Friday, October 07, 2005

Reaching Young Adults

I'm sorry to say, if we want to make disciples of Jesus Christ, inviting young adults to join us in social work probably won't do it. I think about these issues occasionally, I work with youth, and I have a passion for reaching young adults with the Gospel, even though I'm not always entirely sure how to do it. After reading Shane Raynor's post So Many Agencies, So Little Time: The Challenge of Reaching Teenagers and Young Adults, I decided I'd take the risk and weigh in on the issue of reaching young adults.

I'm sure many of you are interested in how to reach teens -- well, it's not that different from reaching young adults, and here's where churches either need to learn how to live differently with young people, or it won't work. Apparently, with tail-end babyboomers a few things worked fairly well: telling them God loved them, and whatever they were or were not doing wasn't a big deal because God loved everyone; contemporary worship and either praise choruses or new hymnody with sappy, Seals&Crofts or Cat Stevens style melodies; and the opportunity to "come back" to Church where they could be involved with working for a variety of good causes.

Sorry, I guess my agenda is pretty transparent. I don't understand why those methods worked before, why my mother (who never left the church) found the sappy hymnody so wonderful, or why anyone thinks that young adults now will continue to find these things so great. Young adults want and need many things, but no-cost discipleship, wimpy music, and yet another opportunity to volunteer time and money to change the world aren't major winners.

Before you get too upset about my concern for what young adults want -- remember, worrying what babyboomers wanted is what created the stuff we're supposed to want. Besides, it's not just about wants, but also about needs -- we don't need any of those things. Our culture tells us God loves everyone, and in the end, everyone finds "their own path" to God. Take the evangelism opportunity people, if they already believe God loves everyone, tell them why you know that's true, and that Jesus lived, died, and rose again to give us the path to God. I know, it's not very open to truth in every path to say you've got one that works (and to imply that you can't find the way to God by buying more stuff), but hey, it might just appeal to young adults... if you also tell them what being a disciple of Jesus Christ will cost them.

That brings me to my next issue -- asking for more social activists isn't going to bring young adults to the church. Most young adults who want to be socially involved already are. Don't get me wrong, the church should do a lot of good in the community -- but asking people to participate isn't a very effective evangelism tool unless the time is spent witnessing to the transforming power of Christ in our lives (and even then, there's probably more effective ways). When we invite young adults to work for a good cause, without asking them to commit their lives to the discipline of Christian discipleship, we make the church into another socially-active non-profit, and if that's all we are, then we're less efficient and less effective than the United Way... and they don't even use religious language all that much. If the Church is being the Church it will be involved in good works, but good works don't prove that the Church is being the Church.

Finally, changing our worship will bring in young adults, right? Yeah, but only if we make it less like Oprah and more like worship. Any style of music can work, formal or informal order, and almost any design of worship space. Some might work better than others, but the style of worship isn't the key, it's the content. Young adults want to hear about God's love, but we also want substance. Tell me what it means to be a Christian, tell me about the cost of discipleship, don't hide the Cross, don't hide my cross, and be honest about what the non-negotiables are for Christian faith. Worry less about inclusive language in our hymn selections, and more about whether or not they teach an intellectually, spiritually, and lifestyle challenging faith. Have open discussions about ethics, make good arguments based on Christian norms, but admit which issues are non-essentials and then "think and let think," as Wesley suggested Methodists do with other kinds of Christians: maybe some of the young adults we reach will quit smoking, but can their lives bear fruit even if they don't?

Worship needs to challenge us to come before the Living God, to offer praise and honor to the Maker of Everything in the midst of the community. One more sappy hymn, self-help sermon or political rant isn't going to help. Yes, some of you might believe your political agendas are prophetic -- on both sides of the divide -- but they're not. To reach young adults, the Church needs to be the Church -- a new community, bound together by love, taking care of each one's needs (spiritual, physical and emotional), challenging us to further discipleship, and reminding us that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we can be brought into this embryonic Kingdom of God, and transformed by grace into new, different, refocused people. Whatever you do, do it well, with substance, and you'll reach more young adults.

1 comment:

Ray Worsham said...

Amen, and Amen. Thanks for this thoughtful and accurate analysis.
Yours in Christ