Young people are, by and large, missing from the church. This realization came one day when I opened my eyes and saw pews full of heads that were, with few exceptions, bald, gray, or slightly wrinkled. You may suggest, of course, that a percentage of those bald, wrinkled heads belonged to newborns, but you’d be mistaken. Very few babies attended church that day, and the yells and cries of those that did suggested that they were as surprised by the lack of young people as I was.
As a Christian young person myself, this revelation baffled me, and I felt it was my duty to communicate this oversight to the rest of my denomination. After several sincere attempts, I was told that churches were already aware of the declining population of churchgoing young people. Church leaders had also observed the gray heads and had produced reports that detailed the phenomenon’s evolution. Many expressed desires that young people attend church, and some even suggested that action should be taken. Thinking that perhaps these congregations simply did not know how to seek out and engage young people, I suggested that they do research and discover effective ways to fellowship with youth and young adults.
I was, once again, surprised by the Christians’ competency. These churchgoers already knew how to engage young people. They had written articles and preached sermons about effective practices, and they had created high-profile positions for specific youth: pedestals on which they placed hand-picked, well-groomed youngsters who offered advice on things that related directly (and only) to young people. Contrary to my initial thoughts, these Christians had been living the situation for the past few decades.
The lack of action amongst these congregations, however, continued to confuse me. They comprehended the situation, and they understood how to fix the problem. It was as though their good ideas were overshadowed by some unspoken rule. It took quite some time for my naïve mind to find the only logical conclusion: These churchgoers did not want young people in their churches.
I realized that perhaps these Christians were quietly trying to rid themselves of young people and simply did not know how to finish the job. Young people are, after all, opinionated and hormonal, and they tend to use copious amounts of technology. It is understandable why any person with an interest in routine and purity would want to exclude this obnoxious demographic. So, in a spirit of Christian solidarity, I decided to help these churches expel young people once and for all.
The following strategies should, if executed properly, help to permanently distance any young people from your church.
1) Bore young people with vague affection. Talk often about loving young people, but never let that love result in anything tangible. Occasionally, you may be tempted to verbally scorn young people and drive them from your halls with acolyte sticks and hymnals. Resist. Young people are resilient and stubborn, and antagonizing them may give them reason to advocate for change. Instead, pretend you love young people, and talk often about the excitement you feel when you see them on Sunday. But when they express needs or have ideas, ignore them.
2) Do not, under any circumstance, ask young people what they want. When asked what they want, young people often answer honestly. They don’t have the decency to hide desires behind fake smiles. If you ask what they want, they will expect you to give it to them. If young people are offered the worship and fellowship environments they want, they may flock to church. Better to restrict idea-giving to seniors.
3) Refit traditional services with guitars and muffins, but change nothing else. “Contemporary” services can be created as halfhearted gestures to young people. Offering sugary food and upbeat music without asking young people what types of food and music they prefer is like giving a friend a ride without asking where he wants to go.
4) Fill the church with references to past generations. Old paintings. Cross stich samplers. Dated jokes. Allusions to cancelled television programs. Sermon illustrations that involve outdated technology. A barrage of generation-specific references will drive away even the most devout young person.
5) Refuse to acknowledge today’s pop culture. Follow this rule: If you can’t say something bad, don’t say anything at all. Ignore Iron Man. Shun Sufjan Stevens. Avoid Apatow. Nix Nicki Minaj. Overlook online games. Forget Family Guy.
6) Use the phrase “does not condone” as much as possible. These words are nails on a chalkboard to most young people. If you must choose between “We advocate for” and “We do not condone,” pick the latter every time. Condemnation is the church’s youth repellent.
7) Whenever possible, remind young people that they are, indeed, young people. Sometimes youth must be reminded that they are not high on the Christian hierarchy. Mention how happy you are that someone of “their age” wants to be involved. Like dulling a work of art with camera flashes, overemphasizing a young person’s age can ruin her or his spark.
8) Be unapologetically nostalgic. Talk often about when things were better, the days when the birds sang and politicians had class. As we know, the circumstances in which young people are immersed offer nothing good. Speak nostalgically often enough, and young people will see the church for what it rightfully is—a time capsule.
These guidelines will help any church rid itself of young people. Feel free to share them with mission teams, book clubs, and church choirs. But please move quickly. If I’m going to leave the church someday, I’d rather leave now and give myself time to find a more welcoming community.
Ben Boruff, a senior at Indiana University, is a member of the United Methodist Church’s Connectional Table and served on the Call to Action Steering Committee. This article first appeared in the United Methodist Reporter.