I found out the other day that an old, sweet lady from church had passed. As it turned out, she passed two days after the church put the basket tagged “suggested donation $1” next to the bulletins. I’m not saying the two events are related, but I am glad she passed before things got even uglier and weirder than they had been. She was one of the few people that was always nice to me. She was 91. The congregation, like many others, is gradually falling off a demographic cliff. It’s hard to watch.
I went online to learn more about aging congregations and how to attract more young people. That is so not what I found. What I found were articles about why young people don’t go to church and probably never will again.
I found articles by Rachel Held Evans. She is in her thirties, giving her a more realistic perspective as to how today’s young people think than I might have. She criticized some of the attitudes and cluelessness I have encountered in older Christians. Comments to some of her articles reflected the judgmentalism of seniors. “Rachel Held Evans is wrong…,” wrote one critic. Of course, the older person simply assumed that young people want to sin without moral accountability. I am unconcerned with whether or not Evans is right. I ate up her writings because of the possibility that she might be speaking for more than just herself. What if she is speaking for millions of young Christians? That possibility should send shivers down the spine of every elderly Christian out there.
I found other articles as well, articles criticizing young Christians’ concern with social issues like slavery and feeding the poor while remaining silent about abortion and homosexuality. This disturbs the older writers. As usual, older people want to decide how young people should use their talents and abilities. This attitude deeply saddens me.
These writers miss the point to a frightening degree. The articles say that young Christians do not have the right to pick and choose their social issues to support. What is the point? Point number one: young people are overwhelmed and simply cannot support every single issue their elders support. Point number two: perhaps young people are embarrassed at the behavior of their anti-choice and “God hates fags” sign-carrying family members. In my mind, today’s young people have sent the clear and unmistakable message that they do not want to be associated with the behaviors and attitudes of their elders. There are many good biblical causes young Christians can get behind and have chosen to do so.
I can speak authoritatively on feeling overwhelmed. I feel like I majored in it. For a while, I worked, went to school, and took care of my husband. Some people in church were nice, but others made demands upon me without having a relationship with me first. As far as I am concerned, if someone does not help me in my time of need, they don’t get a vote as to my moral behavior/attitudes. If someone doesn’t help me when I need help urgently, I truly do not care what they may think about this, that, or the other thing. I say that with zero emotion. I am not upset. If someone is not helping me with my Sallie Mae bill, mortgage, or whatever, it will not occur to me to consult that person when making decisions. I already have too much to deal with. The disapproval of people that haven’t lifted a finger to help me is not a priority. I have bigger fish to fry. And I suspect young people do, too. Accountability requires pre-existing relationships. No relationship equals no accountability.
How do you create relationships? Offer help when it seems needed. Listen, even and especially if it’s not convenient. Live the values you talk about.
Persuasion and influence take time to develop. People have to see your integrity. Mentor a young person.
I have left a church in the past for reasons of moral failure—not my own, but the pastor’s. I no longer go to a church, but I remain faithful to my husband. It is easy to criticize the moral failings of young people, to which they can respond, “Back at you.” I’ve attended churches that were 75% divorced-and-remarried people and others that were 90% never-married mothers. Young people very well may be leaving churches for reasons of moral failure—not their own, but the churches’.
If churches and the Republican Party want the participation of young people, they need to earn the right to speak into their lives. I am not a young person. I am not a senior citizen. I am just a hapless middle-aged person watching from the sidelines. Rachel Held Evans may not be right about everything (although she makes many points I identify with), but she’s closer to young people than I am. If you want to know what they think, try asking them. And then genuinely listening. Unless, that is, you enjoy falling off the demographic precipice into historical obscurity.