The Church’s Doomed Pursuit of the Elusive Young Adult

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It seems that everywhere you look today, “the church,” especially within historic traditions, is talking about reaching that ever-elusive young adult demographic.  Sometimes it feels like we are on some National Geographic safari trying to observe and conserve some rare creature, but all-in-all I think it’s a great endeavor and worth the effort. At the same time, I am also worried that in our excitement about new ministries, creative initiatives and renewed energy focused on young adults that we are doomed even before we begin.

As I reflect on my own stage of ministry, after 25 years of working in the church including 17 years or ordained ministry, I am keenly aware of my short-comings when it comes to reaching young adults. My Gen X worldview and ecclesiastic experience often cloud my judgement and my aversion to getting old can be a stumbling block to my own continued growth in ministry. I think the church as a living body is not much different in our current stage of life. Over the generations, what the church has done in the world has been amazing and powerful, but those resting on the laurels of those accomplishments often hampers our ability to see the church of the future; one that could have the same impact on the world. So before we journey too far down the path of our young adults expedition, I would offer three faulty assumptions that many of us make when thinking about young adults and the future of the church.

ASSUMPTION 1 –WE can build a ministry for Young Adults.
I find it interesting that most of the conversations about “reaching young adults” take place among people who are distinctly NOT young adults. I think it is a way that many of us try to prove that 40 really IS the new 20 and extend our youth for as long as we can. Sorry folks, but as we age, our roles and perspectives change. I for one do not regret this, rather I embrace and welcome the roles that I will hold in the future. If we are reach young adults with integrity, then young adults must to be at the table and part of the direction setting in significant ways. Much like we would never plant a Korean American church with a team that was 90% non-Korean, we must not try to create relevant young adults ministries by relying on the musings of even the best intentioned 40, 50 and 60 year-olds. For as hip of a 43-year-old as I fool myself into believing I am, I do not and will not experience the world through the eyes of a 20-year-old . . . and there is nothing I can do to change that. The best thing I can do is to acknowledge this reality and then find the best ways to empower, guide and support that 20-year-old as she/he discovers a place and role in the future of the church. This posture must be taken in all aspects of the journey: planning process, fiscal management, organizational development, etc. if we are to truly create and sustain ministry with and for young adults.

ASSUMPTION 2 -There is such a thing as A Young Adult. 
One of the glaring generational differences that seems to take over young adult conversations is the idea that there is “A Young Adult” that can be defined and targeted. Sure, there are ways that we can glean some common young adult characteristics, but unlike previous generations, these definitions are far more DEscriptive than PREscriptive. I can hear it now, “We Boomers are not all the same, how dare you, you disrepectful Gen X’er!” Fair enough, but on this we will have to agree to disagree. I am not saying that previous generations are soulless robots programmed to all like the same things, but I think it is fair to say that in previous generational times more people liked the same things whereas in our today’s niche culture, more people like more things. This diversity within a demographic throws our tried and true methodological approach to ministry all into a tizzy because it means that we will have to deal with diverse expressions of faith. How do we measure and assess these things? How do we fund them? What kind of leadership is needed? All important questions that can only be effectively addressed by taking seriously Assumption 1.

ASSUMPTION 3 -Young Adults will help the church I love to live on!
If we are honest, the main reason most of us are hopping on the Young Adult Train is because we think we need them to survive and sustain the church that we have been part of.  To some extent that is true and noble if we are thinking about “the church” as a way of being and not a style, ideology or program. However, if reaching young adults is only, even mostly, about self-preservation, we have already chosen a path of death without hope for resurrection. On the other hand, if we are about seeing the end of the particular manifestation of the church as a natural life stage and rhythm of life, then we can move into our death strengthened by the promise of resurrection and new life. Yes, some aspects of the church past are destined to continue in some fashion, but if our primary reason for reaching young adults is to preserve what has always been, then we have already stopped being a church worth preserving at all.

I realize that some will now accuse me of dismissing the importance and presence of older adults in the church. I can’t help if that is your initial and only reaction other than to encourage you to think about your role in helping to define the future of the church as an evolving role and not an abdication of presence. One can be young in spirit and energy until death, but to deny the wisdom that age and experience can offer the future is to deny the work of Christ that has been cultivated in all of us over time. Our role in defining the future will depend on context, but if the only role that you or I can see for ourselves is to be upfront determining the direction of the church, we will fail. To me, this is not an acceptable choice, so I must now learn how to gauge the right time and way to lift and support up young adults who can better and more naturally see the future of and God’s intentions for the Body of Christ. This is my shifting roll that I will live and be with all of the youthfulness and vibrancy that this creaky body muster . . . I can’t wait to see what happens.

