How to connect with young adults: The secrets are revealed!


I have been a member of the Disciples of Christ denomination for 15 years, and I have attended four out of the last five General Assemblies. Time and again, I hear conversations about the need to listen to young adults and connect with young adults and fund young adult ministries. As a young-ish adult (I am 37, so about the only place I am consistently referred to as “young” is in the mainline church), I often hear well-intentioned members of graying congregations say they desperately want the “younger” people to join their respective churches, and they often ask me “What will it take for the younger people to come to our church?”

I have a very simple answer to this question, but first let me tell you what young adults, for the most part, when it really gets down to it, don’t care about:

Young adults really don’t care if you have screens instead of hymnals.

Young adults really don’t care if you have a guitar instead of an organ.

Young adults really don’t care if you have couches instead of pews.

Young adults really don’t care about your church having the slickest marketing gimmicks out there, including a savvy website coupled with a working knowledge of Twitter and Facebook and Google+ and whatever else comes next.

But what do young adults care about? What will help your congregation connect with young adults? I will give you one simple example, and it is largely representative of what is missing from this General Assembly, as well as previous ones: the explicit, unambiguous affirmation of gays and lesbians into the full life of the church.

It is a travesty to me that our denomination, which prides itself on being a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world, is not offering an affirmative communal voice for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who have been deeply wounded by society in general and the church in particular. If justice delayed is justice denied, as Dr. King reminded us, will we stand idly by while organized religion remains one of the last vestiges for valorized homophobia?

What is particularly striking to me is that our polity (unlike that of the PCUSA or ELCA, each of which recently joined our Episcopalian and UCC brothers and sisters by taking major stands on behalf of the GLBTQ community) doesn’t even bind each congregation or each member to have consensus of opinion on this matter, yet we can’t even have a resolution or a conversation that points toward affirmation?! Years from now, will our denomination look back on the early part of the 21st century and say that we stood on the side of justice, or are we content discerning ourselves to death, convincing ourselves that our efforts of offering hospitality are related to our abilities of mastering the world of Twitter? Do you really think that is a compelling vision for younger generations, especially when over 70% of young adults are open and affirming of gays and lesbians and view the church as the last place that will be welcoming and inclusive of them? Despite whatever rhetoric we might employ, all of this gives me serious reservations about referring to our denomination as “progressive,” at least in the best sense of what that word harbors.

To be sure, there are those who will say that offering hospitality to the GLBTQ community will lead to the loss of members, and I am sure that some members will indeed leave our congregations and denomination. I say that as a pastor who recognizes the dynamics of doing ministry and dealing with church politics and the like. But I am also convinced that far more young adults will come through our doors if they view our congregations as places of welcome and affirmation. Indeed, if congregations would quit worrying about superficial concerns like screens and hymnals and embody communities of welcome and affirmation instead (communities that take progressive theological convictions seriously), then young adults will flock to our churches. Not because of Facebook, but because of the good news of the gospel.

The young adults who walk through the doors of Brentwood Christian Church aren’t doing so because we’ve put together some hip and trendy and cool worship service. They are coming through our doors because we offer a theology of welcome, affirmation, and justice. And in the past six years, ever since we decided to become a community that cultivated what Presbyterian pastor and author Carol Howard Merritt calls “unambiguous inclusion,” we have seen over 100 young adults become active participants. I’d like to say it is because I’m quite the happening pastor. But it is because the good news of the gospel, and the healing that it offers, is a gift to young adults hungering for the inclusive love of Jesus Christ.

I close with words that aren’t from any “missional” or “emerging” Christian, but from Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail:

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

True then, true now.

Phil Snider is a pastor at Brentwood Christian Church in Springfield, Missouri. His books include Toward a Hopeful Future: Why the Emergent Church is Good News for Mainline Congregations & The Hyphenateds: How Emergence Christianity is Re-Traditioning Mainline Practices (forthcoming). He blogs at www.philsnider.net.

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7 thoughts on “How to connect with young adults: The secrets are revealed!

  1. (I preface by saying I am a 26-year-old Disciple pastor serving in a UCC congregation).

    This feels like one of those “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” kind of situations. Putting up an ONA stamp on the marquee is simply another gimmick in your litany if your end goal is to put butts in pews.

    You are beginning with the wrong question: “How do we ATTRACT young adults?” Instead ask “How can we disciple young adults?”

    Speaking for myself, as a young adult – what would encourage me to join a faith community is to find fellow disciples on a journey toward Christ. To sum it up in one word: Authenticity. Young adults seek genuine relationships -among other young folks and our elders which ultimately lead to God.

