The church is in decline. Statistically, it’s inarguable. But researchers who presented their findings at the Mennonite Church USA convention said the denomination is positioned to turn the trend around, if it chooses.
In seminars offered in English and Spanish, Jennifer Guerra Aldana, director of multicultural initiatives at Fuller Youth Institute, said vibrant churches attract and keep young people (ages 15-29) by involving them early and being authentic.
The introduction of youth delegates this year was a significant advance for young voices. The opportunity to commit more deeply to youthful authenticity begins now.
“They might say your words are beautiful, but how you live them out matters,” Aldana said. Young people know they can download a sermon, but not community.
As MC USA embarks on a two-year process to evaluate membership guidelines that have been used more to exclude than invite, many will judge the initiative on its transparency and how closely the final product matches what actually happens in congregations and conferences.
MC USA executive director Glen Guyton reiterated in the closing worship service that documents and doctrine won’t save the denomination, but how it welcomes everyone into community can. He might have been reading Josh Packard’s book, Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People Are DONE with Church but Not Their Faith.
A professor and director of the University of Northern Colorado’s Springtide Research Institute for Religion and Young People, Packard led a seminar about why people are leaving church these days. He said Mennonites face the same challenges as other groups.
His study revealed people leaving today sought community at church but got judgment instead — not in a biblical sense, but interpersonally.
“You can’t have community if you’re starting from a place of judgment,” he said. Young people see church as anti-community if they perceive a need to be fake there.
Aldana said young people are the best bridge builders churches have. But bridges get walked on and stressed as they hold tensions with both sides. She shared her hope: “I would love to see more adults just come and hoist them up and say, ‘Can I help you and support you when your arms are tired?’ ”