If it seems needlessly complicated to suggest that two effects — grassroots muscle and general party branding — have to be invoked to explain the GOP’s unsuccessful presidential branding, consider this: if the only effect in play were the strength of grassroots right-wing constituencies, you wouldn’t expect the party to consistently nominate moderates like both Bushes, Dole, McCain, and Romney. None of those nominees had impeccable conservative credentials — far from it. But once they got the nomination, they didn’t run as the moderates they were; most of them sold themselves as being at least as right as Reagan, even in the general election. At least since 2004, this is because the party has pursued a base strategy: an attempt to eke out a narrow win by getting more Republicans to the polls than Democrats, with independents — a small and difficult-to-market-to demographic — basically ignored. The party tries to leverage its regional identity and regional organization into presidential victory. It has failed four times out of five.
Below are the notes which formed the foundation of my opening remarks for the panel discussion on engaging twenty and thirty-somethings in the congregation. I will be posting more resources as links at the end of this post over the coming days (as well as linking to some of the resources I mentioned but did not provide earlier), and I hope we can have an exchange of some practical ideas that small congregations have tried. I believe the principles I’ve mentioned in my notes are important, but we need to hear about examples where they’ve been put into practice.
Also, this was primarily written via dictation software, and I’m still finding typos, so if you see one, please let me know so that I can correct this version.
So, please share your thoughts, stories and ideas, and critique away!
I’ve been asked to speak about ways of engaging young adults–twenty and thirty-somethings1–in the congregation. From one perspective it makes perfect sense for me to present on this topic, since I’m 31 years old and I’m used to being on the younger end of meetings, events, and congregations in the Episcopal Church. When I started seminary at Sewanee, I was the youngest seminarian, and I think I was still the youngest seminarian when I graduated three years later.
For quite a while, my wife and I were the youngest people outside of the children’s ministry in our congregations.
On the other hand something we have to keep in mind about young adults who attend church, and in particular those who are in ministry positions, whether lay or ordained, is that we’re pretty odd. What I mean to say is that we are not exactly representative of our demographic. So if you want to know how to attract an abstract young adult who is not a churchgoer and whose life is more representative of the entire age group, then it’s not the best strategy.2
But, thankfully, there are no abstract human beings, there are only individual human beings who have an innate need to connect with other human beings over shared interest, experience and need.
Some people might identify based upon their age, others might identify based upon a common interest, or the fact that they went to the same college, or they have children the same age–even though they are a number of years apart in age themselves.
It leaves us with the reality that targeted evangelism–at least based upon something as broad as age cohort–rarely works in a cut and dry manner. People are too diverse, their interests too disparate, their gifts unique. Because of this reality, we never really know how ministries we begin will speak to the needs of our congregation and community.
For example, a friend of mine told me about a ministry a priest in Chattanooga had started a number of years ago that attracted a number of twenty and thirty somethings–a “bluegrass Mass.” This priest was later called to a congregation in Virginia, in part because of his strong ministry to young adults. He started something similar in Virginia, and the service attracted mostly people in their fifties and sixties.
Another, less stark example, is that of a large Episcopal/Anglican congregation in South Carolina that sought to address the dearth of young adults in their congregation by starting a contemporary service in the “less formal” environment of their parish hall. After an initial period in which the warnings of the naysayers proved true, and hardly any twenty-somethings appeared at what was billed as the “twenty-something” service, they hired someone with a good deal of experience in youth and young adult ministry. After some time, they did indeed attract some twenty somethings, and thirty and forty and fifty somethings. Eventually their age spread looked like this3:
This shows that what was envisioned as the “twenty-something” service, was actually a service that appealed to a wide array of folks of different ages. It did indeed attract a cross section of people who’s average age was lower than the traditional service, but I guarantee there were a number of twenty-somethings attending that traditional service. When we do ministry, we should try to do it well and be ready for who God sends. Our task is to reach out to and to welcome all sorts and conditions of people.
Because evangelism and incorporation take place as part of connection and relationship, it makes sense to start with the people you have and figure out how they can connect with the people outside your doors. What sorts of shared experiences, interests, concerns, and values do they have in common with the broader community?
