The phrase “young people are not the church of the future, they are the church of now” has been rumbling around my head and heart for the past few years. I’m not sure where I heard it, or if I’ve merely morphed what others have said, but the sentiment expressed seems clearer to me with each passing year.
As a church, as a movement of Christ followers, our existence and identity depend upon our young people catching the same spirit that has compelled us in discipleship, prayer, justice and service. It is not too far of a stretch to say that Christianity is only one generation away from extinction if it fails to proliferate.
I see a warning of this possibility in early church history, where monastic groups separated themselves into communities intent on living out their mission without the compromises demanded by civic society. They excelled at their mission, but did little to propagate the addition of new adherents to their movement. A few of the more unique communities allowed something called “holy marriage”, where couples could remain together for mutual support but vowed to live celibately. This arrangement did little to provide offsprings in these isolated communities.
As these bands of dedicated religion diminished, some creative communities found new life by rescuing and adopting children left exposed to die because they were of the wrong sex, or they had physical deformities or psychological problems. For a time, these adoptive communities were able to maintain their existence based on their welcome of the unwelcome. But over time, their ability to “replenish” the community with foundings was outpaced by the natural cycles of life and death, by attrition and through discriminatory practices of those outside the community who found their way of life incompatible with societal norms.
Although there is not a direct parallel between these ancient monastic communities and the behaviour or composition of the church, still the example begs the question of what we are doing to foster our children, and those who come to us “adoptively”, as agents of evangelism to further our mission.
Who are today’s young people? (some paradoxical thoughts) . They are the first generation born and bred in the digital era – but they are also plugged into relationships rooted in offline reality: text messaging, instant messaging, and Facebook are enhancements and continuations of relationships from the non – digital world.
Today’s youth and young adults are products of esteem – driven system of learning that has produced the most self-confident generation ever, but faced with a reality of crumbling institutions: financial, health and religious, and sometimes presented with personal disappointments and failures.
They are shaped by the team experience whether at school, in the playground or at work, but they can also be very alone. They have been brought up in a multitasking environment, but many are also yearning for simplicity beyond these complexities and yearn for life unplugged.
These are young people who love the church dearly and have great hopes for its future and their role in it. What we’ve heard many youth consultants say is borne out: Young people today have a more clearly defined sense of mission, grace, inclusion and relationship than any previous generation.
What we should also recognise is the willingness of our youth and young adults to use, what is to them, a very “old” means of communicating – print media – to communicate their message to the church. They embraced it as a challenge and a necessary technology leap to have their voices heard.
The task of reaching out to non-church youth and young adults cannot fall solely to the younger membership – it’s far too broad and is a collective responsibility. All of us can map out our daily paths and make opportunities of the intersections and intersections we have with younger people.
As we come into contact with young adults in our daily environment, whether at work, in our casual connections with strangers or in greeting visitors in our congregations, it is useful to acknowledge that there are various spiritual perspectives and experiences that persons bring with them. The ability to attract and retain active youth and young adult members in our churches is largely dependent upon our respectivity to their gifts and energy and a willingness to share in a process of discipleship. It is up to us to hear what they are saying, encourage them on their journey and include them in the conversations that will shape the church. It is up to us to invite them out of the margins of the church and into the centre.
It is up to us to make the technology leap (forward!) to communicate most effectively with them.
In conclusion, each generation struggles to pass leadership into the next. They communicate, act, talk, dress and even think differently. But we must discover and embrace the amazing gifts our young people can, and already are, offering to local churches, Associations and the national setting. The future of the church depends on them. The church of now needs them.
“If the church has nothing to offer to the young people/community around it, then a few will grieve if it disappears overnight,” according to Rev. Steve de Gruchy.