How Do We Attract Young People to Church?

You can start by knowing that that’s the wrong question.

Yes, that is the wrong question. It presupposes that the church is “in here,” that young people (whoever they are and whatever that means) are “out there.” Who is the “we” asking the question? Presumably, old people at church. “We” don’t really like young people, other than a few that we’re related to, and even then in small doses, because who can understand them, kids these days, but we’re facing our mortality and all the clergy say that we need young people or the church will die out so (sigh) here we go. Let’s put the word “cool” in the mailed out newsletter and add another guitar at Mass. That’s what kids like, right?

Let me propose a different beginning: consider that you probably already have “young people” in the pews. You may not notice, because that single woman in the back creeps out so quietly after the last hymn, but she’s there. The young couple with the baby that screamed during the consecration until someone shot enough dirty looks in their direction – they got the memo. The college students that get really preoccupied during the offertory because they spent their last cent on textbooks, yes, those are the ones that always leave during holidays. The awkward young man at Christian Ed who wanted to talk theology, not knowing this wasn’t the done thing, just let the leader finish the talk so we can get coffee in the fellowship hall, he was there. They were all there one Sunday, maybe two, maybe they asked a bunch of questions about possible service opportunities and classes, but their faces went blank when we told them about the women’s Bible study that meets every Tuesday at 10 a.m. I wonder why we never saw those nice young people again?

Here are a few questions I’d propose:

1. What do you mean by “young”?

Do you mean anyone below 50? (I’m looking at you, Episcopalians). Do you mean “young white middle-class couple with small children?” Do you mean “college and career” – a nebulous phrase that includes freshmen putting marshmallows in the microwave and 30 year old singles with 401Ks – or did you have high school students in mind?

Since I’m not in an amiable mood, I’d guess that you’re expecting this:

young couple

Not this:

This photo was taken on Broadway, between 61st and 62nd Street. The picture speaks for itself... *************** This set of photos is based on a very simple concept: walk every block of Manhattan with a camera, and see what happens. To avoid missing anything, walk both sides of the street. That's all there is to it … Of course, if you wanted to be more ambitious, you could also walk the streets of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx. But that's more than I'm willing to commit to at this point, and I'll leave the remaining boroughs of New York City to other, more adventurous photographers. Oh, actually, there's one more small detail: leave the photos alone for a month -- unedited, untouched, and unviewed. By the time I actually focus on the first of these

2. Why do you want young people to come to church?

Is it simply because otherwise the church will die out? Is it concern for their souls? Is it because you think the church has something good to offer? Is it because young people have something good to offer?

3. All of which culminates in a final question:

What do you mean by “church”? Are you sure that you’re in it, and that young people aren’t? What is the church’s purpose? Why do we even do this crazy thing where we dress up and go to a building on Sunday morning and sing songs and listen to a sermon and take bread and wine? Does it make you feel good because you did it, and your parents did it, and everyone respectable in town use to do it?

Does it scare you that it’s no longer mandatory in polite American society? If so, what do you fear? What would be lost if we lost the church – whatever that is?

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