Researchers and professors like Kenda Creasy Dean, Christian Smith, Kara Powell have been trying to answer the question so many of our churches are asking, “Why don’t young adults come to church?” (Even in the phrasing of our question lies the seeds of our despair in the old line church–vital faith is conflated to church attendance.) The answer has many facets and can’t be boiled down to worship style, no-coffee-in-the-sanctuary rules, changing moral emphases, etc. But two insights about the young adults who remain vitally connected to the religious and spiritual roots have stuck with me. (These are not the only predictors (read “silver bullet”) for which young adults will make the transition from growing up in church to choosing to be actively affiliate, invest in, and lead in church as an adult.)
The first insight is that involvement in church life was a value for the whole family and both parents. When they say, “I grew up in church” they mean more than attendance on Sunday. It means that Jesus, ethics, God, church community were talked about at home. Faith was presented AND PRACTICED as a lens through which to make decisions, form values, and see what you and the world should become. This is the Deuteronomy 6 approach. At all times discuss, ask questions about, and teach the way of Jesus–when your walking along and see something, when you get up and think about what the day has in store, when your sitting and resting, when you go to sleep and review your joys and regrets. Since most of life is mundane (meaning ordinary life not boring) you can’t just wait until the exciting religious thing happens to start thinking and talking about God. You will go too long in between conversations if you do. [Parents are important in this the research says but young adults who stick with the faith also report having several significant relationship with other adults in the church–who presumably are also walking, sitting, getting up and lying down and talking about God.]
The second insight stirring me is that while they need the mundane growing up in the faith, they also report having significant spiritual experiences. Yes, old line church…conversion experiences! At some point in childhood and adolescence (and hopefully and necessarily multiple points) they must come into the presence of Jesus without the protective shield of adults. They realize that they have agency as people and responsibility to respond to God who is calling them as individuals to come and follow Jesus. Faith is not just a “we” thing that my family does. It is also a “me” thing in which I come face to face with God.
Often number two doesn’t happen in the ordinary life of the local church–maybe camp or a mission trip–and so how can the experience be integrated into number one? If parents and adults often don’t have the language or familiarity or comfort to talk about their own life-changing spiritual encounters, how can the church community foster that language and those conversations?
This is making disciples of all people…beginning with those at the kitchen table and in the back seat of the van.