Youth, young adults and the UCC: Where are we now?
Written by Thom Chu
April - May 2009

Randy Varcho photo.
Who's reading this story?

While I am confident that some younger people may be reading this article, I am assuming that these persons are in the minority based on general information about the age-makeup of the UCC and the readership of United Church News, whether in print or online.

My intention is to present, in a very preliminary way, some of the realities that I have seen and heard through my visits across the United Church of Christ in meetings with younger church leaders, focus groups, phone conferences and reading online survey results, held alongside a few thoughts from 20 years of denominational and ecumenical ministry based in the Episcopal Church. Consider this an apology in advance if the impression you might have as a reader is "us vs. them" - the reality is "them are us" and our common challenge is to repair the breach in a community that is not as age-comprehensive as the one we seek.

We are about this important work not because of "them" but because of our own yearning for integrity and wholeness. We act out of our gratitude to God for our own creation and that the transformed lives we lead drive us to share the Good News with others.

Who are today's young people?
Some paradoxical thoughts:

They are the first generation born and bred in the digital era - but they are also plugged into relationships rooted in off-line reality: text messaging, instant messaging, MySpace and Facebook are enhancements and continuations of relationships from the non-digital world.

Today's youth and young adults are products of an esteem-driven system of learning that has produced the most self-confident generation ever, but faced with a reality of crumbling institutions: educational, financial, health and religious, and sometimes presented with personal disappointments and failures.

They are shaped by the team experience whether at school, in the playground or at work, but they can also be very alone.
They embrace and expect diversity - of background, opinion and experience, but can sometimes be overly relativistic.

They distrust being marketed to and bombarded with commercial messages, yet they can be loyal to trusted brands.

Youth and young adults are accustomed to having many options all the time - they have been brought up in a multitasking environment, but many are also yearning for simplicity beyond these complexities and yearn for a life unplugged.

Retain and reach out

Twin challenges exist in making the church most hospitable to younger people - nurturing and retaining those who have been brought up in the UCC while creating space for newcomers.

Some have jokingly characterized confirmation preparation in the teenage years as a "journey to membership lapse," but this humor is grounded in some reality. Those whose membership did lapse in that period in life describe their drift away as "there was nothing there for me." For some, the expectation of full membership coming with confirmation was not matched with a status, responsibility or calling that was worthy of it.

Reaching out to younger seekers who come from another Christian tradition, or no religious tradition at all, presents a different challenge that takes both sensitivity and a rootedness in one's own UCC tradition.

The task of reaching out to non-church youth and young adults cannot fall solely to our younger membership - it's far too broad and is a collective responsibility. All of us can map out our daily paths and make opportunities of the intersections and interactions we have with younger people: following is a spiritual typology that might help in understanding how people with different backgrounds might respond differently. A complete treatment of this topic can be downloaded at <ucc.org/young-adults>.

Randy Varcho photo.
Four spiritual styles of young adults

As we come into contact with young adults in our daily environments, whether at work, in our casual connections with strangers or in greeting visitors in our congregations, it is useful to acknowledge that there are various spiritual perspectives and experiences that persons bring with them.

Consider the following typology that might be useful for "mapping" your surroundings. (This is intended to be descriptive, not prescriptive):

• Loyalists have grown up in or adopted by choice a single religious tradition. Most loyalists think they know a lot about their own tradition, whether they actually do or not, and some have social networks tightly connected around their worshipping community. Belonging matters as much as substance.

• Seekers describe themselves on a quest for knowledge, deeper spiritual connection and are experimental. If you encounter a seeker in a congregational setting, this person has most likely stopped at other places along the way, probably picking up charisms and detecting good practices from other traditions, including ones not clearly Christian. Seekers will ask many questions and expect good answers.

• Lapsed persons have left a spiritual or religious tradition by active or benign neglect. Many lapsed people report that multiple signals to their need for attention during life crises were ignored. Few lapsed persons rejoin but some may seek another tradition. Most find themselves with no faith community.

• Unactualized persons don't actively acknowledge an interest in God or the sacred. When pressed, they might say that they experience effervescence in mass gatherings such as outdoor concerts or in exhilarating sports.

All doors are open

Understanding the spiritual styles of young adults is a bridge to approaching effective engagement. What remains is the exploration of the venues in which connections and community building can begin. The following set of images may be a helpful way to understand the possibilities of many paths into congregational community, leading us from the most obvious entryway to more varied and promising opportunities.

