This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Where have all the youth gone

Elisabeth Wilder lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and is studying at Eastern Mennonite University. You can usually find her with a cup of coffee in her hand and her trusty planner by her side as she goes between classes, meetings, and other campus activities. Elisabeth is the newest blogger for The Mennonite, Inc. 

“Atheism is rampant on this campus,” said my Eastern Mennonite University professor. “You would be surprised how many people don’t have a faith connection.”

I am not surprised.

In both faith institutions I have been a part of–Hesston (Kansas) College and EMU (Harrisonburg, Virginia)–I have encountered atheists, agnostics and many others journeying on their spiritual path. We’ve talked about faith, broken bread together and mourned the damage the church has done throughout history and how it continues to marginalize people.

Developmentally, young adulthood is when youth begin to reformulate their beliefs. Many young adults no longer see God as a mythic figure that grants wishes or the parent figure that punishes them when they sin. God is real or not real. Faith may not mean all the same things learned in Sunday School or in the home.

For many, this is old news. Congregations have fretted for decades about whether youth raised in the church will carry on the faith tradition or if they will be seduced by the ways of the world. You can find blogs, books, and reading material galore about why you won’t see Millennials and Generation Z on a Sunday morning. The consensus from popular sources is that younger generations are becoming more skeptical, don’t see church as a welcoming place or that we are just plain bored with church.

From my own faith journey and from conversations from my friends, I can concur with a lot of the research. All of the research I have come across has left out one essential piece, though, and that’s the fact that there isn’t room for youth in the church.

Sure, everyone is welcome in the church, but the church has been slow and resistant to what youth are bringing to congregations. We are pushing for women in leadership, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, and ethical treatment of the earth. Millennials and Generation Z feel they are defined by what they do rather than what they believe.

Perhaps most detrimentally, church decisions are continually being made by people who are pushing for what the church has been and not what the church can be. It baffles me that congregations of adults across the United States are having meetings about the future of the church and how to draw in youth, but neglect to include young adults in these conversations. Decisions about the future of the church are made by people who are 20+ years older than the people who are considered to be the future of the church.

Both church leadership and young adults need to work together if the church has a future in the United States. In the Quaker tradition, both conservative and liberal truth are regarded as holy. Truth and God are synonymous, and by looking for truth, one is seeking God. Quakers hold reverence for what was once thought to be true while also acknowledging the movement of the Spirit in our time. I think the Quaker model of listening and discerning is what both young adults and aging church congregations need.

As a community grounded in the Anabaptist tradition, we believe that everyone has equal authority to interpret and understand Scripture. If we really believe that everyone has equal authority, we have to treat each other’s truth as such and discern carefully together. Youth should not be tokenized or demonized for their thoughts on church, nor should older adults be ridiculed for adhering to what they have known to be true.

The church needs to be more open to a changing world, but young adults also need to be patient with a culture that can’t always give them the instant gratification that they have become accustomed to. Like all relationships, there needs to be a healthy balance of give and take.

I have an agreement with my Dad that when he grows into the final years of his life and is unable to take care of himself we will have a very specific conversation so he knows that is time to hand over the keys and let his children handle his affairs. I think it’s time that the church and youth start having similar conversations.


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