In my previous post I explained the things that I think The Episcopal Church could be doing to attract members of all ages. These things included getting an identity and sticking to it, our fear of evangelism, and learning to talk about The Episcopal Church and our traditions. This post will focus specifically on the things we could be doing to attract young adults, keeping in mind that the previous suggestions would help out a lot.
First off, let’s stop watering down our liturgy and our message because it makes us uncool. We will never be like a mega church and I am glad for that. We offer a more intimate community than that. People are leaving those places and coming to denominations like us because they realize they aren’t getting any God in those places, they are only getting to feel cool. If they are interested in being part of something cool then we will never be a fit for them so let’s agree to let that go. We are not cool, nor should we ever be cool, embrace that fact. Jesus didn’t want to be cool. Jesus wanted to be just. We try to be just.
Young adults traditionally flock to high church masses. We like smells and bells and clergy dressed up like they are going to prom. I laugh with my other young adult friends every time I go to a TEC conference (something sponsored by The Episcopal Church or TEC) over the worship. I genuinely love when we have people speaking in other languages or show us other ways of praying, what I don’t like is when we get an all white, completely American band to come play Jamaican music because we think that makes us diverse and welcoming. It makes us look stupid and it is insulting to the people it tries to honor. Let’s not pretend to be diverse and welcoming, lets be diverse and welcoming.
It is great to have churches that prefer not to have an organ and choose to dance around the altar, but most young people I know are headed to the Anglo-Catholic masses. I love to visit churches that do more modern services but overwhelmingly I want to experience solemnness, I want quiet, I want a service that is not full of distractions. So do most of the young people I know. So if the church says they want more young people because we are the future, then they should stop doing what they think we want and listen to what we actually want. If a church wants to worship that way then they should just be honest with themselves and realize they are creating worship for the people already there, not the ones they claim to be doing it for. That is a perfectly acceptable thing but don’t then ask me why there are no young adults in the pews.
We want a church that is open to improvement in the way it does business and is not afraid of the change that comes with that improvement. Don’t fix something that is working but refuse to change the things that aren’t. We don’t need strict regulations on the use of our shield, what we might need are very specific instances where we reign in people who are perverting it. There are so many freshman who go to college and see that shield on a t-shirt or window and automatically feel safe. They see the shield in a different shade or with their mascot added and they know what they are going to get. It doesn’t confuse them because the shield is in their school colors. It doesn’t change the fact that they now know somewhere they can go to make instant friends. It is a sign we all recognize even in it’s weirdest forms.
I really enjoy going to a college campus and sitting in the cafeteria with a picture of the shield on the table. There are no words on the sign, just the shield. I am doing something so I don’t look desperate or like I want to force a long conversation, but I look up a lot and let people know that I am not unapproachable. I can’t tell you the number of random people who stop by and say hello. Some of them are Episcopalian asking what I am doing there, a lot are atheists who come over to say thank you for not being mean to them, some are just curious what the sign means, some just need someone to eat lunch with and I seem harmless enough, and of course some people come over to tell me that my views are wrong and I am not Christian. The first few I love but the last one is challenging. I think the way I react to those people is very inviting to people who see or hear it. I tell them why I love Jesus and tell them how happy I am that they connect with him in a different way. I think that says a lot about the openness of Episcopalians. That is some great evangelism.
Just saying, without any words, that I am Episcopalian brings people into conversation. When they do indicate that they would be open to it, I invite then to church. I offer some suggestions but I agree to go anywhere they want to go, Episcopal or not. Sometimes it is a painful experience to sit through because I am SO Episcopalian, but I am not there for me I am there for them. I am there to be whatever they need me to be in that moment. I get plenty of God by doing that. In fact I rarely feel closer to God than when I am making someone feel a little more comfortable about things, a little more safe, a little less alone.
I also do this at bar/restaurants. I just sit there with the sign and a drink. I personally don’t drink alcohol but I go and have a coke and wait for the people to come to me. They always do. Eventually you have a group of people who invite their friends to come hang out with this random church person. It is the equivalent of wearing a collar when you are a priest. You throw that shield out there and people come to you. People are curious and when you are just plain friendly, they are happy to get to know all about you and why you are there. They don’t mind sharing a little about themselves with you which gives you the opportunity to talk about church if it feels right.
Another good idea, let’s not invite young adults into our pews let’s invite them into our lives. Most of my time with young adults is spent taking them out for coffee, lunch, dinner, ice cream, whatever. If you feed them, they will come. I hate coffee, never drink the stuff, but when I offer to spend some time with a young adult I let them pick the place. I let them tell me all about themselves. I contribute when we have something in common but when we don’t I try to learn more. I show them that I think they are precious to me even when we have only just met. I make them feel heard and important. They aren’t getting that very often in their lives. I find a lot of God in learning what makes them tick.
I know a church that posts flyers around their local college offering free laundry service and dinner with different families in the parish. These students go to the persons house and use the washer and dryer for free and then the family cooks them dinner. They can do this once or, if they connect with the family, they get sort of adopted by them while they are “away from home.” They don’t do this to try to get new members, in fact they hardly ever see these kids come to church. They do it because it is the best way to give them something that they need. They do it for the student, not for themselves. I guarantee you that when they do start going to a church later in life, they remember the hospitality of that family and think about trying out the Episcopal Church.
