Am I still a young adult?
When springtime rolls around, I will be thirty years old. I am young by many standards, but I am not the youngest of young adults any more, and this matters. At twenty four, observing my passion (and unnamed anger) about the power structures of the church and the marginalization of my young adult peers, my seminary internship supervisor affirmed my energy. She then cautioned me to remember this feeling and take note of when I stopped being a young adult so that I did not unknowingly perpetuate the imbalance of power. That is why, writing here at my kitchen table today, I ask myself: am I still a young adult? What power and privilege am I clinging onto that I really should share with someone else?
The question of who is and is not a young adult is a complicated one. In both church and broader societal contexts, we used to look at markers like moving out, graduating from university, getting married and having kids, to indicate the transition into full adulthood. Increasingly, however, these life choices are happening later in life or not at all.
As someone who happens to have engaged with these steps in a traditional order, and at a relatively young age, the unspoken messages I hear from older generations in church contexts are: we trust you, you are one of us, we are willing to share our power with you. But being married with a kid, and a job in my field by 30 is no longer the norm.
If, consciously or unconsciously, we are waiting for these markers of adulthood to occur before spreading wide the arms of invitation to share power in the church, the future of the church looks very bleak.
In my work with Pastors in Exile, I have the honour of listening to the faith stories of young adults in our community, and I often hear about how they have experienced welcome or unwelcome in church settings. Here are five pieces of wisdom that I have heard over the years about what it might look like to be a church that welcomes and shares power with younger people. Many of these also apply to welcoming anyone who is new to your congregation! Note: I’ve written these in the first person because most of them were once my own experience, but I am fully aware that many of them don’t apply to me anymore.
1) Offer me a ride
I know it sounds simple, but this is a big one. I didn’t have regular access to a car until I was 28, and living car free, as awesome as it was in so many ways, did make it challenging to participate in church events and leadership opportunities sometimes. Bus schedules are wonky on weekends, and lousy weather can make walking or biking complicated (especially when trying to transport a casserole for potluck). I am continually amazed at the dedication of young adults I talk to, who take hour long bus rides or epic bike rides in order to get to church on Sunday mornings. If you can, offer a ride! We might say no, sometimes we would rather find our own way, but please keep offering. It can be difficult as a car free person to ask for a ride, but knowing that transportation won’t be a barrier makes it a lot easier to invest fully in a new church.
2) Invite me to get involved, even if I’m new
In some church settings, “new people” means anyone who has started attending in the last 10 years, and only at that point are people trusted enough to be invited into leadership roles. From my own experiences and from what I have heard from young adults, the churches that feel most welcoming are the ones that extend meaningful opportunities for involvement early on. The word meaningful is important here. This doesn’t just mean inviting me to read scripture (though that might be a good start), but rather taking the time to really get to know me and find out what my particular gifts and passions are. I’m much more likely to show up at church on Sunday if I feel like I am needed and valued there.
3) Show me the same hospitality if I show up alone or with a partner.
Again and again I hear from young adults that they feel more welcomed at a new church when they show up with a partner as opposed to coming alone. I don’t know why this is the case, but my hunch is that it is tied into churches’ obsession with “young families.” Maybe the thought is that young couples are more likely to stick around and have the babies we need to fill our sunday school classes. As church people, we have to get over ourselves. All people are valuable, no matter what their relationship status on Facebook may be. If I show up at your church alone, making me feel welcome is extra important because it can be very awkward in those first few weeks when I don’t know who to sit with or who to chat with during coffee hour.
4) Make church events free or low cost
A great way to make your church a welcoming space for young adults and others on all parts of the socio-economic spectrum is to make events connected to your church free or at least low cost. While a handful of young adults in our community have high paying tech sector jobs, it’s no secret that many others are just getting by, piecing together part time contract work. As a church you can have fun finding creative ways to reduce financial barriers to your activities. For example, do you want to have a fundraising auction? Rather than auctioning off items to the highest monetary bidders, accept donations at the door, and then give everyone the same number of tokens to use for the evening, whether they contribute $1 or $1000.
5) Open your heart to me, even if I might not be here forever
Young people don’t stay put these days! This is a complaint I have heard in some church settings. And while it is a generalization (some of us feel a call to geographical rootedness at a young age), there is certainly truth behind this statement. Young adulthood can be a time of transience. But while this transience can make it tempting not to engage too deeply with the young adults who walk through the doors of your congregation, I dare you to do it anyways. Open up your lives to the 20 somethings who come to your church. Invest deeply in them, love them, and then launch them well on their way if the time comes for them to leave you. I know it can feel vulnerable to continually open up to new people, but remember that you are demonstrating the rich community that church can be, whether these folks stay with you for 4 months or 10 years. Maybe these folks will find their way back to you at another stage of life, or maybe not.
Either way, when you welcome fully everyone who walks through your door, you are showing them that church (whether your church specifically or a different church in whatever place they find themselves) is worth their time and investment.