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Friday, August 17, 2012

Where have all the young people gone?

It's a perennial question that haunts church leaders across religious and denominational lines.

Roman Catholics are concerned about the vocations of young men to the priesthood and young women to religious life. Protestants are worried about the absences of Gen X and Gen Y people in their mostly aging congregations. The pews in Orthodox churches are primarily inhabited by diminishing congregations of aging people, where the unspoken, sad joke is "last one out, turn off the lights."

I've read lots of "how to" articles and essays which coach church leaders to attract young people to churches with "separate and different" church services with "modern" music with catchy tunes and contemporary language and a watered-down, simplified  theology.

Some of us have tied ourselves into ecclesiastical pretzels, trying this or that latest trend, establishing a special "brand" that we can "market" and "attract" a certain demographic. We have poured over and studied compilations of statistics which are used by national store and restaurant chains when determining whether or not to "locate" in a certain geographical area. All to no appreciable difference in the numbers or age group that occupy our pews.

I remember sitting with one group of concerned parish leaders who were at their wits end. They were motivated to meet together and desperate to try any change - programmatic and/or liturgical - that would insure an increase in their membership base.

The reason for the desperation was not due to a sense of a desire to be evangelists or to "preach the Gospel to all the world". Rather, their motivation sprang from a sense of real fear.

The bishop had warned them that, according to the statistics and projections provided to him by his Congregational Development Officer, if something didn't change, in five years they would no longer be able to afford a full time priest. They knew and understood that this would place them on the slippery slope to becoming yet another statistic of "failing congregations" that were doomed to close its doors.

As one of my clergy colleagues says, they saw new people come through the door and, instead of seeing the sign of the cross, they saw a dollar sign.

In some ways, they were set up for that, weren't they? Bishops often frame evangelism in terms of economic gain. I've heard several bishops do this with mission, using the axiom, "Money follows mission."

There may or may not be truth to that, but I find positioning financial gain as a motivation for mission and/or evangelism to be so far from the gospel that it makes my hair stand on end and curls my toes. 

I remember saying to that group of good, anxious Christian folk, "Suppose this is it? Suppose this is as good as it gets? What if this group of people were the answer to your prayers? What if these are the people God has sent you to do the work of mission? Suppose, just suppose, that God wants you - YOU, not "new people" - to do the work of mission?"

"I'm asking you," I continued, "just as Jesus asked the disciples who were worried that they didn't have enough food to feed the thousands who had gathered that long-ago day on an ancient hill to listen to what He had to say, 'What do you have? Go and see?' I'm asking you: What will you do with what you've got to further the mission of the Gospel? Go and see!"

Well, they didn't want to hear that! They wanted a 'silver bullet' or a 'magic pill' that would solve all their problems. They wanted to hear - as so many of us do from our medical doctors - "Just swallow this program and follow these 10 Rules and call me in the morning."

When the 'self-help' program fails - and, they mostly all do - it's always the fault of the priest. No one ever holds accountable the bishop and/or his congregational development officer - usually an affable man with great intentions  who has never, himself, been a successful rector, or if he has, it has been so many years since he's been a rector, he wouldn't know whether to scratch his nose or wind his watch if he were back in the saddle.

I believe that all the fancy three-hole binders with pages and pages of graphs and demographics that have been promoted as sort of an ecclesiastical "self-help" program promising to be the 'magic pill' have failed miserably because there is no magic to mission and evangelism.

Mission and evangelism, like life, happen when you're busy doing something else. In terms of mission and evangelism, they happen when you're busy doing the work of the Gospel.

Yes, it does help to know your demographic and your audience. St. Paul knew that, which is why he says one thing to the church in Rome, another to the church in Corinth, and yet another to the church in Phillipi. You have to understand the cultural context in which you are working and preaching and teaching.

Which is why I have found Sr. Joan Chittister to be so helpful.

In yesterday's NCR column, Sr. Joan was discussing the sharp criticism from the Vatican concerning the lack of young early adult vocations in religious orders of women.

What she had to say also addresses the concerns of mainline Protestant denominations about the lack of young people in our pews.

She wrote: "While the Vatican pronounces women's religious life dead because there are no 18-year-olds around anymore, we may all be missing the obvious: There are no 18-year-olds around anywhere anymore."

