(The following is part of an assignment for a course I am taking, called “Preaching as a Contextual Word”)
Souls in Transition: The Religious Lives of Emerging Adults is a fascinating study of our cultural context as experienced by emerging adults, focusing especially on ages 18-24. I certainly see many of the dynamics of ‘souls in transition’ in my context. Our congregation experiences the usual loss of youth after confirmation in regular Sunday worship. We have an active senior high small group ministry that we share with a three point parish to the north of us – later in the evening on Wednesdays, after confirmation, we have a senior high group that gets together and hangs out at someone’s home. It is a wonderful support/prayer group. The idea that many of those youth would by their own volition attend a Sunday morning worship service, with organ led hymns, sitting quietly listening to me preach, with a social time, with cheap coffee in a big fellowship hall afterward, is wishful thinking. They are out with their friends on Saturday night; Sunday morning is for sleeping in. The same goes for recent high school graduates. Our church is two blocks away from a community college. The total number of college students who regularly attend worship at our church: zero. We do not see young adults until they have Sunday school age children, and then we often do not see them in worship. Sometimes church members complain about parents who drop their children off for Sunday school but do not attend worship, but who is inviting them, and what do they experience when they do attend worship? Perhaps the very notion of worship attendance is part of the problem, as if worship is a requirement to endure.
Lately, I have been examining other congregations in our context – a Vineyard Church, as well as other Lutheran churches – as a way to see my congregation more clearly, and see what needs to change to reach out to emerging adults effectively. The goal is not to mimic other congregations, but to learn from them. I was struck by something a chaplain at a local nursing home said. A 90 year old woman told her excitedly that on her birthday, her grandchildren had taken her to “the young people’s church” – which turned out to be the local Vineyard congregation, a congregation that has recently outgrown their building and is meeting in the Community Center’s auditorium every Sunday. That got me thinking: no one, on attending our congregation, would call it “the young people’s church,” and I imagine the same could be said about many (most?) ELCA congregations. Why is that? When our congregation was founded, in 1964, it probably was the young people’s church of Detroit Lakes – certainly, when it began, the founding pastor recruited many young couples and families, many of whom still attend. The Vineyard Church has the same Sunday morning worship schedule as our congregation has for several years. What do they do that has worked so well to grow their congregation in a few years? Part of the answer is worship style and worship excellence. Instead of an organ, they have a band. Part of the answer is small groups: while our congregation has two functioning small groups, with an average age of about 75, the Vineyard has at least 19 small groups, led by couples or individuals of all ages. Part of the answer is an effective Celebrate Recovery ministry, which reaches out and ministers to the many people in our community who struggle with substance abuse. I do not mean to demean our congregation: we do some wonderful ministry with children and youth; we have a core of faithful disciples who do a lot of service to our community; we have grown steadily in the past four years, mostly with new, younger families joining the congregation. Also, there is no shame in being at a different stage of life than another congregation. And yet, for our congregation to thrive now and in the future, some changes must occur.
In terms of how this context affects my preaching, at this point I am very conscious of who is not with us in worship – emerging adults – and I lift up that absence. The congregation is aware of the ‘graying’ of our worshiping community; the question is what are we willing to change or give up to change that? How can we become, not “the young people’s church,” but a truly intergenerational congregation? How can we integrate the young people we do have in our congregation into the life of the church, including worship and small groups, more fully? How can we grow in the quality and relevance of worship, so that, when young people do attend, they want to return?
 Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious Lives of Emerging Adults, New York: Oxford, 2009.