This is why I’m thankful that this topic is focused on engaging young adults in the congregation, which I take to be primarily about focusing on the people who are in, or who are only a few steps removed from, our congregations. From this point of engagement, I think we can draw some inspiration for ways of reaching out to others, but we begin here, within our communities.
It’s because of this idea of starting with your community, with who you are as a congregation, that I believe many attempts at targeted evangelism fail. Targeted incorporation or engagement will also fail, if by that we mean starting a program or ministry for a particular group based upon a generalized understanding of what young adults, children, parents, seniors or anyone else wants, as seen from the perspective of others.
My goal is to set the stage, provide context for the discussion of how to engage people in their twenties and thirties in the congregation and present some ideas and principals for conversation. first in some broad brush strokes I’m going to talk a little bit about where we are in our culture and in our church. Time necessitates that these are statements are brief, so I’ve included more information and resources in your handout. Because of this, I’m just going to make some claims and statements that I won’t necessarily back up in my remarks, but which will be supported by your materials or the suggested reading.
My comments are not intended to cover every circumstance for every individual experience, but instead to put forward the general idea of what I see as our context, our challenges and our opportunities, and specific ways to engage young adults, which our panel can agree with, expand on, critique, as well as offer their own insights from their experiences.
Continue reading Thoughts for the Small Church Ministry Conference: Engaging 20 & 30 somethings in the Church
- I should note, however, that it only seems to be in the church that we speak about thirty-somethings as “young adults.” Consider popular culture. The predominant age of FBI & Secret Service Agents (among others) in popular shows is thirty-something, and their youth isn’t commented upon, in part because they aren’t considered particularly young. Society at large could often be said to be “youth obsessed,” but I think our perceptions of age in the church are often skewed, and this has a detrimental impact on our ministry. [↩]
- The biggest single determining factor of whether a young adult in their 20’s and 30’s attends church is whether they are married and secondly, whether they have children. If not, they are unlikely to attend, and given rising ages of marriage and parenting, as well as the increasing numbers of people who choose not to marry, there’s a larger issue here for the church to deal with. [↩]
- Ross Lindsay, Building a Church to Last, p. 110, preview available here: http://goo.gl/EqDp6 [↩]
The overriding political task of the church is to be the community of the cross.The way school need teachers that's the way yall need Jesus
— Kanye Hauerwest (@KanyeHauerwest) September 12, 2012
Sermon thoughts for Proper 19 B, 2012
Scriptures: James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38
Christians are a people bound together, defined and shaped by a common confession: Jesus is Lord. It is a statement that ought to have a major impact on every aspect of our lives, since, if we really mean it, we believe that we owe our lives to our Lord, and that we have given ourselves over to him; that because of our Baptism, as the Apostle says “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
Confessing that Jesus is Lord is a powerful statement. It’s a powerful spiritual statement, and a powerful political, social and personal statement. When we say that Jesus is Lord, we are necessarily declaring that no thing and no one else is. It could be compared to the marriage vow to forsake all others.
If Jesus is our Lord, then nothing else ought to have that sort of authority in our lives. No government, family member, employer and certainly no physical item; no idol of wood or stone, gold or silver, automotive parts, brick and mortar, chemical or anything else under the sun. Confessing Jesus as Lord makes all other commitments relative, and bound to be judged in light of that first commitment to God in Christ.
I believe this is the explanation for why Jesus asks this question of the disciples at this point and in this place, as recounted in our gospel lesson for the day (Mark 8:27-38). You see, Jesus and the disciples have advanced to what was once the northern edge of the Israelite kingdom, where, at this point, the Roman city of Caesarea Phillipi stood. But this had been a Greek city since Alexander the Great’s day, and it was a long standing Pagan cultic center. Before it was Caesarea Phillipi, the city had been known as Panaeus or Banaeus, and was named for the god Pan, the goat footed god of shepherds and the forest. But Pan was known for more. I didn’t realize it until I was researching this background, but Pan was also thought to be the source for panic, as one ancient commentator wrote: “During the night there fell on them a panic. For causeless terrors are said to come from the god Pan” (http://goo.gl/ATfdL).
