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-somethings–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.
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 this:
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.