There is a risk that any time I write about the church it will be taken as a critique against the church I currently work for. So I offer this as a disclaimer: If I am writing a post about “the church” it’s because I and my colleagues have experienced similar things in many different places, denominations, and environments to varying degrees of severity. It is never a critique about one situation or one place. It is always about patterns that I am seeing across the board that may or may not also be present (to some degree) in the church I am currently serving. So please do not take this as a rant against a particular place but as an insight about a pattern widely observed.
By the time I got to seminary I already had at least 4 years of church leadership experience (three of them full time). And that doesn’t even count various internships and other leadership opportunities (some of which I had starting as young as junior high). By the time I got to seminary I had already been tried and tested in actual church ministry. I knew that God was calling me to be there. In fact, the only reason I was pursuing seminary is because it would give me the legitimacy to continue doing what I had already been doing for years.
I was absolutely shocked when I found out that some of my classmates were getting their first taste of church leadership during their internship of their second year of seminary. This was the first time they were getting to lead anything. And for some of them they realized, quickly, that they had no idea what ministry in a church actually entailed. And they also realized that they weren’t called to it.
For others it wasn’t until after seminary, during the ordination process, that they were first asked hard questions about who they were and what they were called to do and forced to face what their talents and skills were (and their reasoning for pursuing ministry in the first place) . And when those committees then questioned their calling the hurt was deep and, for some, unable to be overcome.
(Caveat: I know that the ordination process in many traditions is completely unjust and biased toward anyone who is not a straight white cisgender male. I know that it is cost prohibitive, racist, transphobic, sexist, and requires offensive and prejudicial psych testing. I’m not talking about those real issues of injustice, gatekeeping (and gateblocking) here. Instead I’m talking about people who have legitimately been found to not be ready or equipped or called to parish church ministry.)
Here’s the thing about growing up in the evangelical church: They understand that youth matter. That they are not only the future but also the present of the church. In the evangelical church when you hit 27 you’re already aging out of your prime (unlike the mainline church where anyone under the age of 50 is suspect. Seriously.) Young people with leadership potential are identified, they are mentored, they are given the chance to lead, to fail, to try again. When I was in junior high I was allowed to start a drama team. I was allowed to teach on the church youth retreats. I was allowed to do all sorts of things. People were in my life to encourage me, to teach me, to help me figure out how to communicate better. They taught me how to make my point, to find people to work with me, to get the ministry done. And sometimes, when I messed up, they shielded me from the fallout while equipping me to make sure that it wouldn’t happen again.
So by the time I got to seminary? I knew what I was called to. I knew that I had the gifts for it because I had people encouraging my gifts for years. I had people calling me up and saying to me, “You need to go to seminary. You have the skills that are needed in the church. God is calling you to do this.” I had the confidence to weather the storms, to learn what I needed to learn, to improve in the places I needed to improve because I had years of experience already.
The mainline church, though, doesn’t like young people. Not really. They say they do, but their actions tell a different story.
Across the board the mainline church would rather hire a second career minister in their 60’s than they would hire a young person. They’ll say that it’s about experience, but honestly? I had more experience in church leadership in my 20’s than some of these second career ministry folks had. So let’s just be truthful about the real reason: You don’t trust young people to lead. Not really. You’ll say that you want more young people in your church but then you’ll handcuff them at every turn. You’ll make them join time sucking committees in order to have a voice (even though they might not have time when they are working 60 hours a week and raising young children). And when they tell you they don’t have time then you’ll write them off as not committed enough.
You’ll make sure that you schedule church as early as possible on Sunday mornings. That committee meetings are frequent and run late into the night. That the only voice people have is on those committees. You’ll say that you want more help and then you’ll put those young people to work on everything. But not the important things, just the set up and tear down and bring snacks things. Or maybe, if they’re lucky, you’ll let them help with the social media and the website. But don’t make the website too fancy. You’ll make sure that they know that they can contribute…so long as nothing changes. The schedule is off limits. The shutting down of programs is off limits.
So young folks check out. Or they show up, do their things, and then go home. They don’t change the culture of the church because you don’t let them (because really you don’t want it to change). And then you bemoan the fate of the church.
You talk about how everyone is getting older and it’s harder to do and run things and why is no one stepping up to help? You’ll talk about how the traditions are being lost and are dying and you wonder why none of these young people care? You’ll talk about how you want new young families and then when your minister retires you’ll only consider people over the age of 50 to take their place.
There is a very clear reason: You don’t care about young people. You don’t invest in them. You don’t listen to them. You don’t show them that they are valued and valuable. You don’t show them that you actually want them there; that their ideas and opinions and wants and needs actually matter to you. You might say they do but then your actions will prove otherwise.
If you really truly care about young people (and by that I mean children, teenagers, college students, single young adults, young families, etc.) then some things have got to change.
When you ask for their input and they trust you with it, actually take it to heart and do something with it. Prove to them that you will change things; even long established things, for the health of your congregation.
Examine how decisions get made in your congregation. Who has input? Are the hoops to offer guidance so high that no one with young children can jump through them? Do you have to have been around for years and years and years in order to have your voice heard?
Are you equipping and training young leaders? Are you giving them opportunities to lead? Do you consider them for staff positions? When your current minister retires or leaves will you seriously consider someone young for the job?
Do you give young people in your congregation actual ways to serve the life of the church (beyond the grunt work)? Can they lead in worship? Can they be in positions that actually make change?
Are you willing to let things go in order to make space for something new? If no one is interested in continuing a long standing ministry, can you let that ministry go in order for a new ministry to be born?
Are your only service activities during times when young people are working? Do you offer alternate times or opportunities to serve, to meet, to fellowship, to learn? (If the majority of your service or learning opportunities are during the day during the week you are eliminating the possibility for many of your younger folks to attend.)
Do you offer childcare at events? Or if you cannot offer childcare do you make it loudly clear that children are welcome to attend events? Do you offer accommodations that would make it easier for a parent to bring their child to an event?
Do you assume that all young people who attend will be (heterosexually) married and have children? Do you have a place for single people in your church? Do you welcome those who are gender non-conforming or in same gender relationships? Do you welcome those who are single or co-habitate or who have no interest in marriage and/or children?
What does your website look like? Is it clear? Can people find times/dates/addresses?
Do you use a lot of insider language that people have to have been around for years to understand?
These are just beginning steps. Before we mourn the death of the church and say that young people just don’t care, let’s examine the ways that we are erecting barriers that are keeping them alienated. Let’s figure out if people really don’t care or if they are simply not feeling welcome.
If we want young people to be involved, we have to show them that we care and that we want them involved, not just with our words, but with our actions as well.