Do older people really want young people in church?
The surprising truth about intergenerational congregations
Photo by: Paolo Giancristofaro
Lately we have been sharing about our work at the Fuller Youth Institute over the past few years studying churches growing young—remarkable bright spots in the midst of a gloomy national church landscape.
Yes, these are churches young people are loving—not leaving.
But if you tend to be a skeptic like me (I like to think of myself as a hyper-realist), this may be raising all kinds of questions for you.
Some of the questions we often hear include:
“What about the senior adults in these churches?”
“Do older adults get left out when churches focus on young people?
“Do old people really want younger people in the church?”
Over the past decade through our Sticky Faith work we have learned a lot about intergenerational ministry and the importance of adult relationships in the lives of teenagers and emerging adults. So it’s not surprising that we wanted to explore what these relationships look like in congregations engaging young people well.
In particular, we wondered what older adults think about young people, especially those ages 15-29 (the focus of our project).
What we heard was inspiring. On the whole, senior adults enthusiastically support the ways their churches are prioritizing young people.
One adult interviewee put it like this:
I guess I really enjoy the young people who attend our church because I feel like they bring a sort of energy around them. I just love the way they’re so passionate about things. I think that it’s contagious to people around them, and it becomes a great benefit to everyone that attends our church. I think visitors can feel it as well. The other thing I appreciate is that young people have a lot of great ideas. I feel like they’re able to give us new, young, innovative ideas.
How does a church make young people a priority without excluding others?
We asked this question at First United Methodist in Tulsa, Oklahoma. From leaders and young people alike, we learned that when big decisions are made about dedicating more funding, staff, or space to young people, these changes are made by multiple generations who share a common commitment to teenagers and emerging adults.
In our discussion with a group of high school students in Tulsa, we asked why the senior adults in their church care about them so much that they are willing to make changes to welcome them. They replied, “The older people see that we want to be here, so they want us to be here.”
Here In Tulsa and in other congregations, there was a mutual respect and mutual need that permeated conversations with young and old alike. Adults weren’t forced to focus on young people; they chose to do so.
Discovering the benefits
Churches that are growing young prioritize young people not just for the sake of making young people happy, but because the whole church benefits. One pastor of over 40 years put it like this: “Everybody rises when you focus on children and teens.”
Adults in another church reflected, “Young people are like salt. When they’re included, they make everything taste better.”
It may be time to evaluate your congregation’s language about young people.
Sometimes young people are seen as problems to solve rather than potential to be developed. Overwhelmingly, leaders in churches growing young talk instead about the life young people bring to their congregation.
Vocabulary like vitality, possibility, investment, and energy help them frame conversations about ministry, resourcing, and even potential dilemmas differently.
At your next ministry leadership meeting, ask for the first words or phrases that come to mind when members think about young people. List these on a white board, and talk about how these words and images might be shaping your responses.
Let’s start a new conversation about young people and the church.