The quick fix

Usually when I speak at churches, conferences, and judicatories, I begin by telling people what adults under forty generally look like. I tell them about their employment, financial, and social situations.

And usually, about halfway into the discussion, I hear an impatient and frustrated, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever. I get all this. But, what I want to know is, how do I get young adults into my church?” They want to know what kind of advertising campaign they should begin, what kind of curriculum they can buy, what program they can start, what kind of music they should sing, what they can do to get the next generation in their church NOW.

Unfortunately, although I am a very practical person and I have a very pragmatic approach to igniting church vitality, I cannot help them with that. The reason that I use the metaphor of “tribe” is to emphasize that effective ministry with young adults is about building relationships. Those connections take time, effort, and understanding.

But (if I can be so crass and use an unfortunate ministry metaphor) we, as church leaders, want to skip all that meaningless conversation, all those hours in the movie theater and eating nice dinners. We don’t want the walks in the park or the holding hands. We want to score.

Churches may have difficulties reaching out to young adults and building those relationships if we fail to understand where they’re at. We just can’t run to home base, without ever visiting first, second, and third.

As congregations, the first thing that we can do is start caring about young adults. Caring about their student loans and slim job opportunities, caring about the fact that 30% of them have no health insurance, caring about the fact that their jobs only last 2.7 years. We can begin by understanding what this amount of instability does to a person’s ability to form relationships and make lasting commitments. We can begin listening to what young adults have to say about gaining leadership in our congregations. We can even listen to what they think about sexuality.

There are other things that will be important as we move along, many more concrete and realistic steps that we can take. But, first, we have to care enough to listen.

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11 thoughts on “The quick fix

  1. Excellent. Our Youth Director has taken 6 years to build up her ministry based upon relationships, not numbers. Our church is really proud of what she has achieved. The numbers fluctuate between 12 -18 in any given year, but the connections remain strong throughout every year. Youth ministry is not about how many.

  2. AMEN.

    I run into this too–when people want to know why we don’t have more young singles in our church, I have to point out demographics: with no rental property here and jobs that only last 2 years, who can afford to live out here, where you need to buy a house and a car and a train pass…and pay $30,000+ of student loans, all at the same time?

    The response I always get is, “well, we did it and that was before credit cards!” I haven’t quite been able to break through into people’s consciousness that their houses and cars cost less, that they didn’t have student loans on the scale we have now, and that when they took jobs “back then” they expected to work in the same place most of their working lives. I’m not sure how to help people see that projecting the way things “used to be” into the now isn’t helpful or an accurate picture.

  3. Perfect metaphor! The crass ones are usually the best. 🙂

    I remember visiting a church a couple years ago, when I first moved to the area, and the first thing the priest said to me after the service was “So, what would it take to get you here every week?” Or something to that effect. I don’t remember how I responded to him, I just remember thinking “Well, that’s presumptuous.” I mean, really, to play on your metaphor, he could have bought me a drink first before asking for a second date! I think I’ve been back to that church three or four times since then. Maybe. And only because I really liked what the congregation was doing in the community.

  4. AMEN!
    I pray that relationships are built. I pray that we are invited in to those relationships. I want them. Iwant to be mentored by the wisdom of experience and tolerance of age. Pleae, befoer the traditions of yesterday disappear, train us up. We are here.

    I am thankful for your work on these matters, Carol. I pray that a bridge will be built between the generations and that we can be the church of Jesus the Christ here in this place.


  5. Well said, Carol. I think one of the struggles (at least as I have encountered it in Catholic parishes) is that church leaders see young adults in their community being attracted to the kinds of marketing campaigns that megachurches or seeker churches use: glossy mailings, “edgy” sermon series, a relevant & “unchurchy” environment. So it becomes a numbers game – how can we win young adults back? How can we pay our bills without them in our pews? The fear of losing control or influence is what drives the desire to answer a complicated question of building relationships with a quick-fix solution.

    I think this is why Theology on Tap so easily becomes the only model that Catholic parishes turn to, if they even have an interest in reaching out to young adults. It’s been “proven” to work, and it puts the church out there as relevant. But it doesn’t build community! It doesn’t connect young people to parishes – they can simply show up, drink a beer, listen to a talk and leave. This doesn’t allow relationships to be built between young adults and a church community, so we wind up right where we started from…

  6. One thing I’ve observed in my own church experience is just how much WORK it takes to really build those relationships, to listen, and to be involved in the mission of a local church. It’s all worthwhile, to be sure, but I find myself more often than I care to admit having “great intentions” of doing several important things for my church, but when it comes down to it, I’ve had my intentions crowded out by long hours at my paying job leaving me with nothing left, coupled perhaps with an absent-minded streak that I find more than a little embarrassing (although I do leave lots of notes for myself to work against this). Those I work with at church seem either not to notice or to truly understand, for which I’m grateful. Still, I find myself in a “spirit is willing, flesh is weak” situation quite a bit.

    I’ve commented before about the need for church leaders who can devote full-time energies to their tasks. A part-time (or, worse, volunteer!) youth leader (for example) can’t exactly be faulted for giving only, well, “part” of their time to youth ministry if he/she has to work at another job just to pay the bills.

    I wonder if the desire of so many church leaders for the “quick fix” is due at least in part to the reality that, as a rule, churches simply don’t have the resources to commit funds to full-time staff, nor do the individual members often have enough energy left over in a week themselves, to devote to relationships like they really ought to. They therefore hope for some kind of magic formula to fix the problem, not knowing what else they can do.

    It’s one thing to say that it takes time and effort. I certainly know that. But since I know *I* often find myself not sure I have anything left to give, I can’t help but think that many others find themselves in that place, too.

  7. B-W,

    You’re so right. It does take a lot of time. And it would be great if lots of people flocked to our churches because of something that we could buy or implement quickly, wouldn’t it? But the time is key, and as they say, time is money.

    I know a lot of people feel like we are going to a bi-vocational future in ministry. In other words, pastors will not be able to have full-time jobs. But I hope not. I know I work 40 hours…

  8. Indeed, I know some (including some “emerging” gurus from the seminary in which I work) who argue that the time of paid pastors (let alone other church workers) is nearing an end (well, I don’t think they’d argue it will disappear entirely…). But we’ve already had the “then what did I spend all that money on seminary for?” discussion elsewhere. Even still, there is the reality that smaller churches (which are by no means bad, and indeed are often better at certain aspects of ministry) will not have the big bucks that will need to be addressed.

  9. Your metaphor was spot on. One thing I have noticed, even in the discussion of this post, is that when you talk about “young people” things automatically shift to “youth group.” My question is what happens after youth group? It seems as though folks pigeon hole themselves into the “youth group” mentality all the while there are very few young adults in their congregation. The statistics for UnChristian are supposedly for the twenty and thirty somethings. At least partially anyway. I haven’t read it through yet.

    On anoher note, what you say about relationships is SPOT ON. I feel as though I live a fractured life where everything is autonomous. It is very stressful as well as depressing.

    So to all those minister types out there, I would beg and plead with you to not forget your young adults: single or not! They need you in a big way!

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