Sr. Joan Chittister
In answering the question, "Where have all the young people gone?" she wrote:
"A continuing demand for more and more certification, education and experience has delayed adolescence in the West. People get married later now, too -- in their mid-20s to early 30s at least, and many even older.

They go from first grade to master's degrees in one fell swoop, or they go to school between jobs, or they do both a job and education together -- and slowly. Then they take a few starter jobs while they decide what they want to be when they grow up. And then they face the mound of college debts it will take most of them years to repay.

In a world that is living longer, learning longer, working longer, participating for years longer in a culture full of healthy elders, people are living life at a far more thoughtful, more productive pace than generations before us ever dreamed of, let alone planned for. There is time, always time, they're sure, for everything.

So what are we to think about it all? The church calls it secularism and materialism. Maybe. But there are other explanations, as well. Like longevity. Or maturation. Or even a better sense of the fullness of life."
Isn't honesty refreshing? Isn't it wonderful not to feel the anxiety that comes from 'shame and blame' and experience an intelligent, truthful articulation of what we see all around us?

Not that it lets us off the hook. Indeed, I think it places us back on the hook in an entirely different way. Instead of pouring new wine into old wine skins (Not my metaphor. Jesus gets credit for that one), we need new wine skins.

In other words, we need to stop putting window dressing - snappy music, contemporary services - on "this old house" and begin the hard work of considering how to change the paradigm of what it means to be church in the Third Millennium.

It always boggles my mind that the church uses "marketing" techniques and then balks at the "materialism" and "consumerism" of our church goers.

We wonder where all the young people are when we give them a "warm welcome" to our houses of worship and, forgetting that many of these same young people are either struggling to pay tuition or pay off student loans, a few months later, we hit them up for a "pledge". 

Has the church demonstrated any real concern for their situations? Has the church taken a stand on the problems associated with student loans? Do we "walk the walk" in real, tangible ways about the social concerns that face that generation? Or, are we expecting Jesus to do all the heavy lifting?

Here's another hint from Sr. Joan:
Hindus, most of all, perhaps, take into account the "ages" of development. Hinduism, in fact, has long taught that there are four stages of life.

The first stage, the Hindus teach, is the age of childhood, however long it takes to acquire the maturity necessary to begin to function beyond the control of the family.

The second stage is the age of the student. During this preparatory period, students concentrate for years on learning the skill or profession that will enable them to function independently in society in order to give back to the larger world -- for the sake of its own development -- what they have been trained to do.

The third stage of life, the Hindus tell us, is the age of the householder, the keeper of a family, whose concentration on others develops the next generation to carry on the values and ideals of this one.

Finally, Hinduism teaches, a person reaches the age of the sanyasi, the truth-seekers, who give themselves over in this last stage of life to the pursuit of spiritual development. These people -- educated, experienced, responsible -- take these final years to bring perspective to their own lives and wisdom to others. It's the period of reflection. For some, it is the period of monastic reflection. The period when, relieved of the burden of social responsibility, they become the standard-bearers of the soul.
What if we looked at these four stages and began to think of mission and evangelism the way Jesus did: meeting people where they are?

What if, instead of expecting people to come to our churches, we went to them? Where they are? In schools and homes and shops and at their places of employment?

How are we helping to equip them with the skills they need to function independently in society? How are we assisting the "keepers of the family" to "develop the next generation to carry on the values and ideals of this one"?

How are we helping the "sanyasi", the "truth-seekers" in their spiritual development to become the "standard-bearers of the soul"?

And, how can we do all of these things, expecting nothing in return? Instead, our only expectation is to be "surprised by joy"?

What would the church look like then?

I expect we would be hard-pressed to find anything that looks like what we know of the church today. I imagine there would be fewer magnificent buildings, but there would be stronger communities of faith. I imagine our clergy would spend less time in church offices and more time being with people where they are. I imagine bishops would not be found so much in diocesan offices or in airports, on planes heading to meetings but rather, setting up satellite offices in various locations in the diocese, being with clergy and people as their "chief pastor" and evangelist, claiming his/her ancient role as being chiefly responsible for mission.

Some of that is already happening. Some people are calling it "the emergent church". It is said that it is more a "movement" than an organization.

I don't think people in the so-called "emergent church movement" call themselves that. I think they call themselves "church" or "faith community".  

That gives me great hope.  I have come to believe that Jesus never intended to establish an institution. I believe Jesus came to establish a movement. He never had a Temple, much less had office hours.

