Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Setting the Welcome Thermostat - Part 1

In 2007-2008, a First Congregational Church in Cambridge, Mass, (FCC) designed and implemented a church-wide program on Christian “faith practices” for all of its members, offering them the opportunity to explore the ways in which they were living out their faith through Christian practices such as hospitality, keeping Sabbath, and testimony. Building on this study, in 2008-2009 they initiated a second faith practices program focusing specifically on younger adults. They deployed seminarians toward the purpose of reaching out to the younger adults who had found their way, through various means, to the church. The seminarians each designed a program, implemented the plan, and then reported back to each other and church leaders about what they did and what they learned.

Here’s a summary of some of the issues that emerged through interviews with the program leaders and several of the participants. These tensions, surfaced by the interviews, give helpful food for thought to congregations that seek to engage younger adults.

Tension #1: Flexible, But With High Expectations

One of the basic questions one must ask when considering the faith lives of younger adults is who, exactly, is in this demographic category? In this case it was younger adults who had finished college but not necessarily put down roots. They saw their lives as transitory, not just because they had moved a lot (although they had), but because they had not yet made long-term commitments to a neighborhood, vocation, or in many cases a life partner. They all described the population into which they fall as one that is in flux and not yet peacefully ensconced in a way of life. They spoke of a sense of yearning for meaning and community that they thought they could find in a church. They described having arrived at what one might call a younger adult plateau, where “you’ve done all your ‘firsts’ and you feel a little settled and willing to grow.”

They also spoke of a sense of busyness that made conventional church participation difficult for them. The seminarian who created a program on parenting for younger adult parents bemoaned the fact that many potential participants simply could not make the time to participate. “It seemed to me that people were sincere in their desire, and yet the hurdles were also very real.” All involved agreed that some form of a “ladder” approach to program planning had been essential, where there were different levels of involvement from which participants could choose. Ultimately, program leaders concurred that they had to, as one put it, “be intentional about offering diverse ways of plugging in.”

The Alban Institute, by Sarah B. Drummond, May 2010