Young people won’t save your church

— Ismael Paramo on Unsplash

Every church I have been a part of has a common cry: We need more young people.

It’s a cry that is pushed by fear that in five to ten years, our churches won’t have people on our committees. It’s a cry that is driven by worry that our donations will not hold us afloat as our older members pass away. It’s a cry that is driven by the hope that young people might come in and save the church.

I’m quite certain that young people won’t save the church. At least not as we know it.

Being “recently graduated” from young adulthood, I have observed that this cry for young people has often been repeated with the expectation that they will come in and save our church, but not change our church. Young people are welcome, but that welcome often includes a caveat — a need to be like the status quo. The cry is not really “save the church,” but “save our church.” Save our church and keep it the same as we know it, or better yet, bring it back to the good ol’ days of 30-50 years ago.

The predicament of Jonah

This pattern of the church longing for the past days reminds me of the story of Jonah. Before the word of the Lord came to Jonah, he was perfectly fine living his life. He was living in the glory days. Then his life changed, and all Jonah wanted to do was to go back to the way things were before.

But Jonah didn’t fully understand how good God’s new mission for his life was. In the end, when Jonah listened to God and followed God’s call, a shipload of people and an entire city came to know and believe in God.

It was scary. It was different. God was calling Jonah out of his comfort zone, out of whatever his life used to be, calling him to something new and exciting. As we look to the saving of the church, it’s so easy to long for the comfortable days of the past. This expectation of conforming to a predetermined vision for the church is felt by young people who try to engage the church in something new, and it pushes them away.

Willing to be vulnerable

So, what do young people envision for the church? My first answer is “Ask them.” When I’ve asked them, I’ve heard of a deep longing to focus on more vulnerability in the church. The days of dressing up in our Sunday best and bringing our best-smiling selves to church for worship are over. Keep in mind that vulnerability. We cannot make a safe space for young people to be vulnerable if they don’t see us modeling vulnerability.

The current church cannot invite young people to the church and then truly welcome them only if they act, dress and live a certain way. For many young adults, youth and children, bringing our whole selves to church means bringing along our mental health issues, bringing our doubts about faith and accepting others where they are in their lives.

Trusting God’s promise

While changing ourselves to welcome others, we are encouraged by God’s promise. In Genesis, God makes a covenant with Abraham that God will be faithful to Abraham, to his children and to the generations after him. God promises Abraham that “all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you” (Genesis 12:3, Common English Bible). For much of Abraham’s life, this promise seems to fall short, but God continues to promise him faithfulness. After Abraham and Lot separate, God makes the promise again (Genesis 13:14-17). Finally, Abraham has had enough and responds to God, “Really? How are you going to follow through with these promises of being faithful to generations after me when I do not have any children?” (Genesis 15:3, my paraphrase).

Promising children to Abraham and Sarah at their age seems like a cruel joke. For Abraham and Sarah to believe that promise sounds foolish — almost as foolish as expecting the same faithfulness from us.

The cry for young people in our churches sounds like Abraham’s cry. “God, how are we to keep being the church when there are no generations after us?”

The same God who followed through with the promise to Abraham is the same God who is present with us in our worship services today. This same God knows what’s best for the future of the church. We don’t need to worry. We need to listen.

Listening well

We need to listen to the younger generations. God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants — God’s covenant includes your church, the seniors of your church, the adults of your church and importantly, the young people of your church.

We need to listen to all of those with whom God holds the covenant, including the young people. God’s covenant doesn’t just hold up with those who serve on church committees or the older generations of the church. The covenant is held with all of God’s children. God’s guidance isn’t held in a box that is only accessible to the leaders and the current generations of the church. God is not contained. God’s faithfulness and goodness work in all of us.

God is with us. God is among us. God said, “I will set up my covenant with you and your descendants after you in every generation as an enduring covenant. I will be your God and your descendants’ God after you” (Genesis 17:7, emphasis added). God knows the future of the church and has a plan for the church. We just need to listen.

Young people will change the church. It won’t look like your church, but we can hold to the promise that it will look like God’s church.

Reprinted from Leader, Spring 2024, Vol 21, No. 3. © 2024 MennoMedia, Inc., Harrisonburg, VA. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Danielle Raimbault

Danielle Raimbault pastors Preston and Wanner Mennonite churches in Cambridge, Ontario. She enjoys being outside every chance she can get, Read More

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