“There aren’t any young adults!”
Or occasionally, if the person is feeling more optimistic, it’s framed as a question: “Where are the young adults?”
Either way, it’s the same sentiment: “I don’t see young people in my pew; they aren’t in the ELCA anymore.”
As program director for ELCA Young Adult Ministry, I often hear these refrains—cries, pleas of frustration and lament—as I travel to meet with folks around the ELCA. They express their fear that the church they love is dying. They mourn the absence of a generation they don’t see.
To my ears, their laments ring with the cry of Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord?” How long will it feel as if our church is dying? How long will we have “sorrow in our hearts” because we don’t see young people in our congregations?
My two responses to them are simple.
The first: “Look around.”
The author of Psalm 13, after offering lament, goes on to pray, “Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death.”
Have we looked around lately, friends? I mean, really looked? If we did, we might see that God is giving light to our eyes. Let us not sleep in the “death of the church,” because young adults are showing up all over the ELCA—young adults are alive in the church!
As a matter of fact, every year some 3,500 young adults offer their entire summer to serve on staff with Lutheran Outdoor Ministries and hundreds of young adults serve full-time with the Lutheran LIFE in Service Network (through Lutheran Volunteer Corps, Urban Servant Corps and ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission). Thousands of young adults participate in vibrant Lutheran campus ministries at their colleges and universities, thousands attend ELCA colleges/universities and thousands more volunteer at the ELCA Youth Gathering. This summer a hundred young adults will attend the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, even more will represent their churches at synod assemblies and the list stretches on.
Last fall, ELCA Young Adult Ministries worked in partnership with the ELCA seminaries and other networks to put on the first ELCA Young Adult Discernment Retreat—a weekend of worship, fellowship and discernment for folks 18-30. We first opened it up to 50 people, and the event filled within hours. We opened it up to 80, and the additional 30 spots filled in a day. Within a few days we had a waiting list of hundreds of young people eager to spend their weekend with the church. Now, just a few months later, seven synods have already planned or hosted their own young adult discernment retreats, engaging hundreds more young adults in every corner of the ELCA.
So look around, church. Young adults are here.
We are alive in the ELCA, and we want to be part of vibrant, creative, flexible ministries that give us opportunities for leadership—like the ministries I mentioned above.
Once we look around and see the gifts and energy young adults are bringing to our church, then the second challenge I offer those who lament is the same challenge that I think Psalm 13 offers us: “Listen up.”
If we, like the author of Psalm 13, ask God for an answer, we must be ready to listen.
How are you listening to the young people in your community? Not just in the pews but also in your community.
How often do our bishops set meetings to listen to young people? How often do our pastors and congregational councils? Are young people invited to be on your council and at your synod assembly? To take synod trips abroad? Are we, as a church, ready to change the way we structure these meetings, to accommodate the struggles (temporal and financial) of young adults? Do we connect with the places in our church where young people are deeply connected—Lutheran Outdoor Ministries, campus ministry, ELCA colleges/universities, Lutheran Volunteer Corps, ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission, ELCA Advocacy—and ask young people for their stories? Their leadership?
This Living Lutheran series is an opportunity for just that. It is a chance for us as a church to look around and listen up to the stories of young adults who are alive in the church! I hope these stories will give you hope, illuminating where God is alive and at work in and through ELCA Young Adults.
Over the course of this series, I also challenge you to seek out young people in your context and listen to them. Get to know them. Ask what they’re hungry for in a church community and what spiritual experiences have been meaningful to them.
At the end of Psalm 13, the psalmist writes: “But I trust in your unfailing love … I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.” We are called to look for and listen to young people in our own context. We are called to trust that God is alive and making a way forward for our church through leaders of all ages—including young adults.