So Jesus and his disciples travel to the fringes of Jewish territory, to the villages surrounding this city–though they never actually enter it. It’s as though Jesus is looking out over the future mission field, and he turns to his disciples and asks “Who do people say that I am?” Who do all of these folks we come into contact with, the people who whisper along the way… even, perhaps, the gentiles of Caesarea Phillipi–who do they say that I am?
And the disciples answer the the various rumors going around, that Jesus is John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets. But then he comes to it: “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter, always eager and often intuitive declares “You are the Messiah.” Peter has declared the truth of who Jesus is, but he has not yet understood the truth of who Jesus is. It’s easy to perceive Peter as a bit dense. People often play off of his nick name, “Rocky” to say that perhaps it was describing more than his manner. I’ve done it myself. But I’m not sure that is fair. It may be that Peter gets chastised in part because he’s willing to go out on a limb, to take a chance based upon his intuition and understanding. Sometimes–when he understands–it is beneficial. Sometimes–when he acts impulsively or without really listening–it gets him rebuked, as it does in the aftermath of the first of Jesus’ three passion predictions.
Jesus is teaching his disciples a new meaning of messiahship, and it’s hard for them to understand. Peter, being vocal, steps in, takes Jesus to the side and begins to rebuke him for his teaching–everyone knows that’s not what’s supposed to happen to the Messiah! Jesus’ response is immediate: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
The problem is that while Peter has uttered the words and made the confession of Jesus as Christ, he has not been shaped by it. It hasn’t sunk in. He’s still setting his mind on human things.
Jesus goes on to define what it means to be shaped by the confession: “He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me'” (Mark 8:34).
This is the same call that God has placed upon his faithful people from the beginning. We can see it in the words of the Prophet Isaiah who describes the abuses he has suffered: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” Isaiah has, from an objective point of view, suffered shameful things. And yet, these things do not define him. Instead, it is his relationship with God that defines him: The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame” (Isaiah 50:7). What has changed is that God has now become one of us to show us what it means to lead a life shaped by obedience to and faith in him.
To take up our cross and follow Christ means that we will be changed and defined by that obedience.
Our confession of Jesus as Lord is meant to change us. This is what James is highlighting in his letter when he talks about the evils of the tongue:
With [our tongues] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh (James 3:9-12).
James is hammering on the hypocrisy of blessing God with the same mouth that condemns and curses other people who are made in the image of God. When we do such things, we reveal that we have not been changed by the confession of Christ as Lord, there’s still an area of our lives to be examined in light of who Jesus is, and who he calls us to be. And this is a life-long task. We never cease to have areas of our lives to be brought under the Lordship of Christ, because, as long as we live, we never stop having the need to be changed by the Word and the Holy Spirit into a better likeness of Christ.
Peter–the Rock–had a lot of rough edges, a lot of areas to be honed and polished and worked smooth so that he would be able to live out the exhortation in first Peter (1 Peter 2:5) to “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…” But he strove toward that goal his whole life and, in the end, the man who had misunderstood Christ’s messiahship, who denied his Lord before the crucifixion, who cowered in the upper room out of fear following it–this same man was able to encourage the better part of his nature, to the part that had recognized Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God, and to live his life for Jesus, to the point of martyrdom.
One of my favorite comics is a picture of a group of people sitting around at a Bible study, and one lady in the study says “I’ve never actually died to sin, but I did feel kind of faint once.” I think that’s often how we look at Christ’s admonition to deny ourselves and take up our cross. This denial of self is the denial and refusal to feed the parts of our nature that would curse as well as bless. We’re called to be changed, and we can be encouraged by the examples of those ordinary people who have gone before, and have borne witness to Christ. I think Peter would be the first to tell us, that if he could be made a fit living stone for God’s Kingdom, then so can we, if we take the time to reflect on what it means to say “Jesus is Lord.”