If you program it, they will come (please stop thinking this way)

This is not a balm for the church's lack of young adults.

Programs, programs, programs! Let’s start a new program! We want more _________! What kind of program should we start? Where should we advertise it? What kind of publicity should we do?

Stop. Right now. Just stop. Stop with the programs, stop with the “if we do it and it’s cool and edgy and whatever they will come” mentality. Help me, help you. Help me, help you (add your own movie reference here).

Don’t get me wrong, I think theology on tap/theology pub is a cool idea. It gets church outside of the building and makes theology and worship a public act — and some are really cool and successful. But anymore it makes me cringe when I see someone starting one. We keep picking up things that have worked well in one context and plopping it into others. We keep looking for a cool idea or a program to solve all of our problems with church attendance in a neat and easy way. Have you ever tried to wrangle an escaped sheep? It’s a total pain in the ass. They don’t come when called. The run faster if they are chased. They occasionally respond to bribes, but, really, they are surrounded by grass when they escape and don’t really feel like they need you for anything. They don’t realize that you are there to help, to guide them, to keep them warm and safe. They see you as their captor and they want to keep away from you. You get the sheep back by getting them to trust you, to see you as a safe place. They come back when they see you as the best option in a big world. But you have to be careful, if you push too hard, they will get scared off and run away from you again.

This is not dissimilar to those who are un-churched or de-churched. They won’t come back just for a program that sounds cool. They won’t look at a poster and think, “Holy shit, church people drinking beer? I must see this!” It’s not that easy. You have to go to where they are and be present. You have to talk to them about their lives and not bring up Jesus beyond what you do for a living — until they want to talk about it. You have to build relationships. You have to walk slowly. You have to work and be patient. You have to be willing to have it not be neat or easy.

If you want the young adults in your community to actually start coming around, find out who the most receptive young people might be and give them a call. Offer to take them out for coffee. Say you just want to get to know them or to catch up. Say you need help understanding social media. Ask them to fix things. Let them know that the church is open for their bands to practice. Go hear their bands play or go to one of their art showings or hang out at a bar where some of them work. Just be present. Get to know young adults. Be real. Be honest. Be you. Don’t push. Just by showing them that you are a Christian person who cares, you’re going to make huge inroads. Then, one day, he may call you because of a dream he had or she may come to tell you about an experience in yoga class or someone might stop in in an existential crisis and that’s when you know that you have a relationship. That is when you know that you have shown them a little bit of Jesus, that’s when the grace breaks through. And it will be messy. Then it will be awesome. And, if the young adults say that you should totally start a Theology Pub, do it. Follow them. Let those who have come back take the lead.

My husband red the first iteration of this and reminded me of something. The motivation can’t be to bring the people to Jesus Christ. That’s disingenuous (Hi, I want to your friend, but only so that you come to Jesus) and totally obvious (and kind of creepy). The motivation has to be to love, as Jesus would have loved, and to be the presence of Christ in this broken world.

Less programs, more relationships. Less neat and easy, more hard and messy. Less cool/trendy/hip, more Jesus.


About Elizabeth Rawlings

Lutheran. Feminist. Child of God. Thinking about how to be a leader in a church that is trying to rediscover itself and what it means to live simply so that others may simply live in tandem with what exactly is the fast God asks of us. Chronic alliterator. Generally silly person. View all posts by Elizabeth Rawlings

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