I had a long talk on the weekend with my mom and my daughter Allison, aged 22 years. The question was, "Why aren't more young people going to church?" It isn't that they aren't spiritual. Having worked with a number of 20-somethings over the past few years at the theatre, I know that that just isn't true. And some of the materils I read from the local Unitarian congregation got me thinking--they have fifty members, and fifteen children enrolled in their children's program, which is a much higher ratio than any mainline Christian church I've been to in a while. Why are they turning to the Unitarians, and not the churches of their parents and grandparents?
My mom and I noted that many churches are now located in "mature" areas, where few if any young people live. Yet instead of facing reality and serving the surrounging population of seniors, they'd rather moan about how the Sunday School is dwindling. Usually this is accompanied by memories of the "glory days" of the late fifties and early sixties, when the building was full to overflowing with kids.
But not only are fewer people regularly attending church as in those days, there simply aren't as many kids! Large families are not the norm anymore. Schools that were full to overflowing when I was a kid have closed their doors. The baby boom generation is not young anymore--we're now approaching senior citizen status. It provides a tremendous opportunity for the church, but not the one the church seems to be looking for.
Allison remarked that "Christianity has a bad name among 20-somethings." This was the statement we unpacked in the car on the long drive home from her grandparent's house.
First off came the expected comment about how what they read in the bible, what they learn in school and in the world, and what they see their elders actually doing are all at odds with one another. My daughter told me that she had learned the lesson that I'd taught--that the bible must be put in the context it was written in order to understand it, and was never meant to be read as literally as some Christians read it, but that most of her age-mates didn't have that advantage. I got a warm fuzzy from that--apparently, things that I've taught my kids actually stuck, because they actually listen to me and respect what I say!
We talked about how a few vocal conservative evangelical Christians are getting all the publicity. The group that wants to burn the Qur'an is getting a lot of press right now. That group contains fifty people, far less than my liberal United Church family. And most of us would disagree-some of us quite strongly-with what this group is doing. But they get the press, and we remain silent. I've heard a lot about the government reaction to this (thankfully, negative), but there seems to be silence on the part of the mainline churches. My mother asked, "Does this mean we have to make more noise?" and my daughter's immediate answer was, "Yes!"
From the environment, to gay rights, to justice for native peoples, to the authority and place of the bible, the majority of the United Church is actually in step with what most 20-somethings believe, but they don't know it because we don't tell them! We need to speak out, often and loud, in order to say, "This is what we believe, and why, and we're proud to be different!"
The second thing she told me is that our worship rituals are incomprehensible to outsiders. We stand up and sit down in random places, sing songs that have theologies that don't relate to real life. God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and always good. Viewed that way, Haitian earthquakes or flooding in Pakistan are incomprehensible. Since the flooding and the earthquakes are real and verifiable, our views of God must be skewed, they reason. Then we recite randome words like zombies--all together, but not really thinking about what we're saying or why. We need to re-think our worship, and if we decide that it's fine the way it is, we need to do a much better job of orienting new folks to the worship service. And like it or lump it, if an "old favourite" doesn't really reflect what we believe, it's time to change the words or stop singing the hymn. "Onward Christian Soldiers" is no longer in our hymn book. The omission caused much controversy, but given the current climate, I'm glad it's not in there anymore. It doesn't reflect who we are or how we want to be in the world.
I got a vision when she was talking about the incomprehensibility of our service of doing an "alien" worship service--one where the "usual" order of service wasn't followed. Sitting in a circle. Asking questions and inviting discussion instead of preaching. Singing popular songs instead of hymns. Talking in text speak, or about video games. Think on this--we want to invite 20-somethings into our midst, yet most of us don't even speak their language, and most sermons aren't addressed to their concerns. How would it feel to most regular church attendees? I've tried "alternative" services before--ones that invited participation, ones where I used Power Point or drama or storytelling. In general, they were well received, but some folks sat in the back, arms crossed, and most folks agreed that they'd only like it "once in a while." The familiar was far more comfortable, even if they got more out of the alternative. But we didn't discuss at all the concept that the familiar to us isn't familiar at all to those outside our "in-group," and constitutes a barrier.
Of course at some point during the service, we ask for money, and don't give any information about what it's for. Something about the "General Fund," whatever that is, and the "Mission and Service Fund," which sounds a bit more promising, but still really general. Think about this--would you rather pay an extra $100 in taxes, or would you rather donate $100 to the building fund of a local hospital? Even though hospitals in Canada are funded with tax and health care premiums, we'd still rather donate directly than pay extra taxes, because we know where our money is going! So why don't we tell people, on a week-by-week basis, where their money goes?
No wonder the ones that come in don't stay! They don't really understand what's going on, and no-one thinks to teach them, or they believe (often rightly) that we only want them to serve us, and not the other way around. Sometimes it seems that the only things we really want are their bodies in the pews, the contents of their wallets in the offering plates, and their kids enrolled in our Sunday Schools. In support of this statement, I read JNAC report from a United Church which will remain nameless, not to protect the guilty, but because it could be the JNAC of a vast majority of the United Churches I know. The report talked about falling attendance, and aging parishioners. It talked about how "alternative" services had been tried, but with no success, but how the congregation was willing to change if it would pull younger people in. That's hopeful, as far as it goes, but then it spent a lot of time on financials, and how it takes x number of younger givers to replace 1 older giver who has died.
The report admitted that they had only talked to members. There was no indication of any contact with the outside world whatsoever--no statement of how the congregation was involved in local mission or outreach. There was no asking, "How can we meet their needs?" Instead, the only question asked was, "How can they meet our needs?"
I've got news for you folks--the world isn't here to meet our needs. We're here to meet the world's needs. And if we want more people to join us, the first thing we have to do is let them know who we are and what we're really here for.