The fact that many younger Americans have little idea what “church” means or what happens there was a recurrent theme at the 2008 UM School of Congregational Development, held simultaneously in Orlando, Florida, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, July 31–August 5. The point was underscored by sociological data and pastoral experience, but more attention was given to ways of responding creatively to the challenge than to decrying the concern.
Speakers Carol Howard Merritt and Mark Beeson addressed the need for a different kind of church experience that will reach young adults where they are.
“We have a huge opportunity with the wandering generation,” Merritt, co-pastor of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., told the 300 people gathered in Orlando for the annual event focusing on church development. She was linked by satellite to another 150 in Grand Rapids.
Author of the 2007 book, Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation (Alban Institute), and a young adult herself, Merritt describes her generation as “wandering” when it comes to connections to God and systems of meaning.
“What young adults are looking for is right there in our congregations,” said Merritt. However, she said, what is church-as-usual to those over the age of 40 may not be recognized by young adults as a place of caring, or as a repository of answers to life’s questions. Contemporary young adults, according to Merritt, don’t need the church in its present form, but they do need a church interested in relationships and connections, rather than programs. At its best, she said, the “church is a place where they can form connections – with God, the world and each other.”
Beeson began his talk to the crowd in Grand Rapids, simulcast to those gathered in Orlando, with a video clip of a pastor’s head pasted onto the dancing body of Napoleon Dynamite, the title character in a cult comedy movie of 2004. People under 30 would appreciate the image, while those over 40 might not, said Beeson, lead pastor of Granger Community Church in Granger, Indiana.
Focusing on the topic, “Innovate or Die,” the point throughout the animated presentation was that the church should not fear changing ministries to reach young generations: if the church does not reach the young people of today, it will not have much of a future.
The Gospel and the mission of the church never change, Beeson said, but the church must find strategies that will engage postmodern people to help them take the next steps toward Christian discipleship.
“You have to give them a reason [to come]. Give them a why.… Help people take their next steps towards Christ.” — Mary Beth Coudal and Elliott Wright, General Board of Global Ministries (UMNS)