A clearer focus

focusing-the-group.jpg

Recently, I’ve found myself as the participant of more and more Focus Groups. As, you know, “the young adult.” Which is lovely. Different organizations want to know what I have to say about this or that, as “the young adult” (in the church, this means under the age of forty, but I’ve noticed the age creeping up to forty-five). They’re foreseeing the future, and it looks dismal, so they want to appeal to all of the young adults who are not interested in their organization, denomination, publication, etc.

I know that the FG is an attempt to appeal to a larger base, and perhaps it’s a good first step… but… actually, I’m losing more and more faith in the FG. I’ll continue to be a part of them, because I love the church. Yet, I can’t help but feel like the moderator of the FG gets us together, gathers up all our great knowledge, expertise, and information so he can vet it through his board members–who are mainly older, mainly white, mainly guys.

The problem is that their questions rarely let me say what I really want to. This is what I really want to say:

If you want to make any significant change in the demographic that you serve, if you’re sincere, if you really want to reach out to young adults, then you need to quit thinking of them through the lens of a “Focus Group.” Stop sending us surveys, because what we have to say won’t fit into a, b, c, or d. What we have to tell you will take more than a two-hour block of time. If you’re really interested, you can put us on the board and give us significant power.

I’m not just talking about placing one token young adult on the board, so that she gets patronized by the grown-ups every time she opens her mouth. I’m not suggesting that you put her there, pat her head, and echo her every suggestion with, “Now that’s an interesting idea, but…..” I’m talking about putting a significant number of young adults there so that they can actually express an opinion and have some backing.

I told this to a board member before, actually, and he responded, “Do you want to be on X Board? It took me my whole career to get on this board. I had to work really hard to get on this board. Why do you think you should get to be on it?”

I sighed heavily. I don’t want to be on X Board. I don’t need to be on X Board. No young adult in our country wants or needs to be on your board. But please understand this: YOU NEED US.

There are absolute, radical shifts going on in the very base of our culture. So much that when a person under forty walks into one of our denominational meetings, it feels like we would be more at home on Mars.

We do everything differently. We are wired differently. We communicate differently. We raise money differently. We protest differently. We do missions differently. While you were excited about German modernists in seminary, we were excited about French deconstructionists.

Decade-long arguments over sexuality or theology annoy us. We’re pragmatic and we’d rather agree to disagree and move on. I work as well with conservative evangelicals as I do with liberals (sometimes better), as long as they allow me to have my space to minister in the way that I need to. We’re not impossible to understand, but you’ll never comprehend us if you don’t listen.

So, if I could speak frankly to the boards through one of these focus groups, I would say this. Not because I’m power-hungry, or because I have a generational chip on my shoulder, or even because I’m arrogant (although I know it sounds like I am). I would say it because of my deep and abiding love for the church, and my strong hope that intergenerational ministry might be strengthened:

My generation is different. If we’re not included on your board or organization, we don’t care. We’ll just walk off and start our own thing. If you really want to work with a new generation, you need to get over yourselves. Quickly. You don’t have much time. You’re not the country club that we’re dying to get into. If you’re waiting for a person to turn fifty before you begin listening to what they have to say, or before you consider them to be an expert, it will be far too late. You can’t wait for the younger generations to kick down the door to break into the leadership of your organization. We won’t do it. We don’t need to. We’ll simply walk away.

If you’re interested in sustaining through a new generation, please understand, as much as I believe that my generation needs the denominational church, my peers don’t. But one thing is clear: you need us.

So what about you? What would you love to say to the Focus Group?

the photo’s entitled “focusing the group” by coolmonfrere.

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14 thoughts on “A clearer focus

  1. Ouch! Being 64, I have to say I hope I don’t resemble your remarks.

    Being 64 and part of the church, I want to say hurrah! Keep saying what you need to say.

    As we age, it is easy to forget the first time we were given real power was not in our 50’s but at 25 when someone decided to take a chance on us and give us not only the power but the ability to make our own mistakes without saying, “I told you so.”

    I thank God for a Baptist church in Charleston, SC that looked at me at 21 years old and saw a young woman with gifts I didn’t even know I had and exploited me in a good way by insisting that I take major leadership positions and then praising me and covering my mistakes. There were older and wiser people who could have done a better job but they were in the business of building leadership, not hanging on to leadership.

    If you are over 50 in the church, it’s time to step aside and give the leadership positions to young men and women who will make mistakes but will have the zeal and vigor to continue to seek God in spite of mistakes.

  2. amen and amen!

    oh I was going to leave it at that, but I’ll toss one more thing in because I so get what you are saying. I’m 39 (with only days to 40), and have said the same words you have said in as many kind and creative ways as I know how. I have also realized that I am in a rather unique position of being on the cusp between modernism and post-modernism. While I would describe myself as part of the latter, I do understand how the former works (after all, I grew up with my parents). I’m not sure a 20-something (or 30+) knows how or necessarily cares how to communicate with the older generations… it’s a communication problem in both directions. You and I (and the very slim number of pastors aged 35-45 (maybe 38-42?) have the opportunity to be bi-cultural and keep opening doors between generations and cultures in the church. I’d have a blast at Warehouse 242, an emergent, all-under-35 congregation here in town. (jease, their biggest crisis in the last 5 years was when people started having babies and they had to figure out nursery). But, I would so miss the rich age-diversity in my current setting. It takes a lot of intentional effort to be bi-cultural in that sense, but the rewards are immense, and I believe it’s what God desires of the “family.”

