There’s no end of hand-wringing these days in our churches of how to keep young adults interested. The “next” generation is leaving the church faster than hockey fans from a lockout and we’re all asking why. Don’t get me wrong, it’s crucial to follow this unsurprising trend (#weshouldhaveseenthiscoming), but there is also a subtle danger: we may shape a gospel for a generation instead of seeing a generation shaped by the gospel.
Two distinct challenges face the Church in every age. First is the challenge of passing faith from one generation to the next in a way that is faithful to the message, relevant, and founded in Tradition (the living faith of the dead—which young adults are generally eager to embrace), as opposed to tradition (the dead faith of the living—which young adults have always tended to vomit out like lukewarm borscht).
The second challenge is how to en-flesh or incarnate the faith within a generation. A survey of the generations in our pews (or chairs, theatre seats, or chaise lounges) shows that each found a way to en-flesh the faith for their times. Not surprisingly, given the pace of change and increasing priority of self over community, each struggles to learn the language of the next, while each following generation seems determined to name whatever came before it as unpalatable bunk.
So, to begin moving us beyond generational navel-gazing, let me ask a few questions:
- Forget the label of your generation and ask: how well do I know the stories and spiritual journeys of people both older and younger than I?
- Forget your preferred form of “church” and ask: what is at the heart of the forms of the gospel I see cherished in those older and younger than me?
- Don’t forget that you were a product of your culture before you were a disciple of Jesus and ask: Am I most interested in having a gospel shaped for me or am I yearning to be shaped by the gospel?
Next, we should take heed of Hemorrhaging Faith, a recent study on young adults and the Church that uncovered something unexpected: the decline in the church from childhood to teen is greater than the decline from youth to young adult. It may be that we adults—even young adults—are actually missing the point. So, opening my eyes and ears anew to all this has brought me to some new practical insights:
Get interactive. I have started inviting texts about the text during my sermon. This has been enriching and thought-provoking. Many texts I receive come from young adults who love this interaction. One text, arriving three days after a sermon, asked: “I am 16 and not a virgin: am I going to hell?” My guess is the privilege of engaging this private journey with my younger brother or sister in Christ would not have happened any other way. Increased interaction and connection across all the ages is more important than particular forms.
Get real. One young adult confessed before our congregation that his faith was dormant until our church went through crisis. The stuff the older people were trying to make go away so we could be a “good” church again was the fertilizer nourishing the faith of this brother. Young adults want to be part of community that lives faith, not just talks or sings about it. We have enough drivel to fill their lives; we—and even younger children—need to be part of a people that models how to deal with life in the real world and has a message powerful enough to change it.
Get gospel. This is crucial. Get gospel, or get back to it. Young adults like everyone else including our children, need more than ethical instruction from the church. They need to hear what makes the Christian hope unique—in Christ, God en-fleshed his love and holiness, sacrificed himself for our sins, and rose from the dead inaugurating a new creation that cannot be stopped. We don’t need to hear there is a really good religious teaching that can be shaped to our preference; we need to hear there is a hope for the ages that transforms those it touches by calling sin to account and offering hope, grace and a whole new kingdom in its place. We need this Good News and we all—including young adults—need to turn our attention toward shaping an even younger generation who seem to be growing up missing the point while the rest of us debate what the point is.
Phil Wagler turned 40 this year and was forced to remove “young” from his adulthood. He now knows nothing and longs for the time he did. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.