• Front Door: All too often, church leaders fixate on bringing more people through the single "front door" of congregational life. To an outsider, this "front door" would appear to be closed (even if it is unlocked) for most of the week, and open for two or three hours on a Sunday morning, at a time most non-churchgoers aren't around to notice.

While important work needs to continue to improve new member ministry in all congregations, depending on newcomers to be attracted to a Sunday service may be too narrow a door to pass, and too often we hear reports of a "single file" of younger visitors entering and leaving. The greatest majority of newcomers to worship who eventually seek membership are brought by a friend or relative—consider the invitation to worship as one of many options.

• Side Door: There may already be possibilities for invitation through the "side door" of congregational programs during the week or on Sundays, but many may be developed to serve an existing constituency and not easily accessible (schedule, information, signage or attitude.)

"Side door" activities can include less structured opportunities - the idea is to multiply the points of entry and invitation. Smaller congregations may have fewer options but can evaluate their offerings under the lens of inviting younger people: would it be interesting, engaging or suited to them? In the end, the most successful engagements are expressions of the giftedness of the hosts, not solutions packaged to meet perceived needs.

• Next Door: The most exciting venue of all - everywhere! This brings us into daily environments: work, community, family and contact with strangers.

The possibilities are enormous, and can begin with the simplest engagement of authentic concern and interest in another person, but also include structured programs in homes or in the marketplace. If you need help thinking of things to talk about please see "A Spiritual Typology of Young Adults" at <ucc.org/young-adults>.

What can I do?

The ability to attract and retain active youth and young adult members in our churches is largely dependent upon our receptivity to their gifts and energy, and a willingness to share in a process of discipleship. Here are a few starting points:

Improve your own relationship with God: Be real, refine your own faith practices. Rehearse your own faith story: how has God transformed your life?

• Be invitational:  Map out your daily environment and find ways to connect.
• The invitation need not be "come to my church" but might be asking a deep issue, such as, "tell me about a person you greatly admire."
• Come up with your own "unique value proposition": What could someone actually expect from being a member of your faith community for a year?

Consider the reality that coming into relationship might not be as much "showing the ropes" but "learning the ropes together." As a 42-year-old digital "immigrant," I depend on my younger "native-born" digital colleagues to help me navigate the contours of digital living.

Encourage youth, young adults and volunteers or compensated staff who work with them in your congregation, association or conference to complete the churchwide online survey: <uccyyasurvey.questionpro.com>. It takes about 20 minutes to complete but will yield valuable responses.

What's next?

The online survey, aside from informing a churchwide advisory committee charged with suggesting a strategy for youth and young adult ministries, will:

• Tap into the wisdom and experience that is already among us
• Call out the gifts of our young people and those who minister with them
• Develop a new infrastructure of relationships by identifying colleagues and leaders
• Provide information to UCC conferences
• Support the launch of myUCC, a Web 2.0 online community

Encouraging work with youth and young adults is underway in the UCC. An online survey launched this spring received over 300 responses in its first two weeks and is filled with field-proven practices as well as aspirations for the future. The focus group discernment process and interviews with key leaders have revealed deep insights about current realities as well as practical strategies and resources to grow this important area of ministry. More details about the year-long assessment and interim findings are available at <ucc.org/youth> and <ucc.org/young-adults>.

Thom Chu is conducting a one-year assessment of the UCC's ministries with youth and young adults. He has assisted the Council of Youth and Young Adult Ministries, the Student Ecumenical Partnership and other youth- and young-adult serving organizations in the UCC to clarify their respective roles, relationships and missions. He previously served on the churchwide staff of the Episcopal Church in congregational development and ministries with young people for over 18 years including ecumenical and interfaith work with youth, young adults and campus ministries. 

Young adult top ten

1. Get to know young adults personally and treat them like full members of the community.
2. Have the best website you can. Yes, this is important!
3. Provide spiritual formation opportunities for all ages.
4. Start a conversation about young adults in church with your pastor, a congregant and a young adult.
5. Invite young adults to participate as lay leaders in worship.
6. Greet and introduce yourself to newcomers and offer to be a resource.
7. Do not recruit young adults for a committee right away. Do find out their gifts and passions and point out things at church that may be of interest.
8. Look at your mission and service opportunities. Do the time and place really make them open to everyone?
9. Maintain connections to high school students after they graduate. Listen to their needs and help them to fulfill them in your church or in their new location.
10. Don't be afraid to try new things!

Developed by the young adults of the Massachusetts Conference

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