Preachers like to joke that the most common seven words in the church are, “We haven’t done it that way before.”
You may chuckle at that line; I think I may have even used it in a sermon.
But I think there’s a new “most common seven words” in the church. They are: “How do we reach the young folks?”
I hear it all the time in conference gatherings, and in clergy circles, and even in various meetings at Kessler Park UMC. And with good reason. A few years ago, the average age of the United Methodist member in the pews was 57 years old, and that trend has been in an upward swing for years.
It should be obvious that an aging membership will eventually do what most aging things do — die.
That’s why so many people in the church are worried. We rightly are concerned that the witness of Methodism in particular, and the gospel of Jesus Christ in general, would be diluted by closing churches and diminished denominations. We rightly want to share the saving and transforming power of Jesus with our children and their children. Jesus has made a difference in our lives, and so we want future generations to have the same experience.
So we ask, “How do we reach the young folks?”
I have a few opinions on this matter.
First of all, we need to stop asking this question. It’s awfully patronizing. I’ve never met a young person who wanted to be “reached” by a church. That terminology is a little creepy. Can you imagine walking into a church and being told, “Aha, we’ve been looking to find people like you …”?
Furthermore, nobody wants to be called “young folks,” or “young people,” or “millennials,” or “snowflakes,” or “whipper-snappers.” They would prefer to be known as what they are — your neighbors.
Besides, think about how this question sounds to the other people who sit in your pews. How does this sound to those who don’t consider themselves “young folks”? What about the visitors who are on the other side of maturity, but are still looking for a church home? Are we not as eager to welcome them?
Second, the question itself indicates a lack of confidence in our message and mission. The problem, as framed by this question, appears to be that our age-old message has become a little old-fashioned and needs to be dressed up, modernized, and made more “appealing,” “attractive,” or “entertaining.” This approach treats the gospel as a religious “good” that we must package and market to the masses, like a consumer product. It frames the Methodist faith as a kind of “lifestyle choice” that one can choose amidst a long list of competing churches. It makes us want to improve our labels and spruce up the packaging — “Come see our fantastic children’s ministry!” or “We’ve got world-renowned music!”
In other words, when we ask, “How do we reach the young folks?” what we are actually saying is that we are afraid that the gospel of Jesus Christ is really not enough. We are saying that we are not sure that God is really doing something powerful among us and in us. We are basically admitting that we’re not sure that the Holy Spirit is at work in our church anymore.
I believe that what young folks, and old folks, and everyone in-between, really want from church is an experience with God. That’s what I want. Isn’t that what you want?
And I want to be part of a church community that believes that every time we gather for worship, or work alongside the poor in a mission project, or sit around a table for fellowship, that Jesus shows up, and something powerful happens.
In the end, the only thing that will make our church attractive to anyone is the presence of church members who are fully alive in Christ, who have seen God at work in their world, and are in the process of being shaped and transformed by God. The reason why anyone will ultimately be drawn to KPUMC is because they see God in you and me.
Let’s stop asking, “How can we reach the young folks?” Please.
Instead, ask yourself, “What is God doing in me?”