This article was originally published by The Mennonite

How to encourage one another

New Voices: By and about young adults

Through my work for Ohio Conference and connection with the Anabaptist Missional Project, I have the opportunity to interact with Mennonites from many different congregations in all parts of the country.

One significant concern I hear repeatedly is the desire for more young adults to be engaged in the church; I even hear this in places where young adults are involved and well represented.

We’ve all read the data and heard the many reasons why there is a lack (real or perceived) of young adults in the church. In the past few months, I witnessed multiple situations that illustrate why young people don’t feel wanted, appreciated or welcomed:

  • (To someone married four months): “You realize, your parents are the only ones in our Sunday school class without grandchildren. You should get on that.”
  • (To someone in their late 20s): “Well, you did get married at an old age.”
  • (To someone mid-20s): “Too bad you are the only grandchild your grandfather will not get to see get married.”
  • (To parents of a 2-year-old): “It seems that new parents these days act so inconvenienced by their children. In our day, we gladly made adjustments and sacrifices for our children.”
  • (To someone in their first job): “Well, once you work in the ‘real world,’ you’ll understand.”
  • (When considering someone in their 20s for a position in the larger church): “At her age, how could she have any real leadership experiences? This would be too big of a responsibility.”
  • (To a young pastor, repeated): “But we’ve never done it that way before.”
    We’ve all said something during an awkward pause, then realized it sounded wrong. And I imagine these comments were made with the intention of connecting with the other person. But we need to be thoughtful in how we try to build relationships and offer encouragement. Consider the following:
  • Know (and use) people’s names (especially young people returning from college or from a service trip). It means so much to realize that other adults in the congregation know who you are. There is such power in hearing your name spoken. We should not underestimate the significance of being known in a community.
  • Don’t expect everyone’s end goal is marriage and/or children. Both are blessings. And many people do long for these traditional milestones. However, it takes two, and sometimes the pieces are not fitting together. Affirm other gifts and goals in a person’s life. He or she may be content or feel called to a life of singleness. When my husband and I were struggling with infertility, people’s (I assume) well-intentioned comments often felt hurtful.
  • Give leadership opportunities. Yes, it can be a risk, but many young adults are gifted and capable of taking on significant leadership roles. Often within their profession they have been given much responsibility. Why are we so hesitant to extend the same opportunities in the church? The only way to gain experience is to have opportunities to lead. By finding ways to allow young adults to use their gifts, you are shaping the church—both the present ministry and the future. Those who feel valued and have a way to contribute are more likely to stay connected. And, practically speaking, you’re not going to sleep in on the Sunday you are teaching class or leading the children’s time.
  • Be open to new ideas or ways of doing things. If you do invite someone to lead a ministry team, the group should also then be open to applying the suggestions and ideas that new people or younger perspectives bring.
  • Listen for what you can learn. Yes, young people have a lot to learn, and mentoring relationships are great. Advice and counsel are also helpful, particularly at significant discernment points on the journey. However, consider that you may be inspired, challenged or encouraged by a friendship with someone from a younger generation.

What do you value about the church community? What made it a welcoming and comfortable place for you as a young adult? Now? How would you like to be cared for and included? How might those things translate into the hospitality and care you offer others no matter what age or stage in life?

By building relationships with each other in authentic community and through shared leadership we can enrich the ministry of our congregations and bring forth the kingdom of God.

Sherah-Leigh Gerber attends Kidron (Ohio) Mennonite Church and is coordinator of volunteers for Ohio Conference. She lives in Apple Creek, Ohio, with her husband and toddler daughter.

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