigo Girl concerts, and my daughter's big blue eyes as evidence that God is alive and at work, when we keep looking and working for fruitfulness in the future. I am all about prophetic calls for change...but sometimes we miss some good stuff in the "here and now" status quo of life. (In the end I think we all agree that Andy's post is a good one and I like Brad's spunk).

Kyleinkc said...

I for one would love a disco service with the entire service revolving around Donna Summer music and scriptures and of course a mirrored disco ball. We could talk about how Jesus loves everyone even though society scorns and the let Donna Sing "Bad Girls". We could talk about the woman who gave all she had and then "She works hard for the money". We could talk about people who have left the church and then came back "This time I know its for real" And of course how some scripture is hard to understand "Macarthur Park" I have never understood the lyrics to that song! We could end the service with "Melody of love" and then everyone to Disco for fun and fellowship afterwards. I know no one else here would enjoy the service but I would be having "Heaven on the seventh floor"!

Anonymous said...

I have never heard the term "status quo" used in a postive way...and I never want to again! and while I am at it Why is the assumption that "young people" will make mistakes while anyone over 30 has it all figured out and can grow no further? Some of the dumbest decisions that have ever been made have been by middle aged people. Who do you think keeps on buying Celine Dion CD's and watching Oprah..big mistakes...huge!


Anonymous said...

emil anonymously said:

I heard your dad's group sing "Rocky Mountain High" in MoUMC in the 60s--maybe that's why I'm still a Methodist. :)

Anonymous said...

One thing that bothers me about all the talk of changing the church so that it can be relevant to the here and now and to the young people so many of whom think the church is woefully out of synch with the times, is that I seldom if ever hear words of thanks for the old-timers who worked their tails off to keep the church going and bring it to the here and now. In case you younger folks don't know it, there are quite a few old timers who are feeling very under appreciated - as though they are just being humored until they retire and get out of the way. A little more respect and appreciation would help a lot. Thanks. cb