Saturday, August 14, 2010

young adults and the church

I was having a conversation the other day that got me thinking a lot about this question: Have we, the church, done young adults and youth a disservice in the way we have hired people to fill ministry positions rather than look for volunteers for some of them? However unintentional (and I do believe it was unintentional), I do believe that the church has done young adults a disservice in this. The current economic situation mean that just hiring someone to do everything is not the most cost-effective or financially responsible way to do things. But, it also requires a change in thinking for many people in terms of how monasteries within the church are run, and I would venture a guess that for many youth and young adults it is a change to something that is foreign to us.

Growing up in the church, I remember the day we hired our first youth pastor, our first childrens' pastor . . . those were big deals at the time, while now it seems like most churches of any size have these positions as paid staff. But, while I remember those days, it is a vague memory. I was young - young enough that it then became normal to me that those were paid positions within the church. Growing up there was always Sunday school, weekly kid's club, youth group events that were organized by church staff and then I showed up at - maybe with something I said I would help with (ie. concession, clean-up, etc.), but for the most part all I had to do was show up. As I grew older, this expanded into the area of young adults (18-30 something) ministry, as we now had a pastor who had that as his job, as well as having an assistant in the office. While we were given more opportunity to get involved in the planning of young adult events and in actually making them happen, ultimately there was still someone on the church staff who was paid to do that job.

Enter the last couple of years, and the change in things economically, which presented a challenge for many churches, as the number of staff they had it became no longer financially possible for them to employ. A change in thinking about how ministry is run is now required. For some people this is no problem, as they are returning to how church was done when they were growing up in the church - volunteers running most things with the pastors and church staff overseeing the various ministries. But, for youth and young adults, this a change of thinking to something we have barely, if ever, seen in how church operates. Some young adults may vaguely remember a time when there was not a pastor for every ministry, but they were definitely too young at that time to realize that it was volunteers who had run kid's programs before, or to grasp the significance of the change from volunteers to paid staff.

So now you have young adults who are used to having things delivered to them by church staff who are not being told that the church can no longer provide us with a young adult pastor and we have to figure out how to do it on our own. Okay, no big deal, we have been incredibly spoiled up to this point. The problem is now that we do not know how to make things happen on our own. We are so used to having someone do most of the work for us that we do not even know where to begin. And so the feeling of being un-valued and forgotten begins to take root. Since we are used to having a staff person(s) focusing just on us, we feel like by taking away that staff person(s) the church is saying to us that we no longer matter, that no one cares about us anymore.

This is where I believe there ends up being some serious miscommunication on both the part of young adults and church leadership. This miscommunication goes both ways. As young adults, instead of making our voice heard and asking for some help and guidance, we get hurt and we walk away from that particular church body - possibly even the universal church. As church leadership, who is often a generation or two older and remembers when everything was run by volunteers and the people who wanted something to happen were the ones who made it happen, there is an assumption made that young adults can just switch over to that way of doing things, with no realization that this is not a return to what it used to be for us, that this is a complete change in thinking and we need some help to make the change. The result of this miscommunication is a world of hurt and misunderstanding, while young adults continue to decide that they while they still want to call themselves followers of Christ - Christians - they have no use for the church and would rather go it alone. There is no blame to be placed here. It is a misunderstanding and miscommunication that goes both ways - neither side has necessarily done anything wrong, they are both operating out of their understanding of how church can and should work.

That story of what has happened above, I believe it is one that has played itself out many times in recent years. Some people know that is what has been going on; others do not know. Some young adults have found themselves caught in the middle of this. They have grown up in church and know that is has not always been the way they grew up with it being, but they have few memories of what it was like when everything was not done by paid staff. We are not willing to give up on the church, yet, but we are still struggling with the pain of all that transpired, because we too, feel that we have been thrown off the deep end not knowing how to swim and now we have to figure it out. But, we also have friends who have known nothing of before the church paid people to run every program who are deeply hurt and have walked away from the church and do not understand why we are hanging on. Some days, it would be so much easier to just walk away. But, we choose not to, because we know that we are the people who 20, 30, 40 years down the road will be the ones who have to make the same tough decisions that church leaders have made and are still making. We know that we need to take the opportunity we have to learn from those ahead of us, and so we hang on, despite the hurt we feel, despite the moments we feel that it would be easier to just walk away.

So I am left wondering, has the church done youth and young adults a disservice in the way we were brought up in church? I honestly think that the answer is yes. We are so used to paid staff to do everything that we expect it will always be that way. And when we lose that paid staff we take it personally.

I think the church is in a critical place right now. There is an entire generation that is in danger of walking away from the church for good. They still love Jesus and want to follow Him with their lives, but they have become disillusioned and they are hurt. Those young adults who are still hanging on need to speak up and make their voices heard. We need to explain our situation to others and ask for the help we need. But, we also need church leadership and older generations in the church to come alongside us and help us to learn this new way of doing church. We are willing to learn. We are willing to work. We are willing to be the ones who make it happen. But, right now we have no idea how to do that. We need some help. This is a change in thinking to something that is completely foreign to us. We are not reverting to the way it used to be; we are moving on to something new. We love change. We will embrace it. But we need others to come alongside us in the deep water we have just been thrown into and help us learn how to swim in it.

What has been done has been done. It is what it is. I do believe that it is time to move forward from here. But, it means that we need all generations in the church to work together to make sure no one is left out or feels like they are not valued. I believe that the church can come out stronger for this hard time, but it will not be easy.

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