By Rev. Allie McDougall
It’s not a secret that Anglicans have a demographic issue. It’s practically all we talk about – aging congregations, decline in numbers, the lack of people under the age of 65 in our pews are all top of mind for our parishes.
“Young people” have become a hot commodity and nearly every parish I’ve encountered is concerned with attracting and retaining them, at least in theory. To institutional Anglican thinking, “young people” represent growth, new ideas, and refreshment in the life and activities of our churches. Age diversity is an important factor in any healthy, flourishing congregation and an admirable endeavour for the evangelism-minded parish. But to accurately discuss and strategize outreach to “young people”, we must decide who is young. I have used quotations around the term to this point because we are not in agreement about what constitutes youth in our aging Anglican context.
It has been my observation that in practice, we categorize anyone born after the Baby Boomer generation (i.e. after 1964) as “young”. I would suggest that this is caused by the concentration of Baby Boomers in our demographic makeup and the stagnation of our understanding of youth culture beyond the experiences of the children of said group.
Considering socioeconomic factors that have impacted the transition into adulthood and the concentration of older people in our churches, I suggest that we define “young people” as those between the ages of 18 and 40. Of course there is a chasm of experience within this age range, but that conversation is for another edition of Field Notes. Having specified who we mean when we’re talking about young people, let’s examine what can be said about their spiritual needs and community interests.
The following three observation are anecdotal but based in my experiences doing campus and young adult ministry and as a 28-year-old priest who was once a new convert.
Young people are not a monolith.
There is no silver bullet solution to building effective outreach to young people because those under 40 are not reducible to any particular lifestyle or discrete set of traits. We cannot begin to assume what they seek from churches apart from actually knowing and asking the young people in our immediate parish contexts. It’s time to let go of statements like: “The young people want praise bands and light shows.” Sure, some of them do. But others want hymnody and the Book of Common Prayer. And others still want Eucharistic adoration and incense. Anglican spirituality and churchmanship are diverse, and that diversity is our strength.
Young people crave authenticity and connection.
In my experience, when young people are drawn into Anglican churches of any style it is because the community has a clearly defined identity and sense of mission. Churches that can articulate what they believe about Jesus Christ, why they believe it, and how their mission reflects their stated values will have greater success, especially for those who have limited exposure to Christianity. This type of transparency is hard to come by elsewhere.
The permeation of digital culture into everyday life means that young people are immersed in the online world in a way that creates detachment from that which is physical and material. Not only are young people feeling alienated from the real world, but the digital spaces that they occupy are bent on hijacking their attention as a lucrative revenue stream.
Consequently, young people are very good at sensing when they are being pandered to, when someone is trying to sell them something. We must worry less about being attractive to whoever our ideal young person is and focus instead on the strength and integrity of our faith communities. Authentic connection with real human beings in a physical space that is governed by common values is hard to find for young people but is also the thing that churches can offer among a dearth of options.
Young people care about old people.
No really, they do! Intergenerational connectivity matters to young people as the atomization of generational cohorts has become more explicit in the public discourse. The opportunity to form meaningful relationships with others who are in a different, more seasoned life stage is refreshing for those who are caught up in the finger pointing and blame oozing from the Boomer vs. Gen X vs. Millennial vs. Gen Z wars. Not only is intergenerational ministry a leading indicator of parish health, but it presents an opportunity for the generations to break down artificial barriers, develop deeper love and compassion, and diversify lay and clerical leadership.
These observations are in no way exhaustive or authoritative. Effective outreach to young people can only take place when congregations take a good long look at their context and determine for themselves who the young people in their parish orbit and neighbourhood are, ask them what they want, and most importantly, be prepared to listen.
Rev. Allie McDougall is the Assistant Curate of St. Paul's and St. Stephen's Stratford.