By Wayne Meisel
This coming Sunday, many churches across the country dust off “Homecoming Sunday” signs and banners. Though not part of the official church calendar, its subtext might as well be: “Summer is over, time to get back to your church!” (And get current with your pledge).
Even with all the hoopla, it isn’t likely that this upcoming event will draw many young adults. Anyone reading the religion section or blogs and posts knows that there has been a lot written about why Millennials don’t go to church.
Rather than ask for an explanation (church is boring, irrelevant, judgmental and at a bad time of day), my question is: why isn’t the church reaching out, and supporting, and loving on the Millennials?
No, this is not a covert operation to try and get converts for Jesus and to fill up our pews and collection plates in the process. I know it is hard for some to believe that there are Christian leaders and Christian communities that seek to love by showing love, but there are.
We should not just withhold our love, coffee, juice and cookies for those who come through our church doors. The pope was pretty clear about that earlier this summer.
“We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities when so many people are waiting for the Gospel!” Pope Francis said. “It’s not enough simply to open the door in welcome, but we must go out through that door to seek and meet the people.”
We are called to welcome, invite, include and build together. When that welcome is not very inviting, it is time to change how we live. Let’s go look, listen and follow through.
Where are they? How do you find them? That is the question I get all the time when I remind church people that there are young adults everywhere, many of whom are serving in our communities. What bugs me about this question is that if they want to find an accountant, they go find one. Yet, when we are looking for the young adult community, we shut off our brains. Why do we lose our initiative? Why is it so hard? Perhaps it’s because many of us feel awkward.
Where are they? They are our own kids and our kids’ friends. They work in the schools our children attend, they work out at the Y where we exercise, they shop in the stores where we shop, and they serve at the agencies that we support through the United Way, and yes, even through our congregations.
We don’t see them because we only seek them when we are looking for someone to fill the empty seat in the pew or lead the youth group. Yet, if we are looking for children of God who are living out the call to serve, they are everywhere that you are. And if they are not there, they are not hard to find.
When opening our doors isn’t enough, we have to look, listen, and follow through.
One of the prophetic voices of our time, Rachel Held Evans, writes: “Millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt.” She goes on to say, “I would encourage church leaders eager to win Millennials back to sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community.”
So let’s talk: But…
Don’t assume you know what they want to talk about or what they need.
Don’t think about what you want out of it; think about they want and need from you.
Instead … Ask about:
The service that they do and the joys and challenge that come with it
What inspired them to serve?
Have they ever been a part of a faith community? Were their parents? Grandparents? Did they grow up in a church? What has been their experience (good and bad)? What are their impressions (good and bad)? If you don’t get defensive about their critique, they may just talk to you again.
Ask them what they need … it may be as simple as where is the best coffee shop and as big as struggling with mental health issues and the need for a therapist.
Ask them what social issues they care about. Offer to connect them with individuals and local organizations and people that are involved in these issues.
Ask them what they like to read and what they like to watch. What do they do in their free time?
Ask about their future plans. Where do they hope to be next? What kind of help do they need to get there?
Tell them that they are loved, that you are grateful for their interests, and talents and gifts, and let them know that you are there for them, regardless of what they believe or what they do with themselves on a
Sunday morning or any other time for that matter.
Invite them for dinner and ask them to bring their friends.
Bring cookies to their work sites.
Offer them tickets to concerts, plays, ballgames and other events that they might not be able to attend because of the cost.
Offer your buildings as meeting spaces for their trainings and social events and don’t bother charging them.
And if offering them your space can be received as an in-kind donation, have it recorded as a contribution, thus showing that the church was involved and supportive.
Support their service organizations with your mission dollars.
Invite them to present a moment for mission, teach an adult education class, or even to preach a sermon.
Organize a service trip with members of the church, including but not limited to the youth group, and work side by side.
Host a film series that features documentary films that highlight the social justice issues young adults care about. Create space to have conversation where ideas and beliefs are exchanged, not where they are being preached at, or judged. Look at the Faith and Justice Film Series that was created by Macky Alston of Auburn Media.
Hold a weekly meal just for community and conversation and allow them to be both light and lingering.
Invite them to live with you in your home if you have extra room, or in the church manse if you have an empty one. Or you could do what Earl Koopercamp did at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem and just turn the church attic into bedrooms.
And if they do come to church for worship, here is a little advice about coffee hour conversation.
Don’t ask “How old are you?” Ask “What did you think of the service today?”
Don’t ask “Are you new here?” Say, “I don’t think we’ve met, my name is …”
Don’t say, “We need more young people.” Say, “Great to meet you.”
Wayne Meisel founded the Bonner Foundation and currently serves as the Director of Faith and Service at the C.F. Foundation in Atlanta, Ga. He is the unofficial chaplain to young adults in service through programs like AmeriCorps and Teach for America.