The Secret to What Young Adults Want

By Annie Gonzalez Milliken

Julie Brock wrote this newsletter column for First Unitarian Society of Madison and shared it with us given how relevant it is to young adult ministry everywhere. Thanks Julie! by Julie Brock

Having young people in church is pretty great. Youth bring new energy, fresh perspective, and remind us that we are part of something larger than ourselves, that will be here when we aren’t anymore. I know a lot of young people who want to explore spirituality in community, and find the values and principles of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) tradition to be grounding and resonant to their own worldview. Yet it remains true that it is difficult to give young people what they need in order to find a place in our congregations? So why?

I’ll share a secret with you: young people don’t know what we want. I had a friend who tried to cobble together a survey of UU young adults from many different backgrounds, locations, and current "churched" or "unchurched" status, and he found, conclusively, that across the board…. young adults don’t know what we want. Or can’t specifically articulate it. We know we want community, the opportunity to explore spiritually and intellectually, the opportunity to do works of justice, and to feel included, but we can’t always articulate how to do those things; especially the last one. The last one is always the one that is the most tricky to pull off, and it’s the one that turns young folks away from congregations the most.

I’ve been involved in UU youth and young adult leadership for 18 years, at various levels from congregational to continental, staffing positions whose titles created acronyms that would make one’s head spin. In that time, I’ve seen the same story play out over and over again. Older adults want more young folks to participate, young folks want to feel included. Older adults reach out to young people and ask what they want. Young people try to articulate what they want. Their own worship, maybe? An adult education class just for them. A small group ministry for young adults. So the older adults say:

Sure! Have at it! Here is a room, maybe some money for meals, we’ll even put you in the newsletter, just plan it and write a blurb about what you’re doing.

And so for a while, the young people do. They plan their game nights, their educational activities and their worship time at the church. And the congregation feels good about the fact that young people are using the space, even though they aren’t particularly involved in other aspects of the church. And the young people feel like they are just doing what they do in each others’ basements, or at campgrounds, but in a church which has more logistical difficulties. So, they stop. So, they leave. Because they still don’t feel quite like they are part of the community.

I’ve seen another story play out too. The older adults want the young people to feel welcome, so the president of the board opens her home to have a young adult dinner. The membership director sees a lot of new young people. A room is scheduled. A newsletter blurb about Young Adult “spirits and spirituality” night is put in the newsletter and the minister shows up to lead spiritual discussion topics. People spend their time and energy on the young people. They don’t just ask them what they need and give them money for pizza, expecting that they will do it: they are of service.

The young people feel that they are wanted. Even if most of the congregation doesn’t look like them. Even if their social justice values are a little too radical for some of the older folk. They see themselves as part of a larger group of people who have thought about them, who want them to be there. The chair of the canvass committee notices that young adults can’t pledge as much and asks them to volunteer at canvass activities. The chair of the social justice committee sees that they are enthusiastic and seeks out their ideas as a for a fresh perspective. The young people form community; not just with themselves, but with the wider church.

It’s about service. If you want to have a healthy active group of young people, you have to be of service to them and allow them to be of service to you. You have to allow that their talent and treasure may not be monetary… yet, but their energy and perspective are invaluable for the life of the church now. We, as people of faith, we feel our prophetic destiny fulfilled when we are of service to one another. This is true for people of every age. Be of service to the young people, allow them to offer what they can, and watch your church fill with intergenerational goodness. Just don’t give them a survey, asking what they want.

Julie Brock is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist (UU) from Detroit, Michigan. She is preparing for UU ministry with the goal of creating inclusive beloved community. Julie has particular interest Urban ministry and multi-generational ministry. She is currently the intern minister at First Unitarian Society of Madison.