“After Jesus figured out how to rejig the synagogue service, all the young adults and families came back to worship and put heaps of money on the offering plate.”
– 1 Fabrications 3:16
Lately I have noticed that the participation of youth and young adults in the mainline church has become fetishized. That is, we often have “an excessive and irrational […] obsession with” youth and young adults taking part in our churches. (Thanks to Oxford Dictionaries for the definition.)
“If only” more young folks were in worship … came to more events and programs … contributed more money … etc … etc … then everything would be roses and cupcakes, forever.
Don’t get me wrong. I love it when young folks are in church. I love it when old people are there, too. And little kids. And middle-agers. Worship and other churchy activities are awesome for all ages: they form us as followers of Jesus, as compassionate neighbours, as eager servants of God and God’s love. Worship is essential to a rightly-oriented life, no matter your age or stage.
But trying to get a younger demographic into the church for the sake of survival, or for the sake of saying we did it, is backwards.
The vocation of Christian communities is to serve. To serve. To love. To give. To share. To partner with others in doing good. Worship forms us for that, and it orients our hearts to God. But we don’t exist as churches just for the sake of existing, and worship doesn’t happen just for the sake of happening. The church exists because the Holy Spirit has called us into existence for a reason: in order to further the purposes of Christ’s mission in the world.
So I think the real issue, the real question, is not “how can we get more young people into our church?”
The real question is, “how can our church serve the young people (and other people) in our community with joy and humility?”
To answer that question, we’re going to need to find some ways to listen, really listen, to those young people, whether they are “part of us” or not, and to ask them what they need. When we are clearer about that, we’ll have a better sense how to use our resources to serve them.
Rob Fennell teaches theology and history at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia.