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COMMENTARY: Don’t ask what youth can do for the UMC Ben Boruff, Mar 13, 2012
By Ben Boruff Special Contributor
“Young people need positions of leadership if the United Methodist Church is to survive.”
“Young people are not the answer to the denomination’s problems, but we should try to reach out to them anyway.”
“Get real. Young people can’t save the denomination.”
These quotes offer different opinions, but there is a common thread. All are, in some way, responses to the question, “Can young people save the Church?”
Whether vocalized or not, this question permeates United Methodist dialogue about membership decline, denominational vitality and the state of young people in an ever-changing world. Many of our conversations about these topics are well-intentioned attempts to answer this question.
But the question of whether or not young people can save the Church is not effective, because it is based on inaccurate assumptions about young people and membership decline.
Assumption: Young people want to save the Church.
Dialogue about young people and the church is littered with rhetoric which suggests that, if given the opportunity, young people would try their best to save the church. But some recent polls suggest otherwise.
A 2011 report from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life noted that, while they aren’t necessarily less spiritual, Millennials are much less likely than older generations to attach themselves to a religious tradition.
Religion doesn’t play a major role in their lives. While the young people currently affiliated with a Christian denomination may earnestly work to keep their denominations alive, we cannot afford to believe that all young people who walk through our doors feel the same way.
United Methodist Millennials make up a very, very small portion of the Millennial population. In our current culture, the United Methodist Church must learn to justify its existence to a generation of young people who, quite frankly, wouldn’t notice its death.
Assumption: Young people are naturally connected to church vitality.
The question itself offers some insight into the level at which we connect young people with church vitality. While, in most cases, adding some young people to sanctuary populations wouldn’t hurt local church vitality, there is little to suggest that the simple act of acquiring youth and young adults inherently adds to the long-term strength of a church or denomination.
Don’t misunderstand me: I believe that the United Methodist Church should make the well-being of young people a top priority. The problem, however, is that our casual juxtaposition of young people and church vitality comes at the expense of young people.
When we focus only on attracting young people to our churches in an effort to save our denomination, we forget to sustain an environment that is nurturing for those young people once they arrive. We create hip, new worship services, but we forget to adapt those services. What was contemporary three years ago is not contemporary today, and what appealed to young people of past generations may not appeal to Millennials, Generation Z and Digital Natives.
It takes work to nurture young people and to appeal to their ever-changing preferences, and it is that work which fosters vitality—not simply the addition of bodies that haven’t existed longer than a couple of decades.
Assumption: We only want young people if they can save us.
While attracting young people to local churches is a difficult task, it is not impossible. It takes intentionality, enthusiasm, humility and a constant dedication to the task of adapting to modern cultures.
Many United Methodist pastors, laypersons, youth leaders, bishops and young leaders have successfully reached out to new communities of young people across the globe. This means that it can be done. As a denomination, however, our populations of young people are dwindling, and we are not successfully offering our ministries to new groups of youth and young adults.
While we wrestle with the fruitless question of whether or not young people can save the Church, we miss countless opportunities to reach out to younger generations. In this way, our actions as a denomination suggest that we only value young people as a commodity, a possible last-ditch lifesaver.
As Christians, our approach to young people should not be guided by a desire to preserve our denomination and religious traditions. Instead, ministry with young people should be fueled by a desire to better the lives of the youth and young adults within our communities. If young people are a part of a plan to revitalize the denomination, that is wonderful, but we should reach out to young people regardless of their potential ability to keep struggling churches afloat.
The question of whether or not young people can save the denomination is plagued with dangerous assumptions. In fact, the only arguably true assumption found in this question is that the United Methodist Church needs to be fixed in some way.
We must rethink the language we use when discussing the value of young people within the United Methodist Church. Young people are not lifesavers, nor do they have any obligation to help the United Methodist Church. Young people are young individuals, and they have plenty of issues and problems that they must face. Young people today need a loving, inclusive, adaptive community to help them face these issues.
Maybe, one day, the United Methodist Church can be that community.
Mr. Boruff, a senior at Indiana University, is a member of the UMC’s Connectional Table and served on the Call to Action Steering Committee. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.