We’re Starting a New Presbyterian Church

See original posting.

There are times when some things in life just make sense. What might seem like a foolish and risky endeavor to one person might be a natural convergence of clarity and call to another. With that said, after nearly a year since I announced the end of my time at a church that I helped to plant over a decade ago, it’s with a deep sense of call that I am again entering the world of church planting.

But wait, there’s more.

For generations the idea of “church” has been bound by proximity, physical structures and time. Sure, many have been creative within these bounds, but most have nevertheless been limited by them. The past 10+ years has also seen the increased influence of social media on culture that has created profound opportunities for people to engage the breadth of the human experience and find genuine community. Many churches have found ways to integrate the use of social media into congregational life, but most are centered around the idea that the community begins at one central location and that particular experience is amplified by the use of social media. For a while now I have had an inkling that the “social media amplifies the local church” paradigm could be flipped upside-down resulting in a powerful way to be church. If this shift were to be taken seriously, some interesting questions are raised:

  • What if a church decided that the discipline of following Christ and building genuine Christian community could be lived out without everyone having to actually be in one place at one time?
  • What if a church unapologetically leveraged online tools to be a community no longer bound by architecture, time and physical proximity?
  • What if a church that met online believed that even a historic religious tradition like the Presbyterian Church (USA) can be expressed in new ways?
  • Essentially . . . can church be church when it is primarily lived and manifested online?

Well ask “What if?” no longer because the church that I am planting is going to be one that tries to answer these questions. Peering through the lens of social media, I am excited to push the bounds of traditional church formation, while maintaining all that is good about traditional church. To be clear, the online nature of this idea certainly creates great technological possibilities, but my intention is that we will build just a church like any church: one that worships, serves, studies and prays together . . . we will just happen to gather online. There will be no justifications seeking legitimacy, no quotes inferring that this is not a “real church” and no posture that we are competing for people, resources or notoriety . . . just a church.

As I dive into this, I have had some exploratory conversations with people who might be part of such a church, received some initial feedback from denominational folks and have prayed x 3 about it. but like any church plant, there is much to do in order get ready for any kind of official launch.  At this early stage it is tempting to come out launching a high-functioning and slick “product,” but we realize that if this is to truly be a church and not just a dispenser of religious services, the final mission, vision, form and function must be formed and owned by the community. At the same time, I know that some will need to know a little more before deciding whether or not to get involved. So to give a taste, here is a little bit of what I am thinking in terms of initial focus and tone . . .

  • Spiritual and Religious – This is not just about getting together and being Christians in isolation who randomly connect online, but about developing disciplines that help us to grow into who God intends.
  • Gracious and Progressive – While spirited theological and political disagreement will be welcomed, stridency and rigidity is not how we will approach difficult issues. We will be a church that will live under the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA): ones sexual orientation or gender are not barriers to leadership, reproductive options are important, capital punishment should be abolished, etc.
  • Reformed and Presbyterian – Reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God is central to our ongoing search for God’s intentions for each of us. As we seek to know the will of God and mind of Christ, we do so honoring all voices, no matter how small.
  • Open and Sourced – While all people who are part of this community are ministers in their own right, we also know that some roles will require particular gifts and skills. The life of the community will move along with a collaborative spirit, but leadership will also be tasked with guiding and shaping the process in a way that moves forward. The circle will definitely widen, but the initial leadership team is currently made up of: Katie Mulligan, Teaching Elder, NJ; Stephen Salyards, Ruling Elder, CA; Mihee Kim-Kort, Teaching Elder, IN; Derrick Weston, Teaching Elder, OH; Jack Jenkins, Seminary Student, MA; Jennifer Owen Walsh, NC and myself, Teaching Elder in CA.
  • Inward and Outward . . . but mostly outward – This is not about building up a crazy number of followers, friends or likes. This is about creating community that finds healing, discipline and love SO that we get the heck out into the world and do some good. From our tent-making pastoral leadership to our programs to our finances the outward nature of this community will be self-evident.

. . . and this is where we do it all through the lens of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Again I know that there are many of questions that we need to address before a full launch – “What about X?” and “How will we do X?” – but I also know that only way this new church will be able to respond well is to keep widening the circle of involvement. With this in mind our first step is to gauge the interest of folks and begin to gather people for some conversations and planning. Some of you are ready to dive right in, others will want nothing to do with this craziness and still others of you will need to lurk around the edges until the time is right. However you might see yourself connected to this church that has yet to be named, as we begin to build up a spiritual community, develop organizational strategies and start being church together, you are invited to JOIN OUR FACEBOOK PAGE and FILL OUT THIS SURVEY.

There is definitely more to come and I look forward to walking this journey with some of you. Please pass this along to any folks who you think might also be interested.