How to connect with young adults: The secrets are revealed!

I have been a member of the Disciples of Christ denomination for 15 years, and I have attended four out of the last five General Assemblies. Time and again, I hear conversations about the need to listen to young adults and connect with young adults and fund young adult ministries. As a young-ish adult (I am 37, so about the only place I am consistently referred to as “young” is in the mainline church), I often hear well-intentioned members of graying congregations say they desperately want the “younger” people to join their respective churches, and they often ask me “What will it take for the younger people to come to our church?” I have a very simple answer to this question, but first let me tell you what young adults, for the most part, when it really gets down to it, don’t care about:

Young adults really don’t care if you have screens instead of hymnals.

Young adults really don’t care if you have a guitar instead of an organ.

Young adults really don’t care if you have couches instead of pews.

Young adults really don’t care about your church having the slickest marketing gimmicks out there, including a savvy website coupled with a working knowledge of Twitter and Facebook and Google+ and whatever else comes next.

But what do young adults care about? What will help your congregation connect with young adults? I will give you one simple example, and it is largely representative of what is missing from this General Assembly, as well as previous ones: the explicit, unambiguous affirmation of gays and lesbians into the full life of the church.

It is a travesty to me that our denomination, which prides itself on being a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world, is not offering an affirmative communal voice for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who have been deeply wounded by society in general and the church in particular. If justice delayed is justice denied, as Dr. King reminded us, will we stand idly by while organized religion remains one of the last vestiges for valorized homophobia?

What is particularly striking to me is that our polity (unlike that of the PCUSA or ELCA, each of which recently joined our Episcopalian and UCC brothers and sisters by taking major stands on behalf of the GLBTQ community) doesn’t even bind each congregation or each member to have consensus of opinion on this matter, yet we can’t even have a resolution or a conversation that points toward affirmation?! Years from now, will our denomination look back on the early part of the 21st century and say that we stood on the side of justice, or are we content discerning ourselves to death, convincing ourselves that our efforts of offering hospitality are related to our abilities of mastering the world of Twitter? Do you really think that is a compelling vision for younger generations, especially when over 70% of young adults are open and affirming of gays and lesbians and view the church as the last place that will be welcoming and inclusive of them? Despite whatever rhetoric we might employ, all of this gives me serious reservations about referring to our denomination as “progressive,” at least in the best sense of what that word harbors.

To be sure, there are those who will say that offering hospitality to the GLBTQ community will lead to the loss of members, and I am sure that some members will indeed leave our congregations and denomination. I say that as a pastor who recognizes the dynamics of doing ministry and dealing with church politics and the like. But I am also convinced that far more young adults will come through our doors if they view our congregations as places of welcome and affirmation. Indeed, if congregations would quit worrying about superficial concerns like screens and hymnals and embody communities of welcome and affirmation instead (communities that take progressive theological convictions seriously), then young adults will flock to our churches. Not because of Facebook, but because of the good news of the gospel.

The young adults who walk through the doors of Brentwood Christian Church aren’t doing so because we’ve put together some hip and trendy and cool worship service. They are coming through our doors because we offer a theology of welcome, affirmation, and justice. And in the past six years, ever since we decided to become a community that cultivated what Presbyterian pastor and author Carol Howard Merritt calls “unambiguous inclusion,” we have seen over 100 young adults become active participants. I’d like to say it is because I’m quite the happening pastor. But it is because the good news of the gospel, and the healing that it offers, is a gift to young adults hungering for the inclusive love of Jesus Christ.

I close with words that aren't from any "missional" or "emerging" Christian, but from Dr. King's Letter from Birmingham Jail:

There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

True then, true now.

Phil Snider is a pastor at Brentwood Christian Church in Springfield, Missouri. His books include Toward a Hopeful Future: Why the Emergent Church is Good News for Mainline Congregations & The Hyphenateds: How Emergence Christianity is Re-Traditioning Mainline Practices (forthcoming). He blogs at www.philsnider.net.