The number one thing I hear church leaders around the country say is: We’d like to have more young people in worship. That’s a terrific aspiration. But don’t say it if you don’t mean it. Digitals (born around 1999 and onward) and Millennials (born around 1982-1998) will bring their own set of experiences, expectations, hopes, and dreams to church. Which may or may not match yours. How willing you are to accept them on their own terms is a sign of your true readiness.
Here’s a 10-point check list, with a bonus 11th point, to help you know if you are truly ready for young people. Or just wish you were.
You Know You’re Ready for Young People if…
- You have an online presence. In 1999, when I arrived at the Wyoming church I served, it was my job to pull them into the late 20th century just as we crossed over into the 21st century. That meant getting an answering machine, updating the copy machine, getting a working computer and setting up an email address. Eventually it included launching a website and installing screens and projectors. Today, getting the church up to speed means all of that plus a Facebook page, a Twitter account, perhaps other social media, and keeping it all updated. An online presence is another way of saying we care about you, and we want you to know about us. It also says we have some stuff going on that is worth talking about.
- You spend as much time being the church as going to church. Churches on the downward slope of decline focus a great deal of their time on maintaining the structures of the congregation. They spend a lot less time focused on enacting the Gospel through new ministries and new relationships. In other words, the primary activities of churches in decline are more about going to church than being the church. Younger people are more likely to be interested in churches that show they can make a real difference in the world rather than in churches that are just in survival mode.
- You’re willing to engage real issues in the world. Jesus restored people to independent living, fed hungry people, gave hope to persecuted people, healed those who were ill, helped the clueless see the error of their ways, and reached across divides to connect with people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. What is your church doing along these lines? While the political process can positively or negatively impact people dealing with these issues, don’t tell young people how to vote. Rather, show them that people who face these issues are being helped by the church.
- You’re willing to deviate from 3 hymns and a sermon. Surprisingly enough, most young people don’t necessarily need a praise bands and an “easy” or non-existent liturgy. What they do need is worship that’s meaningful and that helps them experience God. Make use of ritual, nuanced liturgy, testimony, lectio divina, lighting of candles, communion, visuals, special offerings, high quality music, and a variety of prayer styles to fully communicate the power of the Gospel. This will not only touch the under 33 crowd, but older folks as well.
- Smart phones are welcome in church. People use their phones for all kinds of things: consulting an uploaded Bible or commentary, searching out a resource mentioned in worship, snapping a picture of something post-worthy, texting in a prayer request, or sending a friend a hopeful nugget they just heard. Smart phones are here to stay. Used rightly, they can definitely enhance worship by keeping people engaged. It’s also perfectly okay to ask people to mute them or put them on vibrate before worship begins.
- You focus on the “brilliant future God has for us.” This, in the words of Jeremy Steele, is a lot more attractive than harping on the sinfulness of humanity. Frankly, it may be more biblical too. If Jesus did inaugurate the Kingdom of Heaven, if his life, death and resurrection did change the world forever, if our prayers do matter, if worship does change us, then doesn’t it make sense that we are living into God’s brilliant future even now? Why not celebrate that? Worship shouldn’t be a recounting of the nightly news, but a re-telling of the Good News for our day and time.
- You’re willing to have beliefs questioned. Young people are willing to engage, question, consider, reject and even re-consider beliefs. That sort of intellectual honesty should not be a turn off for the church, but rather a chance to re-imagine or re-claim your own faith, and traditions. Engage young people in honest conversations and open discussions. Be prepared for your faith, and theirs, to grow as a result. Not to mention some discomfort.
- Your leadership reflects generational and racial diversity. Ethnic and racial groups are reaching a plurality in the US. That means there are as many black, brown, beige, and tan complected people in the US as there are pink ones. At the same time, there are more millennials than boomers. Bottom line: the face of America, and the world, is changing. How about in your church? Wherever possible, let your leadership reflect this diversity. If not in full time or paid staff, then in volunteer staff or in lay leadership.
- Love is a reality not a slogan. You may say you have open hearts, open minds, and open doors. But it needs to be a reality in your church, not just words. You can start by praying on a regular basis for people who are very different from you. Let these prayers open your hearts. You’ll know you’re there when a transgendered, gay, ethnic, disabled, street person, refugee, or person from another country or with a different accent is welcomed as warmly as someone who looks or seems just like you. Young people are watching.
10. You’re willing for things to get a little messy. If you’re willing to do some or all of the above then you’ve noticed that things are probably a little messy. Life is unpredictable when we open up to accommodate people who are different than we are. The unexpected can and does happen. Consider this the beginning of unpredictability, and not the end of it.
I am throwing in a bonus to the checklist. Here it is, #11. It may be the most important one of all.
11. You have a vision bigger than “attract young people to church.” One lay led church I am working with is in the process of shifting their vision from growing a strong youth group to engaging young people in serving their neighbors. In their first vision, the young people are the objects of mission. In the second vision, the young people are seen as capable change agents who can impact their own world for the better. That’s a very different focus. One that’s a lot more energizing for both the adults and the young people.
So, how’d you do? If you answered 8-10 with a yes then feel very confident that you have a place that young people will feel welcome. Ask, invite and engage the 33 and under crowd eagerly and joyfully. Be ready to continue to grow and change.
If you answered 5-7 with a yes, you are probably headed in the right direction. But you still have some significant work to do. The good news is that doing this work will make your church stronger in many ways. Not just for extending an authentic welcome to younger people, but to truly be the church. Have an open discussion with the leaders in the congregation. Ask yourselves, what additional steps can we take to move toward a 10? Then do them.
If you answer 1-4 with a yes, ask yourself why you want to have young people in the church. If it’s just to keep the church from shutting down, it’s time to get more imaginative. Spend time in prayer, asking God to show you the Divine will for your building, your resources, and your legacy. Ask God if there’s anything you need to let go in order for these things to come to pass. Then be willing to do those things.
Here’s the bottom line: young people want more from the church, not less. This is an opportunity to flex our own faith muscles, showing the world all the church can be. Not merely a silent witness but an active participant. Not simply a throwback to an earlier time but a sacred gathering of people who live as if their faith truly matters—to the world.