    • Joel – I am w/ you. The whole idea of “connecting” was supposed to convey a sense of satire related to the desire to bring in the “young folk” – hopefully that came through but maybe not.

      Mark – thanks for your responses. Very helpful. Given recent actions by the PCUSA, I definitely have ordination on my mind. We have gone from being revolutionaries to resolutuonaries, but words still speak, and even though they don’t have teeth they can still be deeply powerful communal proclamations. Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that we leave it to those up front (the speakers) to make inclusive declarations, which gets the rest of us off the hook, which can subtly perpetuate the problem.

      • Sounds like we are on basically the same page about young adults aren’t customers to be attracted.

        My main point is to say that being ONA is not some magic bullet for getting young adults into church.
        Overt exlusion (particularly in preaching) would send me the other way – but so would an over emphasis on ONA issues from the pulpot.

  2. I want to compliment Phil on a well written post and one that in many essential ways I agree with. Like him, I have been around the Disciples for a long time – it was the church of my childhood and the church to which I returned when I decided to enter pastoral ministry. It is a place I have called home for 25 years. And it is a community of faith where I have found the space to have important conversations about things that matter, life and death, violence and peace, patriotism and discipleship, and conversations about sexuality. For several years, I was the co-chair of the Discernment Task Force Concerning the Ordination of Gay and Lesbian People in the Life of the Church in the Indiana Region. We were tasked with the assignment of developing a curriculum by which the congregations of Indiana would have conversations that were healthy and respectful. About 2 dozen churches took part in those conversations.

    My first point is this, I don’t think that the Disciples have been unresponsive to the need to have conversations about sexuality. Even at this assembly, both of the main speakers thus far have spoken about the need to quit dividing the world into “gay and straight” and that sexuality should not be a barrier to inclusion. (Both of which I say “Amen” too.) If there are feelings that there should be more resource groups or an open forum – fine. Take it to the program committee.

    Of course, this raises the matter of resolutions. Write one or bring one to the table then. But this is where I think that some of us who want to do things in a new way, hold on to one of the worst traditions the Disicples have – assembly resolutions, especially since they have no authority over any congregation. Can anyone honestly remember any of the resolutions that were passed at the last assembly? Will the resolutions that were passed today have influence on any of the day to day ministries in our local congregations? I seriously doubt it. We passed a resolution today against bullying and I am sure that it made everyone feel good that we did, but other than it making us feel good about ourselves I’m not certain what that resolution will ultimately do in any specific situation.

    My second point is this, I believe the future of denominations (especially one as small as ours) is quickly passing. Though they may not fail in our life time, they might and maybe they should. What difference do any resolutions then make? The future of the Protestant church in North America is at the local level where relationships, and not resolutions, matter. And here the Disciples make room for congregations to be as open and affirming and as inclusive as Brentwood Christian church seems to be, and as, I believe, all congregations should strive to be.

    I believe the anger which seems to be focused toward a denominational structure that has all the worst bureaucratic trappings one might imagine could be energy better spent creating at the local level the beloved community where all are welcome and a task that our Disciple heritage, as flawed as it is, allows us to pursue.

    (I recognize that this doesn’t address the matter of ordination and how some regions presently prohibit individuals from ordination because of their sexuality – but I believe the real matter to discuss here is not sexuality, but ordination and whether or not there is really any need for this tradition any longer in the church that is emerging.)

  3. This post is exactly everything that I have been thinking for the past 6 years, at least. I’m a sophomore at TCU, and we are utterly bombarded with various strange attempts at “campus ministries” all the time. I am so sick of rock bands and grainy video montages during sermons and cool haircuts and expensive jeans. I just want a Christianity that cares more about the world around it than the lighting equipment and Twitter account.

    And what’s with the assumptions young adults don’t enjoy the good old Chalice Hymnal, sometimes, too? If I hear another U2 cover, I’m going to lose it.

  4. Bravo Phil! You and I stand on the same page. And a shameless plug for Phil and Emily’s book works here “Toward’s a Hopeful Future” has a very inspiring welcome that they use every week about inclusion and who is welcome in our churches. For me this is THE major point here. We need to be clear every week in our congregations that we stand for a gospel that welcomes all to Christ’s table. We need to find ways to make our theological views be voiced in our congregations.

    In our congregation we have experienced the same things that Phil speaks to in this article. I’ve had many 1 on 1 conversations with new young (and old) folks to our congregation that said hearing that welcome was a breath of fresh air (and yes we stole it and adapted it for our own uses).

  5. Pingback: Holding Hands and Finding Home | [D]mergent

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