Guest Blogger: Emily Morgan, A Letter to the Church About Young Adults and Worship

As part of my commitment to a couple of book projects, this spring I am taking a personal blogging hiatus and have invited some folks to blog in my stead. It is my intention help share some new voices and perspectives with a larger audience and keep my blog active during my break. Today we welcome Emily Morgan [BLOG | TWITTER] and her open letter the the church about young adults and worship.

We are the young; our lives are a mystery.
Gather Us In
 by Marty Haugen

Dear Church—

I once had a conversation with a woman old enough to be my grandmother who attended a church located on a university campus where she asked me how she could get more young adults (people college-aged until about thirty-five or forty) like me into their church. I replied, “There’s only one of me. Maybe you could go to the campus and meet some others or reconnect with the youth who grew up here.” She rolled her eyes and said, “We brought a guitar in one Sunday last year. No one came. Our doors are open whenever they want to come in.”

Most churches lack significant numbers of people in their 20’s and 30’s but claim they desperately want them. After conversations like the one above, I am starting to wonder if churches really want to gather young people in. By “gather young people in” I do not mean “get young people in the door to solve our church’s financial issues.” I mean, “broaden our faith communities to care for and involve young adults.” Young adults are everywhere. True, if you live near a college campus or an urban center they may be more visible; but young adults are everywhere. Young adults in different places have different needs that being a part of a spiritual community could help and different gifts to bring to the table. Start seeking them out and know you and your community will have to build (or re-build) trust before you can truly start making an impact in young adult’s lives. However, it is likely your church has youth (middle and high school-aged people) and connections to young adults even if they only show up on Christmas Eve when they are home from college and their mother makes them come to church. Instead of feeling like more young adults “should” be coming to your church, start with the ones who are already there.

In a discussion after a Presbyterian polity lecture my professor, Mr. D. Paul La Montagne, enthusiastically told a small group of students that the way to get young adults involved in churches is to “give them real power.” He said churches can start worship services that they think will appeal aesthetically to youth and young adults; but as long as churches are doing things for young adults instead of with them, they are only being partially effective. What a crazy idea! Involving young adults in the church means actually involve them in church life. If older adults want young adults to get involved with churches, they have to realize young adults will actually want to fruitful members of the spiritual community.

I agree completely (and not just because Mr. La Montagne is my professor). Many of my friends who grew up attending church feel like they never had power or influence within the church and like anyone who had power or influence never listened to them. One of the reasons I started the ordination process was because the congregation I grew up in empowered me through worship music leadership, and I as discerned my call from God I figured I could handle other kinds of church leadership. I was perhaps a bit naïve and optimistic, and I have learned since then that church leadership is difficult and demanding. I have also learned that the priesthood of all believers is not just a nice idea; it is the only reason the church has survived this long and will flourish in the future.

A church that empowers its young adults for leadership and ministry will empower others. Youth and children will see the young adults they look up to exploring traditional and creative ministries and start projecting themselves into those roles. The young adults will take over some positions that others have been filling, freeing those people to explore new ministries and/or take a much deserved rest. Young adults will benefit from the wisdom and experience of adults older than them, and they will learn the historical language and polity of their churches. The older adults will learn some things, too; if they are willing. Young adults will start seeing gifts in others and empowering them for ministry and leadership as well. The Spirit will be working in new ways through more generationally diverse communities, and only God knows where the Spirit will lead.

So what would “real power” or empowerment look like in the hands of the priesthood of young adults? Would it look like a one-year elder position filled by a spiritually gifted college student whose ideas for the stewardship campaign were heard and considered? Would it look like an artistically gifted 30-something who was asked to create a work of art for a special bulletin cover or decoration in the fellowship hall? Would it look like a professional 26-year-old who tithes their time on the Pastor Nominating Committee because their own recent job search gives insight of what to look for in candidates? Would it look like a church putting community before a membership commitment and loving people before the bottom line? Would it look like elders seeking out young adults to befriend them and help them discern their spiritual gifts?

Young adults may not know what their spiritual gifts are, and very few will volunteer the way baby boomers do. However, if pastors, deacons, elders, parents, friends, or other members of the community ask a young adult to participate in a specific ministry or event because of who that young adult is and what their specific gifts are, churches have a much better chance of involving young adults. Each young adult you encounter will have their own wounds they need healed and have their own spiritual gifts to give. Many young adults do not realize how they can be involved in a church’s ministry and leadership. Do not assume just because someone grew up going to a church that they know how that church works or where they fit in. The outer call is especially important to young adults. I started my blog project because of several older adults (between five and twenty-five years my senior) who have seen my creativity as a gift and urged me to use it. I started reading Scripture in worship because of people mostly my grandparents’ age who told me they appreciated the way I spoke in public. Now I see my writing as part of my larger call to ministry, and I am a teaching assistant in my seminary’s communication department! It took years and many people encouraging me for that kind of fruit to blossom, and only a few of the people who communicated an outer call to me know they helped me discern my call. They are still helping me discern my call.