  3. Our presbytery is hot and heavy to reach out to young adults 18-35. Like everybody else I guess. but everytime it’s talked about how to do it it’s being discussed by a room full of 40+. I’m 34 by the way. I think it’s like asking a bald man about hair styles or something. Additionally, it strikes me as a desire to have an age group on a stat sheet and not necessarily, as you reflected, to welcome them into leadership or adapt to the change that would come. I love Jesus and His church but presbytery meetings, which we had today, just about put me over the edge. Me and another 35 yr old commish spent an entire saturday away from family and frivolity and I’m trying not to resent it. I don’t think too many 18-35 will do that unless something changes radically….I’m not totally sure how or what but somethings got to give.

  4. As a 32 year old hopeful seminarian wrestling with his place in ministry within the church, I am hungry to be in leadership. I am scared I cannot do it. I am compelled to serve. I need support. I need opportunity. I have many youthful, idealistic hopes. I have even more unrealistic dreams for service. I hate the “reality” I am faced with a mere 12 weeks from graduation.

    I close my eyes sometimes and dream about the next few years. I giggle and then I awake.

    I pray that we are given opportunities to serve as we (I) are convicted of serving. I am not full of myself and unwilling to walk in partnership with my predecessors. I am afraid that there is no place for me at the table.

    I have attended far to many “what is wrong with the church or we are dying” meetings in silence. There are boats loads of young leaders that have sacrificed much to enter seminary and hope to serve in your communities.

    Please see the divine spark in our hearts, eyes, actions, and hopes. We want love without abandon. We want to serve the least of us. We want to accept the hopeless. We want to serve. We hope to lead. We do not want to throw you out. Please walk with us.

    Thank you Carol for the forum and space. Blessings and peace!

  5. Islandpreacha said, “I love Jesus and His church but presbytery meetings, which we had today, just about put me over the edge.”

    Yep. I know that cliff-hanging feeling. We have so many mean-spirited haters in our Presbytery (please forgive me for name-calling, it just seems like they are mean-spirited haters from their nasty questions), and I know that they’re trying to defend Jesus and the church. But… I really don’t understand how or why they got the idea that Jesus wants to be defended in that manner…. I usually want to leave, screaming from the building.

    I met with a young ELCA leader this week. We were talking about the changes in culture and I asked, “Imagine if our denominational meetings were completely run by people our age. Would they look anything like they do now?”

    We both agreed, there would be no way.

    But, as Ryan said, I don’t want to throw anyone out. We just need some space and some ability to begin creating the church (or the denominational meeting) that we would want to attend.

  6. FWIW, Carol–you’re closer to 40 than you are to 22, right? I suspect the reason you’re being asked to be in these focus groups is because you’re “almost” in the age group that gets some power. What would it be like if the 22 year olds were invited to the focus groups? I found that when I was very young–19-23ish, I was invited to lots of things, but I never had any voice at all. I was just cute. Then I was ignored for 10 or so years. All of a sudden, when I was oh, 34-37, I was again sought out–for focus groups, meetings, etc. And what did they want to know? How to reach the “kids”(being those 30 and under, some of whom actually HAD kids) They paid attention to me, but I was usually the only person under 50, and didn’t have much power at all….I was seen as a broker to get the “really young” to buy into their programs—without at all changing them. I finally figured out that I was being “groomed” to take over. And I wanted nothing to do with it. I was happy to go to the focus groups, but the idea of spending the rest of my life in these committee meetings that never accomplished anything….sorry, I’d rather just start my own stuff with 3 friends and a web page. What I wish I’d done was agree to the meetings and then invited 4 college students to accompany me.

  7. What I would love to say to this focus group, if you really speak for them, is this: “The church has been around for 2,000 years. It will probably be around for another 2,000. Go ahead and go away, if you don’t care to stick around and win wisdom the way it has always been won — by sitting at the feet of those who know more about life and The Holy than you do. Start up whatever new thing comes into your head to start. Go ahead and go away. When it comes time to wrestle with the really big questions, you’ll be back to the tested and true, and you’ll be glad we’re still here.” We see people who come back to church in their 40s and 50s, when Big Questions need to be wrestled with. When you’re young and invulnerable, it’s easy to kiss off whatever doesn’t suit you, because you’re convinced that “you’re different.” When you’re a little older and a little more willing (or you’re forced) to acknowledge your own frailty, then an institution (and a diety) that has stood the test of time (like two millennia) may be a bit more appealing. I’m sure I sound like the old fart of 55 that I am — but “remodeling” the church because the kids say we should just doesn’t make sense. Let’s wait till they grow up, and see what happens then.

  8. Ann~

    I am offended on many levels by what you are saying. This type of ageism sounds uncaring and dismissive of anyone under an arbitrary maturity age. I am for being inclusive and open to people of all ages. It doesn’t sound like you share that same view. Two points that I strongly disagree with you on. First, those who fall into the ages of 18-40 years old are not “kids.” It is insulting to call them by that definition. Second, it is not biblically sound to assume that someone upon achieving a certain age has obtained some sort of gnosis about the church or the divine because their questions at 40 or 50 automatically become “Big Questions.” I reject the fact that because you are a certain age that I should sit at your feet because you have obtained some greater idea of the Holy than someone 35 or 85. Wisdom is never a given because of someone’s numerical age.

  9. Hmmm…Ann, it sounds like you’re assuming that those who want to do things a different way are leaving the church or the faith. Where did you get that idea? Nobody’s leaving, folks are just wanting to stay in the same play-pen but change the rules a bit. We’re all in this together, and with God’s grace, we’ll all stay together.

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