Earlier this week I led a United Methodist District Lay Leadership workshop on Small and Rural Church Ministries. To begin the session, I asked each person to introduce themselves and then tell me about something that their church struggled with, something that they hoped to learn about or take away from our time together.
Twenty-five times, this is what I heard:
“We’re just a small rural church that’s located a long way from anything, and all of us are senior citizens who are getting old and tired. What we need are some young people, some young families, some youth, some children. We’ve tried or are trying a few things, like a young folks class, but it seems like all the young people have moved away, or that young people don’t go to church anymore these days. They don’t want to sacrifice, they just want it easy. And the young ones that do go to church only go to those non-denominational churches, where worship is just entertainment, where the drums are so loud it hurts my ears. We want to know what we can do to get some young people in our church. ”
The good church folk present at that workshop are representative of the small church, the rural church, and of our United Methodist denomination, where the average age is now 57. As I stood before the group at the ripe old age of 32, I was the youngest person in the room by almost twenty years.
Hearing their same mantra repeated around the room time after time, I nearly felt like crying:both for their struggles and for my own frustration with them.
The older people present there that day spoke in a language and tone that suggested they wanted young folks primarily for what the young folks could do for the church:young folks could bring some energy, young folks could bring some strong backs to move tables, young folks could bring kids to make you smile, young folks would make sure the church would survive. They implied that they wanted nice, clean-cut young couples with perfect children who wouldn’t raise too much of a fuss. They essentially wanted young people in church for their demographics:it sounded like they wanted young folks for the selfish reason that it would improve and ensure the survival of the church they loved.
I understand this. And yet, if that attitude continues, these congregations will never have another young person join as a member of their church.
Young people do not care about perpetuating a church:they want to know God. They are not interested in the trappings of religion, but hunger and thirst for relationship. They can tell when a congregation is primarily focused on its own survival, as if it were a kind of club in need of more members, rather than a fellowship seeking to give itself in love to its neighbors and embrace the divine- and I believe young people can detect the difference from a mile away.
As long as the church wants to reach young people for the sake of the church’s survival, rather than for the sake the young people’s need for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it will never succeed. It can have the most creative programs, the most thorough technique, the most tested marketing strategy, but until it has the heart of God the Father for the young people in their community, it will never grow.
This is what I wish I had heard from our group of older rural church leaders that day:“We know that young people today have so many struggles and challenges. If they are single, they can feel so alone in our society. If they are married and have children, both spouses probably work and commute an hour each way, and they can barely just get dinner on the table or to spend time with their children or one another before they have to go to sleep each night. And then they face the temptations of so many distractions and addictions and idols in our culture today. Marriages are breaking up under the strain. Teenagers feel like no adult cares about them because the grown-ups are so busy, so they have nothing good to do. These young people need our help. They need support. And above all they need to know about the God who loves them and saves them through Jesus Christ. We hope today that we can learn about how can we reach out and help these young people. ”
This is where renewal begins:asking not what young folks can do for the church, but instead what the church can do for young folks.