As a member of the “young adults” demographic of the ELCA, one thing that I noticed at the Metropolitan New York Synod Assembly, besides the lack of young adults sitting at the tables, is how us young adults have become trendy. With the ELCA sending out recommendations to synods to create a “young adult” council seat, we’re suddenly hot. Project Connect and other programs are specifically targeting my generation and asking us to serve. Programs, books, reports, and studies are now filling pastors and other church leaders with the idea that the 20 year olds in America don’t want to go to church. We are stuck in an emerging adulthood, a place that churches currently struggle to reach. The churches that seem to primarily attract young folks tend to feel like a meat market and have a Logan’s Run feel to them (when you’re told old, you’re past your prime). The goal is to get us young folks, the millenials, into churches or else the churches will die. We are a really big deal now. The church wants to talk to us. The Church wants to invite us in.
In terms of church trends, young adults are now the new “teenagers”.
And that’s the problem. Why is the language that I’m hearing the same language I heard as a teenager a decade ago? Why are we now getting council seats after the teenagers did? Why are we getting a young adult category at the church wide voting assembly after the teenagers did? Why are us young adults still saying “take us seriously” – the same words that we used a decade ago? In ten years, why are we still being forced into carving out our own special categories to fight over? Why did five young adults fight for the 1 young adult church wide assembly spot when I was the only one (I believe) to fight for one of the eight lay member spots?
I understand that young adults, the 18 to 30 year olds, are not being active in the ELCA. The prime age group for the development of pastors, deacons, and other leaders, is not making church a priority (or, that’s the claim at least). The ELCA demographics are skewing older. Our pastors are getting older and we need young adult leaders to take their spots. So why is the church using the same language and tools to reach out to us that they used fifteen years ago when we were teenagers? If it didn’t work then to inspire us to make church a habit and a priority (thus the current problem would be less about getting our butt into the pews and more about how to affectively minister to those already inside), why does the Church believe that language will work now?
I don’t have the answers in regards to the young adults. Sure, we would love to be taken seriously. We would love to be involved on church councils. We would love to be active lay leaders in our neighborhood churches. Congregations, obviously, will need to take the lead in giving young adults a seat at the table. Some will, others won’t, and still a few more will become focused only on young adults. But I’m not sure if the tools that failed to inspire a generation of teenagers will work on us now that we are a decade older. And, if ten years from now, we’re still standing around and the church starts asking to engage the “young family generation” of 30 year olds, and we’re still asking for seats at the table, and if a special Synod council seat is made for a 35 year old – then I would take that as a sign that the last 20 years of engagement hasn’t lived to expectations. It could very well be that the baby boomers and older generations are to blame. Or it could be that what enticed the boomers into churches, what brought gen-xers in, is not the same thing that will bring us millennials into the doors, regardless of how old we are. And it is also quite probable that the language we are hearing now is the same language used fifty years ago. But, man, those two days up in Tarrytown, NY, I felt like I was going through deja vu at times – which is ironic since, a decade ago, I wasn’t even apart of the Church. But I could hear what the churches were saying through tv, media, and my fellow teenagers in youth groups. And now, ten years later, it sounds the same. Something didn’t work.