Synergy's Charge to General Assembly 2023

In this charge to the gathered congregation of the UUA's General Assembly 2023, Shannon Harper—the Co-Director of Lifespan Faith Engagement—calls on us to re-examine our narratives about and engagement with young people. 

Watch the Synergy Bridging Service in its entirety.

The Young Adults Are Here

Congratulations to this year’s bridgers!

I’m just curious. Out there, how many of you, no matter how old you are now, considered yourself a UU when you were this age, roughly 18? Make yourself known.

I ask this question because there is a pervasive narrative out there that Unitarian Universalism is losing young people. They are bridging and then making decisions about their life and how they will spend their time that do not include going to church on Sunday morning or attending committee meetings at the end of a busy day. That narrative, is not wrong. I’m sure every person who made themselves known can count off the friends who are no longer with us, some of them having left in heartbreak. Some of them feeling like they had no other choice. But most just drifted away.

You know what that narrative reminds me of? It reminds me of another prevalent narrative I still hear. “We are a predominantly white denomination.” That narrative is also true. And yet that is not all we are. It’s not all we aspire to be. If we are still becoming then we can wrestle with that narrative while also acknowledging and lifting up every member of the global majority who has ever found a home in Unitarian Universalism and every contribution we’ve made.

Friends. The stories we tell ourselves ABOUT ourselves matter. They tell us what we’re focused on, what we are working to make into reality.

And it is also both true that our young people are leaving and I believe they would really like a reason to stay. In your mourning the loss of those you do not see - and yes! That is a tragedy worth mourning! But in that mourning, do not erase those who are still here. And when I say “here” of course I’m not just talking about General Assembly, the most expensive, time consuming, privileged way we can engage with our faith. Let me tell you, the young adults who are HERE, right now in this assembly hall, are DEDICATED. But I’m also talking about young adults who are attending your Sunday services, maybe only once a month because that’s all they can get off from work. Or the young adult who is volunteering in RE because it’s where they feel most comfortable. I’m talking about the young adults who organize, who volunteer, who start campus ministry programs, and LGBTQIA+ support groups, who gather with other BIPoC YAs, join multi-generational trans and non-binary communities or join young child parent play groups. WE SEE YOU. Out here doing the best you can to stay connected.

But if we are going to be a faith that lives into our covenant with young people we can’t JUST acknowledge them, we must LISTEN as well. I’ll tell you a secret. One I learned from my own young adult children. There’s nothing a raised UU young adult dislikes more than being discounted or considered “new” to our faith. They KNOW things. And while us older folks are wringing our hands about “how we’re going to retain younger membership in our congregations and what’s going to become of UUism if we all die out,” our young people are full of wisdom, waiting for someone to recognize them as the experts they are. The experts we need on engaging young people.

Now this is not a charge to go grab the first YA you find and bombard them with questions about how to get more young people to come to church or to stay in church. First of all that’s just rude. But also, that’s not the right question. It’s not even the right goal. We need to be meeting young people where they are and when we welcome them in, it needs to be ALL of them, their whole selves. It means they may not fit into neat membership boxes, and that’s okay!

If you pay attention you’ll notice there are young UUs telling you about the world they want to live in, the way they believe Unitarian Universalists could, and should, live our values out loud. Do not discount them, engage them.

So here is my charge to you: Build genuine relationships, listen to their prophetic voices, if what they are saying makes you uncomfortable, don’t turn away. Examine that, be curious about it. Unitarian Universalism has formed these young people, now allow them to reflect back to you what they have learned. Allow yourself and our faith to be changed by this reflection. This is how a religion stays relevant. This is how we faithfully become.