Last night I logged on to Facebook and immediately came across a piece written by my 34-year-old son, prompted by some experiences his family (Brian, his wife Lyda, and their two daughters Ashley and Ayla, ages 5 and 2) have had in their local congregation. If you're paying attention, you will have understood that those girls are our grandchildren, so all of this has context for me.
I was surprised by the thoughtful reflections and the powerful recommendations he made, not because I thought him incapable of such reflection, far from it, but because I had no idea he had given this much analysis to issues of church life. That was a learning moment for me.
The Facebook piece got a lot of positive response and it's been reposted a number of times. I thought people who read this blog would enjoy Brian's essay. I wish I had written it myself, but I didn't. So the best I can do is claim he comes from good stock and turn this page over to him. For one day.
The Church as Community: A Young Adult Perspective
by Brian McMurray
I seem to be hearing a lot lately about churches having a concern that the young adult membership isn't as engaged as it used to be. There are several reasons as to why that may be - but the more compelling topic is how to change it. I've thought about this quite a bit and I have a few ideas of what a modern church might do to engage this age group. These are only my own thoughts.
1. Be a community, not a religion. I'll be honest, the "religion" part of church is not why I'm there. It never has been. Sure, that's important (and as I get older it is becoming more important) but I believe that the conversation that takes place AFTER church is more important than what happens during the service. I would make this time something your church focuses on. Focus on your community, not just your worship and you'll attract new members more easily.
2. Sunday school should be an opportunity for supporting each other. We've recently made our Young Adult Sunday school time into a discussion group. One week we'll discuss a current issue in society and then alternate the next week with a discussion of our own lives. This turned Sunday school time into a much needed support group for our young adult families. I now look forward to Sunday school, something I never even used to attend.
3. Be even more accepting of young kids. Sure every church thinks they're accepting of kids but there's a difference between tolerating a child in a service and actually gearing your service or other activities to include young children. The entire service doesn't have to be this way and it doesn't have to be every week - but kid friendly moments (not just story time) during a service make a huge difference in the way I, and frankly my kids, feel about church.
4. Use technology (audio/video/internet) in your church. If you're not at least on the road to modernizing and using technology in your church, you might as well give up now because you'll be obsolete in 5-10 years - tops. If you don't have a young adult helping with this stuff in your church - ask. In my case, this was exactly how I wanted to help in my congregation. I saw this as a way I could contribute to a need the congregation had.
5. When you want me to help with something - make it easy for me to sign up. Don't call me on the phone in the middle of the day and talk for an hour about what you want. Be specific, give me a quick way to sign up to help and I'll let you know if I can (this is actually one of the main reasons we built the product we did recently at Opus).
6. Don't hit me over the head with money or time commitment requests. If you are doing the steps above - creating a community, giving support, being accepting of kids, the money and time commitments will come because you're creating a relationship with me. As me time frees up (basically as my kids grow older and more independent) it will be difficult for me to turn my back on that relationship. Everyone knows they should give some time and money to their church. In fact, most young adults admit to feeling guilty if they aren't. It's ok to ask for help and it's great for everyone to know the budgetary needs of the congregation - but don't make it seem like it's the only reason I'm there or you'll drive me away.
7. Allow casual dress. Sometimes people want to dress up, sometimes they don't. You don't want to have a church that judges others based on what they wear. Let people wear what makes them comfortable, especially if they're not participating in the service. Many will choose to dress formally, some will dress more casually but you'll make people more comfortable and thus, feel more positively toward your church.
8. Stop judging my friends. I grew up with several gay friends - which is not uncommon these days. If my denomination doesn't support my friends' right to love the person they love or marry the person they want to marry - and ESPECIALLY if my denomination won't allow my friend to participate as a minister - then my denomination doesn't accurately represent me and it makes it very difficult for me to support it with my time or money now or in the future. I'm sure people disagree with me (or have the exact opposite opinion) but look at the world around you and ignore this at your own peril. I believe that the churches who focus on acceptance and community over division and requirements will be the most successful in the end.
I'm sure there's plenty to disagree with for some people on my list - and that's fine. This is just my opinion, if you disagree, that's cool. I will say that I'm glad to be a part of a church (Walnut Gardens) that already does all of these things (it's where I got the idea for this post). We have great older membership that really reaches out to include the young adults. It's not unusual for the young adults go to movies with the senior members just because they like hanging out together.
But I realize it's not like this everywhere. From my perspective, these changes are all worth making if you want to re-engage with young adults and see your congregation grow in the future.