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Featured: Young people change the church

Photo courtesy of Dottie Escobedo-Frank

The Rev. Dottie Escobedo-Frank

Photo by Danny Russell/MTSO

The Rev. April Casperson

Photo courtesy of Patrick Scriven

Patrick Scriven

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Young people change the church

 

By Tita Parham
May - June 2015

"Nones" are on the rise, particularly among younger Americans. That is according to the Pew Research Center and many other organizations studying the changing landscape of religion in the United States.

In the recently released 2014 Pew report on the changing religious landscape, almost 23 percent of the public in the United States identified themselves as religious "nones" (unaffiliated with any faith group). Close to another 16 percent said "nothing in particular" when asked about their religious affiliation. Adults under 30 made up 35 percent of "nones", while nine percent were adults 65 and older. In the seven years prior to the report, those not affiliated increased from a little more than 15 percent total.

Pew researchers say those are the highest percentages ever in the center's polling, with young adults much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations at a similar stage in their lives.

The Barna Group also found growing disinterest in the church in 2011 after a five-year project studying faith development among teens and young adults. Its research showed nearly three of every five young Christians – 59 percent – left the church, permanently or temporarily, after age 15.

It is not all bad news for The United Methodist Church, however.

Between 2009 and 2013, the number of children, youth and young adults ages 19 to 30 participating in United Methodist church school and study groups increased, according to a statistical review by the General Council on Finance and Administration.

That is encouraging, but leaders say young people must be more than participants in ministries and programs. They must also be among the leaders and help set the course for the church.

Making it relevant

Energy and enthusiasm. Young people have plenty of both, which can be "a real blessing" for the church, says Patrick Scriven, director of communications and young people's ministries in the connectional ministries office of the Pacific Northwest Conference.

"When inspired and empowered to do meaningful work, young people can be a force to reckon with," he says.

However, young people also bring fresh perspectives, asking questions that prompt members to ask questions themselves.

"The unhealthiest form of spirituality, and of our life as a church, is one where we pretend to know all the answers," Scriven says. "Too often we trick ourselves into believing our own spin. Young people force us to revisit, rethink and remember."

Although counterintuitive, young people leaving the church may actually help it, he says, by forcing churches to reevaluate their purpose and creating urgency that "drives adaptive change."

"The status quo has been stamped with an expiration date," Scrivens says. "Churches that are incapable or ill-equipped to have these conversations are left in a really difficult place."

The Rev. April Casperson, vice president of institutional advancement at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, believes young people are uniquely qualified to enable that adaptive change.

They know the culture – one where non-churchgoers increasingly see the church as irrelevant to their lives, yet welcome change if it is authentic and responsive. They also adapt well to changing media and social movements and shift easily between cultures, recognizing the church must do the same.

"Young people are really willing to reshape how we define church so the church can reach populations who have not previously been served by the church," Casperson says. "(They) are also speaking truth about spaces and places in the world where God is already present and where The United Methodist Church needs to go and be."

The Rev. Dottie Escobedo-Frank, superintendent of the South District in the Desert Southwest Conference, agrees and says young people teach older members and leaders what it means to be a relevant church.

"When they walk in the door and participate and lead, they have many answers to our long-held questions about how to move forward," she says. "Their ideas and understandings are unique, current and relevant. If we will listen, and if we will hear, the young who are in our churches are a major source of hope and transformation."

With the church in a "repetitive state of reformation," Escobedo-Frank adds, young people are the ones offering the "revolutions of thought and action."

"They will keep the faith going when we pass the baton to them and (we) cheer them on from the sidelines," she says. "Our future lies in our ability to pass on leadership to those who will still be in the church 20 years from now."

Key to the kingdom

That leadership goes beyond providing fresh ideas and experience navigating cultural changes.

"Young people bring a sense of deep commitment to values, faith and the desire to make the world a better place," Casperson says, adding many who began their faith journey wanting to change the world find a connection with The United Methodist Church because of its emphasis on social holiness.

The biggest impact young people have, however, is helping the church "more fully experience the kingdom of God," says the Rev. Sam Halverson, associate director of connectional ministries for youth and young adult ministries in the North Georgia Conference.

"Jesus says that unless we become like children, we cannot experience the kingdom," he says. "Becoming like children involves experiencing God's goodness and glory through their eyes and discoveries."

That can only happen, he says, if younger members engage across a congregation's ministries.

"If we will involve young people more in worship, in outreach, in hospitality and even in leadership (by) bringing teenagers into committees and setting up situations where youth ‘shadow' certain leaders ... then we will open up better opportunities for the kingdom of God to be experienced more fully."

Tita Parham is a communications consultant, writer and editor based in Apopka, Florida.

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