I am 27 years old, and I love my church.
Apparently this makes me a rare breed. After all, my demographic (ages 18-29) represented the largest group of people (32%) who self-identify as religious “nones.” And I can, from my own perspective, witness to my rarity: in my home congregation, and in the large number of ELCA congregations I’ve visited, I am used to looking around and not seeing anyone else my own age sitting in those worn wooden pews.
There’s a lot of curiosity around me and my 18-29 year old compatriots. Books are written about us, studies are done. A pastor in a Facebook clergy group I’m part of recently observed that his congregation was “trying to get a handle” on this particular demographic for outreach purposes.
The politically correct side of me sincerely wants to applaud efforts to engage my non-churchgoing peers in conversation.
The part of me that snarfles at stuffiness thinks that any attempt to connect with my peers that begins with the attempt to reduce us to a concept that one can “get a handle on” is doomed to failure.
We are people, not hypothetical theories. You want to know what kind of outreach strategy I would respond to as an unchurched 27-year-old? A cup of coffee and honest conversation. Because what I’d really crave are these two things: your time, and your authentic self at the table.
How do I know that? Have I magically imbibed the deepest yearnings of my peer culture from the postmodern ether? Well, possibly. But the answer I was going to give is: those two things–presence and authenticity–are two really big reasons why I stayed with church through my teens, and came back to church after the college hump, and entered the discernment process to become a pastor. I had parents and pastors and professors and mentors who let me ask tough questions, and who were present with me as I struggled toward answers (or sometimes just into better questions). They, and the work the Holy Spirit did through them, are why I’m in seminary, and why I stay committed to this process even though I have some really huge and scary and potentially deal-breaking questions about my relationship with Christianity and my call.
So if you really want to know how to build your church’s population of young people…well, first of all, stop thinking about it as a how-to process. If you were to approach me–pretending for a moment that I’m a non-churchgoing 27-year-old–to try to get me to come to your church, then my immediate gut reaction will be to end the conversation and move away. Look, even as a seminarian, I have a deeply instilled aversion to religious strangers, because even though I grew up religious, I still was occasionally told that I was going to hell by people who didn’t believe like I did but were convinced that their way was the correct one.
It’s probably better for you to think of my demographic like cats. We can sense those who want to get close to us, and will only befriend those who seem completely disinterested.
You may feel that this doesn’t leave your outreach committee with many options. If you are thinking in terms of Facebook pages and serving nicer coffee and throwing a lutefisk dinner for the nearby campus ministry, then no, it doesn’t. (Though, in general, I’m with you on the coffee).
But if you start thinking of outreach in terms of building genuine relationships with people, of spending the face time with people who have never heard of or are deeply suspicious of lutefisk and the doctrine of the Trinity, and of creating space for both of you to be authentic with each other, then you might have a chance.
Just start here: drop the ulterior motive of engaging my demographic in hopes of getting them to come to church. Cultivate the desire to enrich both of your spiritual lives by asking questions, genuinely listening to what we whippersnappers have to say, and sharing what you really think (i.e.: neither what you think we want to hear, nor the church party line in language so stiff that we can tell it’s not authentically yours).
Ask me about where I find deep and profound meaning in my life, and about what makes those things so good. If I identify as spiritual but not religious, ask me about ultimate truth, and whether I think there’s such a thing, and what it might look like (this is actually a really pressing question for those of us raised in a highly relativistic culture). Ask, for your own edification, what I think the church has to offer to the world…and about what I wish it were offering. And for the love of stinky tennis shoes, don’t ever even hint at what you think the answers should have been.
And most of all, open yourself in humility to the possibility that the unchurched people of my generation have much to bless you with, whether or not they become members of your church.
Want more? Check out an article by campus pastor Adam White called “Learning to preach through listening” over at Living Lutheran.