A UMNS Commentary
By Michael Ratliff
Almost every article written or speech given in the leadership arenas of our church includes a statement on the need to engage young people in ministry and leadership. Is this because the church is responding to God’s call to make disciples of young people and provide room for them to join our mission to make disciples and transform the world? Or is it because we know that without younger people, the church is doomed to wither away into oblivion in the not-so-distant future?
If the church can reach out to share the saving grace of Jesus Christ with young people and invite them to be co-journeyers in the unfolding story that we are co-creating with God, we will find them ready and willing to take our hand and leap into an unchartered future.
If, on the other hand, it is perceived that we are seeking simply to save the church by finding ways to get more young people in the door, the current trend of young people abandoning the UMC in search of meaning, belonging and a compelling mission will most certainly continue. If we do the first well, the concern about the second goes away. Believing that God’s love is real and effectively inviting young people to share in that love will create a sustainable church into the future.
In the book A Short History of Methodism, we are told that “in 1784 American Methodists were asking in their Discipline, ‘What shall we do for the Rising Generation?’” Two of the four recommendations are as important today as they were for the founding leaders of the Methodist Church in the United States, “Talk with them every time you see any . . . and Pray in Earnest for them.”
Does every youth in your congregation know that there is at least one adult other than their parent who knows them by name and cares about what is going on in their life? Do they know that there is at least one adult who is consistently, daily praying for them (and knows them well enough to know what to pray about)? The Search Institute has identified the need for every young person to have at least three significant non-parent adults to support their development. The Transitions research project at Fuller Seminary has discovered that the key to keeping college students connected to the church is the development of meaningful relationships while those students are youths.
Can we do this in our church? Consider this information from our 2009 statistical data report. The statistics tell us that we have 421,000 youth and 188,000 young adults involved in ongoing formation and study settings in the U.S. There are probably at least twice that many young people related to our churches, so can we know and pray for 1.2 million young people? Is there at least one adult for every youth and every young adult in your church who could get to know them and pray for them? Want to know what difference it could make? Watch this video: http://youtu.be/Ko6WM_7Ha2Q.
There is more we need to do. Young people consistently share that their church wants them in worship, but not enough to change worship to better relate. Their church wants them in leadership, but not if they are going to challenge the way things have been/are being done. Their church wants young people to come inside their buildings, but doesn’t want those buildings to show signs that they were there. These statements are generalizations, and there are many exceptions where young people are loved, respected and seen as partners in ministry. However, the fact that over 10,000 of our churches report NOT ONE youth or young adult involved in ongoing spiritual growth experiences tells another story.
The recent Call to Action report suggests that we need more programs for children and youth. While there are places where this is true, the crying need for our young people is to have meaningful relationships with caring adults who will openly and honestly share their faith journey and encourage our youth and young adults along the path to discover God through Jesus Christ and to discern a future that utilizes their gifts to transform our church and their world.
Sadly, we often hear that there are only 7.8 million of us in the United Methodist Church in the U.S. Let’s instead look at how those of us who are adults represented in that number might join with the young people among us to change our world, and in so doing, change and grow our church as well.
The Rev. Ratliff is associate general secretary of young people’s ministries at the General Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tenn.