20 Steps to a Renewed Church (posted on April 8th). At first, I didn’t think I had anything more to say than I’d already said. Plus, the mere mention of Church Issues makes me want to fill my backpack with trail mix and furs and head into the Alaskan wilderness indefinitely. But then… what I got to ponder was how easy it is to spout off a Manifesto For How To Live, and how hard it is to actually live. So, here’s my follow-up to the original post.

"> Making the Church More Accessible to Folks Under 35 | Forum for Theological Exploration

Making the Church More Accessible to Folks Under 35

By: Tamie Harkins
April 19, 2011

The folks at FTE have asked me if I’ll write a follow-up to my 20 Steps to a Renewed Church (posted on April 8th). At first, I didn’t think I had anything more to say than I’d already said. Plus, the mere mention of Church Issues makes me want to fill my backpack with trail mix and furs and head into the Alaskan wilderness indefinitely. But then… what I got to ponder was how easy it is to spout off a Manifesto For How To Live, and how hard it is to actually live. So, here’s my follow-up to the original post.

There are good reasons, culturally, why church does not work for many people, especially many young people. By and large church is a place where human beings come to interact together in person and inter-generationally, discuss an ancient text, and participate in a bunch of archaic rituals. In short, it is a counter-cultural situation in the extreme. A very common response to the counter-cultural character of church is to try to make the church “relevant,” which is often a synonym for non-counter-cultural, hip, trendy, and full of Power Point.

“This “finding ways” is where the sole meets the trail, and that’s where we’ve got to think creatively together.”

A few words on relevancy: making your church hip and trendy (coffee bar; free wireless; pastor with tattoos and ripped jeans) will probably draw in the young people. If your only goal is getting young people in your door, these things will work. Free alcohol will work even better (I guess you could advertise the Eucharist that way…). I don’t have a problem with coffee, wireless, tattoos or ripped jeans or thimble-size-sips of alcohol. It’s just that, what do these things have to do with being relevant?
Relevancy is about practices and conversations that address people’s pressing and real concerns. Relevancy is about offering practices that help people come to peace with the death of someone they love. Relevancy is conversation about global warming and extreme poverty. It embraces discussions about technology (how to use it in ways that don’t perpetuate the loneliness?), about sexuality (is polyamory (often known as “ethical non-monogamy”) legit? how do you have a sexual relationship with someone who’s been abused?), about polarization (how do I love my neighbor if my neighbor is one of those gun-waving, homophobic, whiskey-swilling, anarchist, neo-hippie ex-convict types?). Relevancy also means looking around the community and the world, noticing who’s marginalized and oppressed—because that’s where Jesus put his attention—and finding ways to stand with and for those people.

This “finding ways” is where the sole meets the trail, and that’s where we’ve got to think creatively together. So, what follows are some practical ideas for changing church in ways that will make them more accessible to people ages 35 and under. The list is by no means exhaustive or conclusive. They’re just some ideas we can riff off and talk about.

1.

The door-to-door thing got a bad rap, but I’m bringing it back. Try this: host a cookie bake-a-thon at the church (this will build community, which is one of the things young people are hungriest for). In the next day or two, folks go out in groups of two or three and knock on doors. When the door is opened, hand the door-opener the cookies and say, “Hi, I’m bringing you these cookies because people don’t talk to their neighbors anymore, and because most people are lonely and could use some homemade cookies and some cheering up.” OR say, “I’m from X church and we’re trying to figure out how to get to know people in our community and I know this door-to-door thing is awkward, but it’s just our way of reaching out.” NOTE #1: You may consider mixing things up socio-economically. Each group could make a point of going to one rich neighborhood and one poor neighborhood. Or try visiting neighborhoods that are different ethnically from the neighborhood in which your church is situated. NOTE #2: Make sure to have a conversation later on about the experience.

2.

Some Sunday, in place of the sermon, have everyone get in pairs in which the age differential must be at least 30 years. Have the pair ask each other these questions: What brings you joy? What is really hard in your life right now? Describe for me what an ordinary day is like for you. What is one of your great regrets? What is something you have done that makes you really proud of yourself? The idea here is for people of different ages to begin to know each other.

3.

Churches often say that they want more young people, but the fact is that welcoming more young people may very well involve change, and most of us don’t actually want to change. Some Sunday, during the sermon, have everyone in the pews (and choir loft!) write down the one thing that is their own personal biggest obstacle to change. Really give people time to think about this, give some examples from your own life, etc. It may be a multi-Sunday conversation. Next, have people write down what they will lose if they change. Why will these things be a loss? Next, have them write down what they will gain. Invite people to share what they have written with the whole congregation. (It’s important that people share with the whole congregation and not just with a few people next to them.)

4.

Organize a No-Church Sunday. No services will be held, but everyone will be expected to go out and about and participate in whatever else goes on Sunday mornings instead of church. Softball games, brunches at the local diner, hikes. Sunday night, have a big potluck and invite people to discuss what they did instead of church and where they experienced grace and God’s presence that day.

5.

Institute a Speak Respectfully On Church Grounds Rule. The idea is that no one is allowed to speak unkindly or disrespectfully to or about anyone else on church grounds. Off-grounds, be as mean and nasty and unfair as you want. But on church grounds, everyone (including the church leadership!) must only speak in gracious and fair language. This rule must be followed by anyone on the premises, whether or not s/he is a member of the church.

6.

Have an open-mic instead of the sermon and have people come up and answer this one question: “What is one way that you wish people treated you differently?” Everyone would be invited to come up and answer. When everyone is finished answering the question, ask this question: “In light of all these answers, what does it mean to do unto others as you would have them do unto you?” Again, open up the mic. (Instituting a 2-minute time limit will be helpful.) This could also be done in a Sunday school setting, or in a small group setting.

Everyone will have their own ideas to add, and some of these ideas may fall flat with you. The point is to be creative and energetic. The point is to try. Recently I read this fantastic book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams (cliché title, but great book). It’s a book about building a genocide memorial in Rwanda, among other things. Someone asks one of the artists, “What should we do about the suffering in Rwanda?” And the artist answers, “Do something.” That’s what I want to say about church and young people and old people and the life of the spirit. Do something. And if that falls flat, no worries. Keep trying. You will, sooner or later, find yourself in a different heart-space and maybe – just maybe –people will find you.

Tags: Thinking Out Loud


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