Thursday, May 17, 2012

Stop Trying to Reach Young Adults

Things are hopping and popping (as a former pastor of mine used to say) and I have been not as disciplined in my blogging as I would have liked... but that pause does give some time for thoughts to percolate and congeal a little more coherently (I hope) than otherwise.

I continue to read of The Millennials and their aversion to church, and doctrine and such. It is inevitable that after hearing a presentation on the lives of Millennials, particularly as it connects to their faith lives, the crowd gathered begins to ask "How can we reach these young adults?" And I want to stand up and say something like "STOP TRYING TO REACH YOUNG ADULTS!"

Not, mind you, that I am advocating abandoning them to the world. I am a campus pastor after all. And really a significant portion of them feel abandoned by the church. But more to the point, the language is terrible. The language of reaching invokes a couple of images for me. One is a gnarled old hand extended out of a darkened doorway trying to grab a young passerby and then pulling him or her in. Or trying to grab a drinking glass on the top shelf that is just beyond our fingertips. In both cases the reaching is only done to haul in and possess, obtain something for our use. And I know that we use the language of "reaching someone" as a metaphoric way of speaking about making connections, but even then we seem to mean getting people to see our way. The phrase "reaching" carries with it an implicit notion of a power imbalance where we are imposing something on another.

So I say stop. It reduces our mission ultimately to getting butts in the pew. The language may differ but the thinking is not all that different when we reduce stewardship programs to getting people to open their wallets and not their hearts and minds.

I believe young adults are highly sensitive to being pursued. After all they are... by advertisments and universities and countless others who want them, or more importantly their money. The language of reaching only reinforces the image, I suspect, of churches wanting to possess young adults. I know most folk working with young adults in faith settings mean that, but language is important.

I would wish for a change in language that speaks of engaging young adults, relating to them without any motive of reeling them into the church. I know that sounds counter-intuitive. Isn't that what we are supposed to do? Kinda sorta. I think we are called to share our faith but not as a sales pitch. If we treat it as such, young adults will realize that they are being reeled in and will likely back away. Many of them can smell the trap a mile away. So I think a change is needed.

Can we begin to engage them as them? Can we simply start with them as human beings and find out about them? And maybe as we learn about them, and they likely learn about us, there will be some chance to speak about faith issues. And we have to be ready to let them walk away from it. If we thought about it in investment terms we would see it as a failure. But from a perspective of faith sharing, it is not. In that situation, we might only be planting seeds. Fruit might come out of it but it might not. We can simply trust that God used us.  I won't even dare to promise that by changing this language, we will see more young adults in our churches because I wouldn't want this sort of notion to become a program, delineated with all sorts of procedures and such, which is just more of the same.


Heston said...

Brian, my view of sales has changed drastically after reading a few books on the subject recently. The best sales people apparently don't try to "sell" in the stereotypical sense. They become "assistant buyers." They seek to know the needs of the person they're in front of so well, that they can make the most relevant of suggestions.

God is so big, and has so many facets, that trying to ramrod any particular facet is like taking shots in the dark. What if we sought to know those around us so intimately that we could recommend to them the very thing they're looking for?

Brian Bennett said...

I used to manage a camera store and sold cameras well. Mainly because I did exactly what you describe. I asked a whole lot of questions and found out what the customer was planning on using the camera for. That was not the same as a sales pitch where I try to talk someone into buying something that might not fit his/her needs and only sought to unload merchandise. I am thinking here of the in-home exhibitions of vacuum cleaners who made sales pitches but could care less about me. I think that is very often our model of what sharing faith is supposed to look like. "What's it going to take to get you behind the wheel of this shiny-looking faith?"

My simple point is that the notion of "reaching" people is inherently one-sided. "Let me give you this stuff you need" without any connection or relationship or real knowledge of the other.