Yesterday Murfreesboro UMC started youth group meetings again. It has been a long time since this church has enjoyed youth group, and the meeting was both a joy and also a sign of possibility. Youth who are coming into adolescence all the way through those who have just graduated from college for the first time are known as “Generation Z” to sociologists. Unlike my generation, the Millennials, who are 75 to 80% unchurched (calling ourselves “spiritual, but not religious”), the next age cohort is turning out to be about 95% unchurched in adulthood.
We can search high and low for reasons about why this is. Here are three I see often:
1, The church as a dominant force in American life has died, bringing to end what church historians call the era of Constantinian Christianity, which began when Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity in 326 AD.
2, we can look at the Church’s racial dilemma, that the church in America was strengthen as a white institution, over against Africans and indigenous people, and now, as we are looking at a “majority minority” future in America, the church is grappling with its racial identity.
3, The Church has often been the tail lights of society and not the headlights, going where the rest of culture has led us (which is the end result when the church gets married to the dominant culture). Now, a lot of young people see the church as holding society back (the main reason why my age group left the church and became, “none’s” on religious surveys is that we wanted to change the world and didn’t see the Church as a way to do that).
In the Church I have seen how youth groups grow and shrink, like the changing of the tides of the ocean. People will have children who grow up, and the youth group will be big, and that will attract other people, and then it will shrink. In Ahoskie UMC we had a beautiful youth group three years ago, and even had a band of youth who played worship on Sunday mornings. But after they all graduated, the youth group went on to become adults.
Murfreesboro UMC had been several years without a youth group, and many of the former youth are now my age, in their 30s, living hours away from here. And yet, they now have a small youth group, comprised half of members from the Spanish worship service and half from members of the English service, all under the umbrella of the same congregation. In my head I’m calling it a “Grupo de Youth,” instead of a “Youth Group” or the Spanish, “Grupo de Jovenes.” It’s a reminder that, even within one congregation, we can create new things if we come together.
Turning my head back and forth, I see the buildings and campuses of these two historic churches in Ahoskie and Murfreesboro. They are about fifteen miles apart, and I cannot help but think how the disciples of Jesus would always be stronger together, whatever, “together” means. In the past, each church did its own thing and reaped its own benefits or suffered its own losses.
With the decline of the traditional church, we are learning that Jesus did not promise us freedom from suffering but to be with us in the midst of the suffering. I wonder what it would be like to hold both the sufferings and the possibilities of the youth group as well as the adult group. I wonder what it would look like for us to reimagine a future in which we focused more on being strong together than as individuals.
As I begin leading youth group, I think about the strong youth leaders on the other side of the county, and wonder what cooperation would look like between these two Methodist churches I serve, within youth group and every other part of our life. Next week I am going to start a small group Bible Study at Ahoskie UMC, because the interest has been much stronger there than in Murfreesboro.
What if we leaned on each other, in the areas of strength that each other has, instead of struggling in our own silos? We are stronger together, but if we are going to focus on the idea of being together, we need to get past the idea that we are individual groups. I don’t know how to do that. But for the sake of giving our next generation the best we have, I’m going to try. Let’s make it a group effort!