Here’s the challenge: how to sum up a book which is about how faith communities can “bring young adults back” without carrying forward the assumption or premise on which the book begins — that that is a primary concern to our faith communities, how to “bring young people back?” That that should be what we are concerning ourselves with, how to bring young people back into “our” traditions?
I’ve really enjoyed and appreciated the insights of this book, Got Religion?, by Naomi Schaefer Riley. I’ve found myself telling people about Riley’s well-described conversations with young adults and sharing many of her rich insights, vivid accounts, and fascinating factoids (such as that Jesus never went beyond a forty-mile square area in his lifetime–how that single fact can convey so much about the differences between his time and most of our’s).
Yet I felt, at a number of points, that I wanted a larger, bigger-picture, broader conversation than one about how do we get young people to come…back. Is that what matters the most? As a parish minister in my late 30’s, of course, yes, I delight in seeing people in their twenties and thirties coming to church. But I long for something much more meaningful than just seeing younger faces in the group or crowd. I think lots of young people pass through or dip into spiritual communities throughout their twenties and thirties. What I want is for it to matter. What I want is for our spiritual lives to actually be rich and meaningful parts of our lives, not just about where we go once-in-a-while or whether or not we “join.”
Maybe it seems like a minor point, but it’s one I keep coming back to, over and over again throughout my experiences of ministry and congregational life: We all seem to get so focused on our particular setting or context or denomination and how to keep it alive, make it thrive. Too easily it seems we lose sight of the larger purpose that got us wanting to be a part of a community in the first place–to be there for one another, to be challenged and held and transformed ourselves and to be a part of that transformative experience for others. When we get mired in trying to keep the thing afloat, whether its form, we lose both our focus and our appeal.
That said, I can’t help but be a little frustrated that Riley does not include or even mention Unitarian Universalists in her study. I genuinely believe we create something unique in our congregations and gatherings–intergenerational community that is not concerned with everyone sharing the same understanding of God or needing to connect around shared God-language. I got excited about Riley’s chapter on a Charlotte-area collaborative of “forty or so” churches, but if its goal is truly to “reintroduce a generation to Christ and his bride, the church” (124), well, you’ve lost a whole lot of young people right there. That’s just too narrow of a goal for most of the thirty-somethings I know, and it sounds way too much like a Christianity 101 class.
There has to be some kind of middle path between trying to “get young people” to either join and support religious institutions the way they have been for decades or more, or throw our hands up and watch as “they” go off and form their own new kinds of communities and ways of connecting. I think part of the answer is, as always, looking at the initial questions we are asking, and at least rephrasing the question if not asking all new ones. Instead of “how do we get young people back?,” how about asking the young adults in our lives where they are finding community connection, how they/we are making new friends and figuring out ways to build community locally in our lives? Instead of “how can we get young people into leadership roles?,” how about asking young adults in our lives and communities what they/we would like to see happen in our larger city, state, country, or world, and how we can support them in doing that? Please share your questions to-be-asked in the “Comments” field. I’d love to read, ponder, and ask(!) them.