[The following post is a compilation of feedback from younger Anabaptist adults in Virginia. A version first appeared in the July edition of Connections, a monthly joint publication of Virginia Mennonite Conference and Missions (VMC & VMM)]
Eight million missing young people. Graduates walking out the door and never returning. Recent studies show that more than 50% of youth who were active in church during their high school years are not returning after graduation. Many churches, including many Virginia Mennonite Conference (VMC) congregations have noticed this dramatic disappearance of younger participants and scrambled to figure out the reasons: Where are all the young adults? A slew of books, articles (and blogs and YouTube videos) have emerged attempting to name why such large proportions of those in early adulthood have left church. Some exhibit sky-is-falling alarmism. Others are calmer but highly critical of the departing generations, wider society or the church itself.
Yet in the meta-crisis of a rapidly aging church it is frequently missed that not all so-called young adults have actually flown the coop. And not many have asked the spring chickens still active why they are, in fact, sticking with church.
Sarah Bixler, VMC’s Conference Coordinator and a younger adult herself, wanted to know more about these counter-trend younger folks still participating in Virginia Mennonite Conference congregations. What keeps them involved? What do they really think about church? What do they love and what do they wish were different about their Christian communities? Over the past several months, Bixler and various local contacts in a few Virginia districts invited younger members to evenings of conversation and connection. Through emails and gatherings near Newport News, Harrisonburg and Waynesboro, Virginia church members in their 20s and 30s responded with their deep loves, longings and commitments.
What did they say? Church experienced as a family of belonging and support emerged as a commonly binding love. Church is deeply loved as a place of belonging, a place to fit in (even when a person is broken or different), a place to be genuinely wanted as family members in a nurturing community emphasizing diverse relationships of friendship and unity.
These members also deeply love church as a place to join God’s kingdom where the Spirit is encountered tangibly changing the world through the Spirit and through loving people. That Christ’s powerful reign can be witnessed and joined through congregations’ loving service and worship life is a potent attraction.
Yet these younger participants who love and remain connected to congregations also carry poignant longings for what the church could yet be. Desire for church with greater openness resounded above a host of others named. They express deep longing for church to be a place of vulnerability and transparency where all are welcomed as they are (questions, brokenness and difference included) to find a safe place of healing. They hope for even greater and more open opportunities to 1) fully belong in an age-diverse community, 2) participate broadly as integral members, 3) connections to diverse others around the Mennonite Church and wider global church and 4) these respondents particularly desire supportive mentorship from other members of the faith community.
These adults also long for a church celebrating God’s all-of-life mission in the community, being a discipleship body responding to movements of God’s missional Spirit all week long, reaching out from the church into the whole neighborhood.
The full onus for change was not simply passed off on the wider church, though. Participants owned responsibility for helping the church be what Christ is calling it to. These deep commitments include “modeling what we long for, not simply calling others to do our work” and “acknowledging the temptation to get so wrapped up in over-full life activities and commitments, we will put the faith community first.”
Despite the wider societal trends and legitimate reasons for losing hope for God’s church, these younger adult participants are saying no to apathy and despair. They offer both solemn challenge and grounds for celebration.