At the Annual Conference Youth Gathering in June we asked a group of over 100 youth to share how they and their friends see the church. In small groups they responded to three questions:
- What words would your friends use to describe or define church?
- What do churches do that turn teenagers away?
- What should churches be doing to share the love of Christ with you and others your age?
While some of the answers aren’t surprising (yes, donuts and pizza are effective in welcoming teens), we think you’ll agree that other answers challenge us to think about how we represent church to the young people among us and in our communities while offering hope in the passion and faith captured in what these youth had to say.
What is church?
In one word, how would you answer the question “What is church?” Listen to what our youth had to say. At its best, church is accepting, community, buds (friends), connecting, family, fellowship, fun, loving, people, togetherness, universal, and worship. At its most meaningful, church is biblical, diverse, forgiveness, God’s, holy, ministry, necessary, prayer, relevant, serving, spiritual, and supportive.
When lacking life and connection, church is boring, churchy, early, empty, irrelevant, and stressful. Filled with the Spirit, church is awesome, amazing, entertaining, extraordinary, hoppin’, inspiring, invigorating, joyful, refreshing, rejuvenating, and spontaneous. While words like empty and irrelevant from our teens must make us pause and examine our practices, words like inspiring and rejuvenating show a generation of young people who sense a Spirit at work in their churches. Perhaps we should all ask the youth in our own communities, “Is our church hoppin’?”
Turning youth away
“Its boring” seems to be the universal teenage answer for not wanting to go to church, but what turns youth away is often something more than a boring Sunday morning hour. So we asked the youth what the local church does that drives away its youth and young people. Some of the answers were what we might expect: the need to dress up, early services, long sermons, no fun, no talking, too traditional.
Beyond the standard “it’s boring” answers, however, were some responses that should challenge us. A number of answers centered on a lack of acceptance: people in the pews next to us don’t even talk to us, we’re ignored by the church, we’re not allowed to use cell phones, and people look down on youth. Others focused on a lack of invitation to lead or contribute in meaningful ways to the community: no youth lead in worship, youth are treated as slaves and only asked to do the grunt work; there is no youth room or space.
Some of the feedback centered on the example being set: too much fighting over little things, too many pointless rules, too many committees that don’t do anything, no one smiling. And other answers indicated a lack of life and vitality: no passion, monotone preaching, lame activities, and waste of time.
While such feedback may be hard for us to hear as church leaders, the youth were in no way trying to be critical. They were reflecting that in a time in their lives when they are craving connection to something greater than themselves, to God who is real and all loving and among us, they have encountered churches where they don’t belong, where they don’t sense the presence of God in worship, and where their opinions and ideas aren’t honored.
Making young disciples
So how do we create a place where youth feel they belong, where they contribute to the church community and experience the powerful presence of Christ’s love in their lives? Serving cookies and food made a few appearances on the list (as did speaking in British accents, just so you know this was a fun youth event). The scope and depth of the youth responses, however, gives us a clear checklist of congregational attributes that are conducive to reaching out to young people:
- Acceptance, like a second home, friendliness from the church body, openness from everyone, respecting youth as people, welcoming.
- Being who you are, being real, leading by example.
- Creative worship, energetic preaching, interactive, good music, prayer.
- Fun, laughter, parties, upbeat.
- Real life answers, relevancy, teaching each other.
- Service, mission, showing love, sharing experiences, support.
As the youth worked in small groups to answer the questions during the event, you could feel the energy in the room. The very act of gathering to give feedback meant that these youth mattered to the church, and they were excited to share. While their answers in no way are statistically representative of all youth in all of our churches, they do provide insight on what teenagers today are saying.
Now it’s your turn. Gather a group of youth from your church or the community around your church and ask for their perspective. Embrace their ideas and feedback. And be reminded of one more important answer the youth gave to the question of what is church; “church is us”, all of us together, and the insights and leadership of our young people has the potential to transform the ministry of our congregations.
Brian Durand serves as the Indiana Conference associate director of youth, young adult and campus ministries. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.