By Rev. Dr. William D. Gibson
Most of us desire a sense of belonging and purpose in the world. And during difficult seasons, such as our current political climate, we long for safe spaces to find hope. This season presents a unique opportunity for the church.
Many, if not all, church leaders and laity I encounter across our church hold a common thread: A large majority would love to have more young people in their churches. But does our corporate desire translate to creating space within our church families for these long-lost siblings?
Successful new church planters know this, but it never hurts to raise these topics, especially if you are serving an established church and have hopes of engaging new people. Anytime we take steps toward new ways to reach new people, we must recognize and test our assumptions (our personal narrative about those outside the church and why they remain). How? Through deep listening.
Intentional, deep listening demands that you step outside of the physical walls of church and engage with people who are not engaged with you. I’m not referring to the not-so-regular fringe people. I’m speaking of those you know who are not finding church as a valid option for their lives. These are the “nones” and “dones” of our communities (the “religiously unaffiliated”), representing 60% of the population in the Northwest. If you truly want to know why someone is not engaged, then ask them. And be prepared to hear stinging responses and, in some instances, an eagerness to debate the validity of the church altogether.
Growth in a community of faith (spiritually and numerically) demands a willingness to change in response to what is learned in the greater communities and neighborhoods. More often than not, we target people groups (e.g., youth and young adults [millennials], the unchurched and disconnected, the marginalized) without pausing to consider that these groups are made up of real people. Most of these folks desire the same things you and I long for: peace, joy, purpose, happiness, a sense of belonging, and safety.
How are you testing your assumptions? How are you having real conversations with people who you know are not interested in (and sometimes offended by) Christian community? What are you learning about yourself and your church through this kind of deep listening? What are you learning about relationship?
Yes, creating space for those who are not present demands strategic change. But there are also reinforcing and visible ways this space is fostered within the walls of the church.
“If you hope to engage new people, you have to be willing to do the difficult work of creating space for them…”
Separate from an actual experience of joy and life in worship (another topic entirely), if your church leaders do not reflect the age and diversity of those you hope to create new connection with (especially young people), your chances of maintaining a relationship after an initial visit are very slim. When folks cannot see themselves in roles of leadership (e.g., worship, administrative, spiritual formation), they are unable to identify a way toward similar opportunities. The assumption then is that their voices, gifts, and passion have no place.
In my last new church project, and as our community of faith grew, I was very intentional about the people in leadership. Our average age was 32 years, which was encouraged by having younger people in visible leadership roles. This did not mean that our Generation X and baby boomers were not valued. To the contrary, those folks also held key leadership roles, set examples, and acted as mentors to younger leaders.
Lee Kricher wrote a great article for Leading Ideas, in which he talked about this through his 75 percent rule. Check out the article here: “The 75 Percent Rule to Reach Younger People.”
The bottom line is that if you hope to engage new people, you have to be willing to do the difficult work of creating space for them — space to lead, ask questions, be creative, be stretched, and find hope. This challenging work causes us to drop our long-repeated narratives, engage in deep listening, patiently build meaningful relationships, and provide opportunities to engage beyond superficial interaction.
If we want our communities of faith to become inclusive, diverse, multigenerational, thriving places, we must reflect what we hope to be. What are you willing to stop doing in order to start creating space for those who are missing in your places?
Bill Gibson is a cultural analyst, storyteller, semiotician, and theological entrepreneur, working as the Director of Strategic Faith Community Development for the Greater Northwest Area of The United Methodist Church, the largest geographic episcopal area in the United States.