Maybe congregations shouldn’t try to keep young people

The Rev Heidi Haverkamp wonders in essay on the Collegeville Institute website, if perhaps congregations should not try so hard to keep their young people:

Last week, I attended an interfaith dinner at a local synagogue. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and others broke bread together and listened to presentations on Jewish holidays. I sat next to the Purim presenter—an 11th grade boy in a kippah with a bleach blond curl hanging over one eye. I’ll call him “Jacob.” Jacob told me about his 8-bit music compositions using an old Game Boy, the colleges where he wants to apply, and bassoon composers. We also talked about religion. He said, “I like being Jewish, but I don’t really see myself as religious.” He liked being part of his synagogue, was obviously involved and respected by the adults around him, and gave the most engaging and fun presentation that evening. But as we ate buttered challah before dinner, Jacob shared with me that he probably would not continue to be “religious” when he left for college.

There is no shortage of speculation about why religious institutions are failing young people. Yet, here is a young man who feels welcome, fully engages with his community and its worship, is recognized for his gifts and leadership, and still doesn’t plan to continue being “religious.” (What he might mean by that term would be a whole other blog post.)

….

That doesn’t mean religious congregations should give up, or that they’re doomed, or that some young people won’t become passionately religious people. My fear is that congregations will become obsessed with ways to “fix” our churches, believing that we can convince young people not to leave by provocative Tweets, new worship styles, the right youth pastor, a “relevant message,” or some other magical solution. If only our churches were different, we suppose, our teenagers and young adults would be attending regularly and worshipping with gusto. Standing in the midst of a cultural shift like this one, we can’t think that way. This is not to say that we shouldn’t try new things or think of what would benefit our young people. But like Jacob, they may still not feel as though organized religion is a place for them, even if they love their congregation.

Instead, we should have confidence that it is enough to be a faith community with integrity—with great worship, music, traditions, and youth programs, whatever they may be in our tradition and congregation—and to be a faith community that cares about and celebrates kids.

Read it all here.

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5 Comments
  1. No mystery why college students of “traditional age” drop out of religion:

    (1) They want to have sex, casual sex–not marriage or even sex within committed relationships. And religious groups are against that.

    (2) In churches, “young people” are ghettoized, not regarded as full-fledged, responsible adults.

  2. Adam Spencer

    Until the day I die I will maintain that authentic ancient Christian ritual, preaching and teaching about complicated but beautiful orthodox theology and a deeply lived commitment to the poor and the lost will do us more good than ten thousand attempts at being culturally relevant.

  3. At the last Diocese of Texas Little Church Club meeting, at Camp Allen, last month, one of the topics was attracting more youth to the small churches. Bishop Jeff Fisher in his opening comments to the Club and about the agenda of the meeting, he told a great story.

    He told us that he was visiting a small church in Austin, TX. and noticed there was only one youth in attendance. After the service the congregation held a lunch, and he (Bishop Fisher) set down next to this young man and his family.

    During the meal and the conversation accompanying it, he learned that this family recently moved from a mega church to this small church. He asked the parents if they weren’t concerned about the youth Christian education program. They replied, at the large church, their son had two Sunday School Teachers, but here he has 40.

    Being a member of a small church, and having been raised in a large church, the lack of youth was something I was worried about. Bishop Fisher’s story really became an epiphany in my mind…and I suddenly realized you know, the few youth we have in our church are more rounded, more open, and can more easily carry on a conversation with adults as compared to the Boy Scouts that I deal with on a weekly basis as a whole. I thought at the time that this was a great lesson for me, and if I didn’t take anything else away from this meeting, this made it all worthwhile.

    Walter Rotsch

    Groves, TX

  4. billydinpvd

    The situation described is not at all uncommon in Judaism, especially the more liberal streams. Synagogue dues are usually put of the reach of young people, and no one really expects to see young people joining a religious community until they have children of their own, if then. Synagogues typically have lots of programming for children and tweens, not so much for young adults. When there’s a need for children’s Jewish education and identity formation, people join a congregation. Even then, though, they don’t flock back. I’m not sure that we can draw much of a message relevant to Christian contexts from Jacob’s story.

    Bill Dilworth

  5. Weiwen Ng

    Harriet,

    Not all young individuals want to have uncommitted sex. In addition, those young adults who want to have uncommitted sex could easily do so in church without being concerned about what the church thinks.

    Your comment may ring somewhat true of youth in much more conservative traditions – there are those who don’t buy no premarital sex and leave partly because of that (I did, in part). But again, there will be those who simply ignore the church teachings (like most American Catholics ignore whatever the church says about birth control).

    Either way, you didn’t attempt to nuance your comment in any way. That was stereotyping, and that was bad of you.

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