It is my hope and prayer for the church that we can empower young adults and care for them within our communities. For a suggested first step in this process I have written a responsive prayer based on the call story of Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1-10) and Psalm 139. Scripture does not designate Samuel’s age at the time of his call, and I encourage all people who will use this prayer to think of themselves as both Samuel and Eli. The suggested date for use is Sunday, January 15, 2012 because it is based on Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) texts.

A Prayer for Samuels and Elis

One: O God, You have searched us and know us. You know all our ways. You know our strengths and weaknesses. You bless us with spiritual gifts. You empathize with our hurts. You rejoice in our gladness and mourn in our sorrow. Nothing at all is hidden from You.

All: Speak, Spirit, for we are listening.

One: When we do not understand Your call to us individually or communally bring us wise teachers to point us to You. May we recognize those teachers regardless of their age. When You call us to be a wise teacher to point someone to You help us recognize that call no matter what the situation.

All: Speak, Spirit, for we are listening.

One: You know every part of us. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. Help us to recognize every person we meet as a beautiful and beloved child of God. We hear you calling our names, and we recognize our own role to help others discern Your voice in their lives.

All: Speak, Spirit, for we are listening.

One: Where are You calling us, God?

All: Speak, Spirit, for we are listening. (Silence)

One: Who are You calling us to be?

All: Speak, Spirit, for we are listening. (Silence)

One: What are you calling us to do?

All: Speak, Spirit, for we are listening. (Silence)

One: When we try to count Your thoughts, we see they are more than the sand. We are humbled to be a small part of Your work in this world.

All: Speak, Spirit, for we are listening. Amen.


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  • Themostsplendid  

    I am a loonggg way from being a young adult, at least by the count of the calendar.  I am also half-way through my middler seminary year.  Young at heart, I see huge gifts in my younger colleagues, wonderful energy and thoughtful, prayerful discernment.  All this suggests that some young adults do find nurture and encouragement in their communities of faith.  I have watched long established congregants think they know what will “draw” young people, and miss the mark egregiously. 

    I also see sprouting in congregations around and about the seeds of new thinking and new visions.  Having been involved, with my home congregation and a number of other churches, in 18 months worth of directed consideration about becoming a “mission-shaped” church.  My understanding of this notion is simple.  Stop being the church of the sanctuary and the office and start being the church outside the 4 walls.  Stop counting members and start raising up disciples–first in the community then out and about in the world.

    The church growth movement has set market-based standards claiming that the work of the church is to attract new members.  And that misses the point–and the hearts and minds of the young adults who have so much to offer.  Attract members?  This conversation misses critical points and closes the church off to new energy, creative ways to be disciples ministering to those around us who so desperately need care. 

    I am here making this point.  Give up cares for growing membership.  Take care to become disciples and encourage others into discipleship.  Making assumptions about what will bring any target group into the church guarantees falling flat.  Listening to the voices of those who want to be part of a loving, worshiping, nurturing, serving community opens doors to new and vital ways to be, and gives us open hearts and open minds willing to receive, to hear what those new among wish with great passion to offer.  Don’t look for programs, see and hear people. 

    Being the “House of Prayer for All People”, the motto of the General Assembly in 2003, hosted in Denver, CO, speaks to the mission and ministries of the church.  Be home for all.  Be willing to step outside that comfortable place that got old in 1960.  Have coffee with someone you think is very different from you.  Talk to your kids’ friends or your grandkids’ friends–not to tell them what they need to know but to hear what they think and already know.  Get back to the 22 year old that sits squarely in your very own middle and listen to what she or he might want to do in the church.  Then go meet “real” 22 year olds, ask them what they think, what they feel, where they see God at work in their lives, and let them tell you what we all probably need to hear.

    It’s never about filling pews.  It’s always about filling hearts, healing hurts, listening for the movement of the Spirit–which most often comes from unexpected and startling places.  Start being free and plastic enough to reshape your own notions through conversations with those who aren’t attached to the “glory years”.  God’s church is never irrelevant.  WE become irrelevant when we forget that change is an eternal imperative.  Remember, also, that sometimes we have to let the plant die so that the seeds held in the pods can fall into the soil and grow.  New plants. 

    Don’t get the guitar then say that you don’t understand why “they” don’t come.  Sit down where “they” are.  Do that scary thing and strike up a conversation with a young stranger–don’t grill ’em about what they think about church–get acquainted.  Notice the books being read and ask.  GET OUT MORE!  And see the face that will be the messenger of Christ for you in that moment.  Go back and do it again.  Savor what you hear rather than dismissing it.  Be enriched, be surprised, be changed.  Listen to their stories long enough to learn that our stories are not so much different.  Feel that longing heart reaching your longing heart.  And let the spirit work to draw us all together in the ways that make us friends along the way, colleagues, disciples going out in twos–young and not so young–walk into those places where God’s presence is sorely needed and bring the healing that only committed disciples can bring.

    Be disciples, listening, sharing and learning.  The rest is in other Hands.

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