Hoping to attract young adults to your church? The solution is less about devising new programs or loud worship services to attract the elusive demographic, and more about authenticity
According to Beth Ludlum, director of student faith and leadership formation at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, authenticity is the key. She suggests churches start by asking why they want this group to attend their church. If the primary reason is to make the congregation viable for the long term, that is not enough. "Young adults have authenticity radar," Ludlum says.
Churches need genuinely to desire the energy, hope, insight and passion this group brings. They must also be ready to embrace the change that will result as young people become a part of the community of believers. Or, as the Rev. Jorge Acevedo, pastor of Grace Church, a multi-site United Methodist congregation in Florida, points out, "It can be never about saving a church. It is always about reaching people for Jesus. We need to let God break our heart for the next generation."
You feel the call and have the passion to reach young people with Christ's message. Where do you start? Ludlum advises starting by listening to those you want to attract. "Listen to their joys and pain, where they find meaning, where they find hope and despair." For more ideas, check out Stop talking and start listening to your community.
Armed with relational knowledge, churches need to begin to let the values of young people shape their community and leadership. Acevedo says you have to "look at the platform." Part of valuing the next generation includes giving them a voice and visible presence in your community. We need generational diversity in our leadership, just as we need racial diversity.
Churches that do not radiate authenticity may make young adults feel as if they have walked onto a used-car lot. The constant greeting, prodding and questioning can sound like "What do I need to do to get you in a car today?" While young adults yearn for others to know them, they want to be able to check out a church with a level of anonymity. In addition, Ludlum points out, if a church is starting in the right place, the openness and hospitality that flow from the heart naturally will allow young adults to feel welcome without feeling pressured.
Acevedo says that the longing to be known shows up in young adults who want to hang out with "a blue jean-wearing, 53-year-old pastor." They don't want to go through a book or talk through a list of questions each week; rather, they want to come over, grill out and talk about life. This relational approach to mentoring reaches the heart of some of the deepest longings in this generation. The congregation that is willing to open lives and homes has the potential to produce incredible ministry and radical discipleship.
Bringing authenticity into the sermon or a study begins while selecting the topic. When considering a topic or focus, ask, "Does this have any real-world significance?" Whether you are looking at difficult questions, dealing with relationship issues or considering a current issue or topic from the lectionary readings, that question should inform your choice from the selected readings and your focus.
This goes far beyond burning your Christian joke book and leaving behind tired clichés. When you interact with difficult issues, your response has to be as nuanced as the debate is messy. If a clear-cut, universally accepted response does not exist, authentic teachers acknowledge that up front and do not demean other legitimate positions. If you want more coaching on dealing with controversial topics, check out Preaching Controversial Issues without Dividing the Church.
These values echo Jesus' authentic, complex, openhearted life that God calls us to embody in the world. As we seek to open our hearts, minds and doors to the next generation, we can work to become a more authentic expression of the body of Christ.