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Close Up: Churches, do you know where your young people are?

12/17/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

Photographs and sidebars, stories #470-475, are available with this report.

A Report By Kathy L. Gilbert*

It is 11 o'clock on Sunday morning. Are any people under 40 in your church service?

If the future of the church lies with its youth, things aren't looking bright.

The United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations are struggling for new ways to reach young people. For the churches, everything is riding on the outcome - their success or failure in fulfilling the Great Commission as well as their very survival as denominations.

"We are the church now, not just the future," says Laurie Day, 26, a student at United Methodist-related Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver.

According to the United States Congregational Life 2001 Survey, the largest percentage of United Methodist churchgoers is between 70 and 79 years old.

"The fact is, the church is dying," Day says. "In another 20 or 30 years, the majority of the membership is going to be gone, at least in the United States, unless we start looking at alternative models of what is church and how people are involved in church."

The numbers tell the story:
· On any given Sunday in most churches, the person sitting in the pew next to you is likely to be over 40 years old. If you are in a United Methodist church, the person is probably over 55.
· In the United States, the average age of the population is 33.5. More than 26 percent of the population falls between the ages of 12 and 30.
· In the United Methodist Church, less than 10 percent of those attending church fall into the 12-30 range. Other mainline denominations are in similar straits.

Where are the young people, and why aren't they in church?

Nurturing vs. patronizing

Eight out of 10 teens say the Christian churches in their community adds real value to their lives and that religious faith is important to them, according to a 2000 survey by Barna Research Group of Ventura, Calif.

Last July, 9,000 United Methodist youth from every corner of the United States and 10 other countries took over the University of Tennessee campus in Knoxville and held their version of a giant tent revival.

They sang, prayed and praised God in loud voices. They shared their testimonies, attended workshops and did community service. A bishop called them angels and a dynamic youth leader "triple-dog dared" them to change the world and the church.

A recent study of first-year students at 12 United Methodist-related colleges revealed that more than 80 percent want to strengthen their religious convictions. An informal poll of United Methodist campus ministries conducted by the Campus Ministry Section of the denomination's Board of Higher Education and Ministry showed that student participation is up this fall, continuing a growth trend of several years.

However, the positive feelings are not reflected in how youth feel about Christian adults. In the Barna research, one-third of the teens say they believe "most adult Christians are hypocrites."

Several young people at July's Youth 2003 gathering, sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, said they do not feel respected or heard by adults in their local churches.

"There is a fine line between being nurturing and being patronizing," says Jay Williams, 22, a member of Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Buffalo, N.Y., and leader at the denominational level.

While the church seems to do a good job of hosting international events like Youth 2003, work is needed for local congregations to become more welcoming to youth.

"The church needs to recognize that young people are a set of members with different needs who have valid ideas," says Devin Mauney, 16, a member of Christ United Methodist Church, Tucson, Ariz., and a delegate to the 2004 Western Jurisdictional Conference.

"Young people need to be represented," Mauney says. "We get respect but not until we prove ourselves. I feel much better received at the annual conference level than at my local church. I think that is true for a lot of young people."

Most of the leadership in the church belongs to older people, Day says. " Older people need to understand that being a capable leader is not synonymous with having devoted the last 40 years of your life to the church. It is not synonymous with having 'the Rev.' or 'bishop' as your title either."

A division for young people

The United Methodist Church's top assembly, the 2004 General Conference, will consider creating a division on ministries with young people. The Shared Mission Focus on Young People, associated with the Board of Discipleship, is leading the charge in presenting the legislation.

"We do have a history of strong youth ministry in the church," says Ciona Rouse, director of the Shared Mission Focus on Young People in Nashville, Tenn. "The reality, however, is that young adults and youth are still only 11 to 12 percent of our church membership."

Young adults from 18 to 30 may be the most underserved in the church right now, she says. She points out that aside from campus ministry, youth adult ministries are "non-existent in many places across our denomination."

Of the proposed new division, she says, "Our vision is that we have a church that embraces all young people and creates paths for youth and young adults to be true disciples of Christ."

'Just ask'

Providing outreach and ministry opportunities to young adults is important, says the Rev. Harold "Hal" Hartley III, director in Campus Ministry Section, Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

"Many young adults I know report finding it difficult to find a home in local congregations that are set in traditional ways of worship and not welcoming of the gifts young adults have to offer," he says.

Williams warns against creating separate worship services and activities just for youth that keep them out of the whole congregation. He says there is no substitute for simply asking young people what they want, including them in the worship planning team and valuing their opinion.

"Don't just assume you know what young people want because of something you have read or something you have heard," he says. "Every young person is going to want something different. Go to youth and ask them to be part of the planning of worship without making them feel like they you are doing them a favor. Respect them as full members."

Day sums it up this way: "Ask us what we think and what we want, but most importantly, only ask if you really want to listen to our answers, and be prepared to address some of our concerns and our ideas."
# # #
*Gilbert is a news writer for United Methodist News Service.

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