Our Charge: Know and Serve Young Adults

October 23rd, 2013

A friend of mine invited me to go fishing with him. I’m not a fisherman. In an effort to show that I was not clueless, I bought my own equipment. My friend used crickets and worms as bait; I used French fries. The reason I used French fries is because I love French fries. At the end of the day my friend had caught a bunch of fish. I’d caught none. I asked him, “Why did you catch so many while I caught none?” He replied, “Because you were using bait that you like and I was using bait that they like.”

The North American church has a problem when it comes to reaching the young adults who are missing from our congregations. We want to use the bait that we like instead of methods and practices that speak directly to them. Young adults get bored when staying in one place for too long. They have grown up in a world where things are constantly changing, where technology is advancing daily. A new Apple product comes out, and people stand in line to be among the first to have it. Most of our congregations, on the other hand, find a worship style and way of operating that they like, and they want to stay right there. In the church, we do not want change. When young adults encounter our change resistance, their relationship with us is short-lived.

But consider this for a moment: The young adult culture of upgrade and change is a natural fit for the pastor. Pastors must look for and lead their congregations to the next pasture, where the sheep can be fed and satisfied spiritually. We may find ourselves feeling unstable in this strange and ever-changing culture. But as pastors we should also see the opportunities inherent in this new world and be inspired. The pastor’s task is all about upgrade and change.

The story of King Kong was first made into a movie in 1933. The film-makers used clay animation to create the great ape. In 1976 the classic film was re-made, but this time the filmmakers brought the story to life with trick cinematography and a robotic King Kong. King Kong appeared on screen again in 2005. This time, rather than using old methods, the filmmakers created a digital King Kong. This Kong looks much more lifelike than his predecessors.

Each King Kong was created using the technology and tools that were available at the time. Had the 1976 film used clay animation like in the original, it would not have done well. Had the 2005 film used the technology of the 1976 film, it would have been a box office flop. Each filmmaker told the story of King Kong in a way that spoke to that particular generation. The story itself remained the same, but the way it was told was new each time.

Sharing the gospel in new ways doesn’t mean changing the gospel or watering it down. It does mean that our methods must be different. As pastors, we must understand the people we are aiming to reach. We must determine how they are most likely to be reached. We must adapt our old methods and adopt new ones. My first ministry appointment was a predominately older white congregation in the center of a predominately black neighborhood with young families. By the time I arrived, the community already had a negative perception of the congregation, and it was very difficult to shift that perception. The church clung to old models of ministry while the world around it had changed drastically. We so often fail to adapt to changing times, misguidedly hoping to reach twenty-first-century people using twentieth-century methods.

When we invite into worship young adults who did not grow up in the church—which increasingly is most of them—it is like a blind date. Christian scriptures and church culture are strange to most young people today, just as the gospel message was strange to the Gentiles when Paul shared it centuries ago. Our congregations don’t appear to know a lot about young adults, and young adults don’t know a lot about the church. We use words they are not familiar with, like narthex, doxology, communion, and sanctification. United Methodists use acronyms that mean nothing to our guests, like UMM, VBS, UMW, UMYF, and GBOD. We assume that our listeners know this strange language, our customs, and the stories from our scriptures.

Pastors, we must live into our biblical job description. That is to lead the sheep within our reach to nourishing green pastures. We must always be looking for ways to bring along new sheep, to expand the ministry. We must attend to the tasks inherent in the true role of pastor. We must prioritize our own spiritual lives. We must remain focused on our mission. We must “own” our role as risk-taking leaders. And we must teach, equip, and encourage our congregations to see their pastors in a new light.

There are sheep outside our church walls, and they are looking for meaning and purpose in life. We are meant to lead them there, to discover the sustenance of new pastures together. Are we ready to change our bait, to live into our true roles as pastors, to forge a way into this uncharted territory?

Dr. Cleaver's book Pastor on Track: Avert Crisis and Claim Your True Role will be published in the spring of 2014 by Abingdon Press.

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