This past Sunday, three of our confirmation class kids assisted in worship by leading prayers and reading scripture. Each child's reaction ranged from petrified to resigned determination. For all of these kids, this was their first time speaking in front of a group of people that was not their class from school. In the look on their faces, I was reminded that being a church leader does not just happen, it is a skill that must be carefully nurtured and developed.
I am in the small minority of UCC pastors - just four percent - who are under 40 years old. I went to seminary right out of college and ministry has been my career for the last 14 years. While I was marginally involved in church as a child, my call was really nurtured and encouraged through a campus ministry program at college.
While I feel fortunate to have had strong role models in college who pointed me in the direction of seminary and ministry, I don't see a lot of pathways for young people. I'm not just talking about young people who might want to become ministers. I'm talking about young people that want to be Christians; to live a life of faith and walk the Jesus walk. Although our country faces the toughest financial crisis since the Great Depression, our churches have been declining and struggling financially and numerically for years.
The truth is, many children, youth and young adult programs in local churches, denominations, and colleges were cut years ago. We are now reaping what we sowed a generation ago: a majority aging and aged congregations that have few or no children whatsoever. It's now not just one lost generation, but two lost generations. Generation X has come of age and given birth to children who have no idea what church is.
So what is a church to do? As a pastor living in a postmodern age, it is no longer acceptable to keep doing things "the way we have always done them." Pastors and laypeople alike cannot just be maintainers of an institution. We must be innovators, entrepreneurs, and go-getters on behalf of the gospel. We must listen to what those on the outside, beyond our church walls and in our communities, are saying about us.
"Jim and Casper Go to Church" is a book written by a long-time pastor Jim Henderson and a 30-something atheist Matt Casper who visit churches together all over the country and record their reactions. While Casper is a self-described atheist, he is spiritually curious and open to being part of a church. After one particular visit, Casper comments, "Is this what Jesus told you guys to do?" And so I ask all of you at your local churches, is this really what you think Jesus told you to do?
Some churches make excuses about their declining and aging congregations and lament that "we just don't have enough money to hire a youth minister. Our volunteers are too busy and don't have time to lead." In my mind, this is a defeatist attitude.
I really believe hiring a whole army of youth ministers would not change the status quo in our churches because it would be a technical solution to a spiritual problem. Our spiritual problem is that we care more about maintaining an institution than on transforming lives.
People, like churches, make their own priorities. The things that are most important get the time, money, and energy of a church. So my answer to "We don't have enough," is this: It's not how much you have, it's what you do with what you have. Most churches spend a lot of time in endless meetings spinning their wheels. I can't help thinking in the midst of these meetings, "Is this really what Jesus told you guys to do?"
What would happen if we translated some of these hours of meetings into actual face time with people with whom Jesus would want to be? What if, as one recent church member said, "for every one minute talking about money, we spend two minutes talking about mission?"
What if we spent less time worrying about offending the people we already have in the pews, and more time inspiring the people in our communities who don't set foot in a church? It's not how much time you have, it's what you do with the time you have. It's not how much money you have, it's how you spend the money you do have. It's not how much energy you have, it's where you use the energy you do have. It's time for a hard look at ourselves through the lens of someone on the outside, "Is this really what Jesus told you guys to do?" I think we have a lot of work to do.
The Rev. Nicole Grant Yonkman is co-pastor of Beneficent Congregational UCC in Providence, R.I.