A very important part of interacting with people this age is to never use the bait and switch. Don’t invite them to your house and then try to have evening prayer unless you told them ahead of time that you were going to do that (PS. don’t do that regardless of whether they know or not until you know them really well, it will scare them away.) If you invite someone to get coffee, get coffee. If they bring up religion then engage in the conversation but don’t bring it up or they will run. They don’t want to be “sold” something. They need things to happen organically. They need to ask for the religious part or it will seem as if you have deceived them which is the quickest way to lose them forever. They need to feel like they are in control because so much of your twenties feel out of control, church shouldn’t contribute to that.
When they do come to church, lets hear the ideas they have and let them try to implement them even if we know they will fail. They might just surprise you and if they don’t then at least they learn that you want them to succeed. I have a friend who offered to buy a banner for his church, as in pay for it himself with no money needed from the church at all, to go on the side of his church with worship times and a phone number because most people didn’t even know it was there and their sign is TINY. The vestry told him that they paid a lot for the almost invisible sign they currently had and that someone special made it so getting another one would be rude. SERIOUSLY!!!???? Or one church who had a bad reputation in the neighborhood (a tight knit place with tons of walking traffic and local businesses) because of a previous rector and his rudeness to the community. When the new, very welcoming, rector had become established a young adult offered to cook lunch for the people who worked in the area once a quarter. She would buy the food, make the food, serve the food, clean up the food and arrange for any volunteers they needed. She wanted to go around the community and invite the employees of these small stores and restaurants to come down the street and eat lunch or pick up a to-go lunch with no strings attached. No praying or churchy stuff, just a “free lunch from us because we want to win back the trust of our neighbors”. The priest and vestry told her that she was just going to quit after a few months and it would make the church look bad. Maybe she would have but maybe someone else would have picked it up or maybe it would be a huge success and the whole parish would want to be involved or maybe it would have happened once and people in the neighborhood would have thought that one lunch was nice. It didn’t hurt to try but instead she was told no and decided to look for a church that wanted her ideas. If we give young adults the chance to try then they feel important and supported. Everyone wants to feel important and supported no matter what age, but young adults need it to thrive.
We could invite them to be a part of our guilds and committees. A lot of young adults ask when they get to just be members of the church. When do they get out of a group like children or youth and just become a full member. These actions would answer that question. Remember them when you see them again and say hello even if they didn’t engage with you the last time you saw them. If they have missed a few weeks then let them know that you noticed. If they have missed one or two don’t say anything because they might feel pressured by you, but after a few just say, “I was hoping we would see you again”. After they have been coming for a while and you know them a little better invite them to join an organization in the church that fits their interests. Most of them want to find mentors in the church and this is a great way to do that. They want someone who can act like a peer and a parent. Someone who can be their friend but also give them wisdom and advice as they grow. Most of them won’t ask for that, they feel too vulnerable. They will try to organically find someone they trust who will eventually take on that role. That can take years. Imagine if we sped that up a bit. Invite them and a friend to a cook out at your house and include a member of the guild you think they might like. Remind the guild member to get to know them and if it seems appropriate to talk about the guild. They might say no but at least they know you wanted them there. Everyone wants to feel wanted.
This post is already way too long and I could keep coming up with things people do that are successful but I think it is better for me to just sum things up. Young adults want to feel important and respected. They want to be treated like adults. They want to be in control of their surroundings. They want to set the pace for the relationship and know that you are happy to let them do just that. They want to be heard and supported. They want to be your peer and not your project. They want the same things most people want, but most of all they want to be able to trust you. They want you to be authentic, they want you to be honest, they want you to be whoever you are and not be afraid that they won’t like you (which if you think about, not doing those things is just like being back in high school and who wants that).
We have a great gift to share, as a church and as individuals, and people want to hear about it. We just have to get out of our own way and be proud of it. We have to start being elated that we are oddly unique. If we don’t like our message enough to stand by it then why would anyone want to hear it. People want to be a part of something that people are excited to be a part of. We have forgotten that. Let’s remember how to be excited about being who we have always been. Let’s stop letting others tell us that who we are isn’t amazing. We are an amazing church but we have to believe it to be it. So let’s stop apologizing for who we are and why we do the things we do and be the nerdy cool place that we are. All these might be horrible ideas, but they can’t be any worse than what we’re doing right now. One thing I know for sure. If we keep on moving down the path we are on we won’t make it much longer and that would be tragic.
Update : I am happy to say that my first opportunity for growth has already happened 🙂 I have a friend who attends a mega church here in Atlanta and he reminded me that there are plenty of people there to hear a great message and not there “because they think it’s cool.” That statement was my limited attempt to quantify a certain type of person that I encounter and in doing so I have judged a group of people in a way that I wish people would not do to me. I need to find a different way to say things like that without condemning a way of worship or a type of person that could be a member in any church. I apologize to everyone for doing that. I will not remove the statement because I think it is important that I be held accountable for what I said. If I erase it then I am not being authentic about my short comings. I hope this is a way for me to own up to my not so nice behavior and can use it to remind everyone that while I like to rant and sound like I have all the answers, deep down I am just a judgmental, broken sinner like everyone else. 🙂