There have been a number of discussions, tweets, chats, blogs and other articles on why young adults are leaving the church. The most recent was Christian Piatt’s blog post here. He lists seven reasons to think about, but there’s another that has been nagging me for a while: authenticity.
I grew up in a small startup church in Alaska, a church that I still have my name on as a member. It’s a church that from the beginning did not imagine itself as a large, growing church, drawing in several families and youth. It’s a church that set out to meet needs, starting as four families meeting together. When my family joined a couple of years after it started, the church created its first Sunday School class for children. Over the years, if kids came, there was a class, if there were no kids, there was not a class. People didn’t panic when families moved or stopped coming. The church simply molded into whoever we were at the time.
When I was in high school, we had a youth group for about a year, but then we didn’t for a while. There were plenty of other churches offering youth activities and some families drifted there, and sometimes I just went along with my friends to other churches. But the church recognized a need: there were few summer programs for kids in our area except for camps. There was a camp our congregation supported, and the church decided that any kid who wanted to go to camp would go for free. One year we sent 13 kids to camp—from a church of about 25 members! But part of the reason we didn’t need a youth group, in my view, was that from an early age, we were part of the church. We were encouraged to remain in the church service (the church actually stopped offering childcare during worship after my first few years there). We were invited to participate in ways we were comfortable—lighting candles or reading Scripture or even preaching on occasion as we got older. When I was baptized at the age of thirteen, a week later I was welcomed into the church and asked to serve on the Deacon board, the only board in the church. There was no such thing as “Junior Deacon” in our church. We were all part of the church together.
What I have learned from my small startup church over the years is to be authentic. Too many churches try to be all things to all people. They start up programs and ministries hoping to attract the kind of people they want, such as young adults, rather than just being themselves and embracing the community that they are. As a young adult, I went off to college and attended a wonderful church where I felt the same kind of authenticity from the pastor and leaders. They were glad some college students were attending, but recognized that we weren’t going to come every Sunday and that they weren’t going to be a big draw as the campus population was more evangelical and conservative. But I do remember the finals week care packages they sent to each of us who came as we studied for exams. I remember being given the opportunity to preach, both there and in my home church, recognizing my gifts for ministry. I remember other friends preaching, leading music and book studies, working with children, or just attending worship and Easter brunch, because they were accepted as they were, and the church did not try to be anything but who they were.
My home church never became a big church, but there were young adults, older adults, and ages in between that have come over the years and call it their church home because it was an authentic church, and they were welcomed and affirmed as who they were, their authentic selves.
I have seen too many churches try new programs—if we move Bible study to a different time, they will come. If we have a praise band play every 4th Sunday, they will come. It’s like a Field of Dreams for mainline churches—and I distinctly remember the moderator of the first church I served saying, “If we just open the doors, they will come.” But it doesn’t work that way. This is reality, not fantasy. And the best thing we can do in the church is to be authentic.
Stop pretending to be something you are not. Stop trying to cling to a dream of the past when every pew was filled and you had multiple Bible studies occurring at the same time. And please, stop targeting young people in the hopes that young people mean young families which means more children who can grow up and carry on the legacy you remember from your own childhood. We can all see right through that. Instead, remember that church does not start at the doors, but that we as the church must go outside. We are the church in the pew or in the coffee shop, in Bible study or in the office, in the beauty salon and in the seat on the plane. We are the church wherever we are. If we start remembering that and start being ourselves, we can grow the body of Christ. And we can definitely reach out to young adults, and to all sorts of people, if we are authentic in the world and inside the walls.