He met people where they are. Began to teach them where they were - out of their own cultural context. Healed them where they were without judgment or counting the cost.

What if the Body of Christ began to reclaim our ancient heritage and legacy?

Well, anyway, these are my "back to the future" hopes and dreams for the church, inspired by the pastoral wisdom and long, hard look at reality from Sr. Joan, who writes:
Maybe we ourselves are finally getting there, too. Maybe the age of religious life is turning upside-down in a culture where other responsibilities come earlier and stay longer. No, women are not coming to religious life now to be trained in adulthood. They are coming to religious life as adults to be trained in wisdom and faith, in spiritual development and public ministry.
No, young people are not coming to the church to be trained in adulthood. They are coming to the church as adults to be trained in wisdom and faith, in spiritual development and public ministry.

What are we going to do about that?


Marthe said...

Well, I think you can expand the question to "where have all the people gone" - and all the points you make seem valid. Six years as church administrator in what I came to see as not a denomination, but a demandination confirmed a thing I had been thinking for years: what the people who attend want is a sanctuary, a place to be heard, to think, to BE that is not exactly the same as their jobs or regular lives or deeply disturbing circumstances of uncertainty about anything. Oh, yes, there were the "leaders" trying to apply all the rules of business and marketing to evangelism (and failing - they were curiously resistent to actually meeting and talking to "new" people, too accustomed to clinging to their idea of "us" and privacy and hoarding their limited resources out of an abiding sense of insecurity and fright), trying to "fix" things with programs instead of personal contact and actual generosity ... but what so many of them actually said, as they sat in my office for so many hours, was that "church" was a place of refuge, and needing refuge embarrassed them even though they craved it, could not do without it. Those young people you write about, they seemed to see church as just another demand on their time, another place telling them that what they have to offer and who they are isn't good enough (all those r u l e s, ick!) ... I'm with you - how about we find a way to be "out there" while still offering sanctuary ... just thinking.

JCF said...

I generally think "The Kids Are Alright".

Oh, they need to be reminded not to Text&Drive. Like ALL of us, they need to diminish their carbon footprints. They may "take any job" now, but they need to be nudged to think critically about Profits-Uber-Alles, as far as their future employment goes.

But it ain't The Kids that prevents folks like me from getting a marriage license. Precious few of them carry posters of Obama w/ a bone thru his nose (or a Joker grimace).

Do I wish they were more them in my parish? Funding the heating/cooling and priest, energizing the Social Outreach committees? Yup.

In many ways, however, I'm merely waiting their inevitable REPLACEMENT of older age cohorts (inc. mine, eventually! ;-p).

Instead of asking "Where are the youth?", why don't we join them where THEY are?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Marthe - Again, you make some important points and offer some wonderful insights. A good Anglican, I want both - some places of sanctuary and to meet people where they are.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


Anonymous said...

I did notice something that was unpleasant about the sisters/nuns compared to their own self-assessment and that of the Mainline Protestant churches: blinding Whiteness.
For groups that have been proclaiming "Welcome the stranger" and "Prepare the way for future church" and "Celebrate our Diversity", they've both stayed 90-97% White and middle class.

Matthew said...

The issue of young people is a difficult one because when you raise these questions in a parish -- as in what if this is all there is -- what if its just us -- people get nervous because they feel that their parish will likely close in 10-20 years if not sooner depending on deaths, money, etc. Having been a member of a parish that closed, I can tell you its emotionally draining. And the parish I am thinking of now is in a small town so there are no other episcopal parishes with which to merge -- it would simply be the end of the anglican presence in the community. Now there are plenty of young people in this community. But many of the other churches have also closed. Only a few are left. Most of the fraternal organizations have also shut down. The Elks, Rotary, Masons all closed up shop several years ago. Young people are everywhere but they had no interest in those organizations either. The bars are also closing because if the young drink at all, they drink at home and don't see the bar as a social institution or hang out place like their parents. They dont even strike up conversations in the post office like their parents do. Restaurants are doing okay but do much more take out than people dining in. There is no magic bullet. IF there was, the Rotary would have latched onto it years ago. But I agree with Sr. Joan. It may be as they age, these things will be more important and they will have to reinvent them.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Turnip Ghost - Well, the only place whiter than NH (92%) is VT (94%). Maybe you should slam them, too. Oh, wait. I forgot. You just like slamming women in their 70's.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - Thanks for your comments. I think Sr. Joan is onto something.