One of my passions is how our faith communities welcome or don't welcome very well people who are under the age of forty this includes our children, youth, and young adults. Unitarian Universalist congregations along with the mainlines are getting older and older. The median age in a UU Congregation in 2008 was 52 up from 44 in 1990 (for more of this data see this report) There is lots of talk about how we keep our youth and young adults ... lots of talk and lip service but from what I can see not much change or action.
There are many ways we send the message to younger people that they are not welcome in our congregations. Some of these are quite explicit - families receive glares, looks or are even told that their children are making too much noise if the slightest sound comes forth from them. Sometimes they just get strange looks that their children are staying in worship instead of going off to whatever organized activity for them is going on. I have heard things said to children "worship is boring you don't want to be there." With statements like that is it any wonder that they don't want to be in worship later when they are deemed worthy or old enough to be in worship? If worship is so boring, why are we there?
Sometimes we say things to the whole congregation such as I know you don't want to be here and here is the list of all other things you could be doing. What we are really saying - particularly when we say things like this to children, youth or young adults is we really don't want you here; we really only want people like us. Sometimes we apologize if children or youth are hanging out while their parents attend a class or meeting, like the worst possible thing could be hanging out longer at congregations with other children and youth from the community. This is also a way we take our religious baggage and pass it on to the next generation - "I hated going to worship, or staying after a meeting etc. so all children and youth must hate that." I know it may be shocking but not all children and youth hate going to worship or to other events at our congregations but when we apologize or act surprised that they want to be there, that they enjoy it then we send the message that there must be something wrong with them. Again this is not showing empathy to the child (because usually no one asked the child how s/he felt about being there) it is about projecting one's own baggage onto the child and over time the result is that the person does not feel welcome or that they should want to be there.
It is also not such a great idea or very welcoming when people express concern that there are not many youth or young adults in worship to respond that young adults are not interested in what we offer and don't worry they will come back when they are older - when they have children (so they can teach in our education programs). Yet having been given the message earlier that worship is boring and they don't want to be there why would they come back? Also if they do come, they are often ignored. I still hear the words from the young adult at General Assembly back in 2006 when a young woman from the UUA Young Adult office addressed the assembly telling us that the only reason she was still a UU was because she worked at the UUA. She had tried going to the local UU Congregation near her college but they told her "she would make a good UU one day." She had attended a UU congregation her whole life. Young adults are not coming back. Numerous studies bear this out. Young people are walking out of their congregations and they are not coming back.
Another way we are not very welcoming is that for those families with young children that come to our congregations, we insist that they teach in our children's program. Many, thankfully not all, older adults feel like they have done their part. We see a young adult and we ask them to be a youth advisor. Within UU circles most of these people are new to Unitarian Universalism - not yet elders in the faith. Should not the job of passing on our heritage, passing on the faith, fall to those who are most grounded in it, most mature in it? Of course, it is also true that many of our young adults who have grown up participating in our religious education programming are the most mature Unitarian Universalists in our congregations.
Another way we are not very welcoming is when we pass judgement on the ways young people make community on-line or by despising the music, movies, books and television that they enjoy. Sometimes older people are not comfortable with technology or just can't imagine how true community can exist in social media. I have been in rooms where older adults have talked about how young people don't know how to be in person with each other or how disconnected they are from each other because they are on-line. Yet I have personally seen how young people care for each other on-line. I myself have offered pastoral care via chat. I have been able to reach out in real time to young adults who are having a hard time. I think an instructive article is the perspective of the young man who lived for an entire year without the internet. The message - relationships and community take work whether they are on-line or in person. Yet by passing judgement and rejecting social media - we lose younger people. No one likes to have their passions judged to be less than. Why should they come if they have to leave behind the things they love?
The reality is that younger people have discovered that they can have deep spiritual lives and community outside of traditional religions communities. They are voting with their feet. They don't believe they need what we have been offering. They are certainly not going out of their way to find it.
What is needed is a radical transformation of the congregational mindset and culture. We need to stop making assumptions and start asking questions. Our children and youth need to be in worship. They need to learn what it is to participate in what is the primary experience for most members and friends of our congregations. We need to be curious about what would happen if we changed what we are doing - what if we created a worship service outside of Sunday morning? What if we let go of hymn singing and brought popular music to worship? What if we mixed hymn singing, classical music and popular music together? We need to look at the gifts our youth and young adults have to offer and not insist that they do things the same way we have always done them. And don't you wonder if worship is so boring, so boring we tell our children they could not possibly want to be there, that maybe that says more about the worship itself then what our children will enjoy? We need to stop waiting for our young adults to come back to us and we need to reach out to them, create programs where they are gathering - in person, on-line, on campuses. We need to ask more questions, talk less and listen more.
I am encouraged by those who are also engaged in these questions. I am encouraged by young adults who are out forming their own in-person and on-line communities. I am inspired by UUs like Peter Bowden, Tandi Rogers, and Naomi King. I am encouraged by groups like Darkwood Brew, The Sanctuaries.
It is not that young people don't have spiritual questions and don't long for community - it is that they long to be welcomed, they long for a place where they can be themselves. In the end, isn't that what we all want? In the end, shouldn't that be what our faith communities are about - places where people of all ages and stages of faith, come together in a spirit of radical hospitality, to explore life together? I know that is what I long for.
As I enter this next phase of my life and career, I will be seeking out community. Since I am choosing not to continue a career in congregational life, I will be looking for or looking to form a community where I can explore with others questions of faith and spirituality. I want a place where my daughter will be encouraged in these questions as well. I am hopeful that we will find what we are looking for - even as I expect it won't be in the places where I have looked before.