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Youth outreach challenges ageism in church

Maribeth Russell (left) and Anna Azarjew hug following worship in the Vineyard, the youth-led contemporary service at Collierville (Tenn.) United Methodist Church. A UMNS photo by Linda Green.

By Linda Green*
June 26, 2009 | COLLIERVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

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Youth in The United Methodist Church.
A UMNS graph based on data from the Lewis Center for Church Leadership.

Dozens of teens and young adults in T-shirts, shorts, sandals, sundresses and flip-flops slowly fill the darkened gymnasium that is their Sunday morning sanctuary.

A young woman is the lead singer in a band that performs praise songs. Worshippers seated on cushioned, folding chairs or across the bleachers sing the words projected on a screen in front of them.

Young people at the Vineyard greet church members, read the Scripture, deliver the sermon and take up the collection. And that’s the way they like it.

As The United Methodist Church, like other mainline denominations, seeks ways to keep its youth, the casual dress, contemporary music and opportunities for leadership at the Sunday service at Collierville United Methodist Church just east of Memphis may provide some answers.

“There is no ageism here,” says Sarah Woodard, 17. “All have equal opportunity to be a leader.”

Reaching youth

The church’s task in reaching young people has changed dramatically in recent generations, according to many sociologists and youth ministry leaders. Youth and young adults in general today view religion more as a choice than a requirement. In choosing among myriad opportunities available to them, young people seek to be meaningful participants rather than passive consumers of religious experiences, experts say.

Sarah Woodard

The aging of many denominations indicates churches have been slow to adjust.

Half of active participants in The United Methodist Church are older than 50, according to a 2008 Congregational Leadership Survey from the United Methodist Council of Finance and Administration. The average age of United Methodists is 57.

Anne Michel, associate director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership in Washington, says church school attendance for youth in The United Methodist Church declined from 571,794 in 1985 to 420,423 in 2005.

The proportion of youth in the church declined from one in seven members in 1964 to one in 21 in 2005, according to Path One, the strategy team on new congregational development coordinated by the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

“Ageism” is not only directed at older church members, according to the Rev. Valerie Robideaux, 27. It can affect young people too, she says, speaking at the recent United Methodist Student Forum at United Methodist-related Centenary College in Shreveport, La. The gathering brings together college students and ministry leaders.

"Many of us have longed to be given the opportunity to put our vision into place in our local churches. Sometimes, it feels like there is a glass ceiling when trying to acquire positions of church leadership," says Robideaux, theological studies coordinator for Centenary's Christian Leadership Center.

Joyce Wickstrom, a student at Armstrong Atlantic State University and a member of Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church in Savannah, Ga., says local churches need to be intentional about including young adults in church leadership.

But change is not going to come easily.

Challenges ahead

Active Participants by Age Group. A UMNS graph courtesy of the United Methodist General Council on Finance and Administration.

Multiple challenges, from the fear of change among older leaders to the difficulty young people have in navigating “the system,” confront youth and young adults seeking to be involved in church leadership, says Mike Ratliff, executive director of the United Methodist Division on Ministries with Young People.

“Current leaders can see this desire of young people as a threat to their own leadership, and they sometimes question the ability of young people to lead, citing lack of experience,” he says.

Older and younger leaders seeking to respond to God’s call in their lives need to invest time and energy in building relationships, Ratliff says.

“The experience of established leaders as well as the ‘new eyes’ of young leaders has the potential to create passion for a new day in our churches and in the church. We are in a time of great opportunity where the gifts and resources of our young people have the potential to rejuvenate and invigorate the church. I hope that we are able to embrace the gift that our young people offer,” he says.

Battling ageism

From its Vineyard service to church governance to several opportunities for mission and service, Collierville United Methodist Church attempts to include young people in all of the ministries, worship and committees of the church. The youth hold leadership positions in the church and on the district and annual conference levels.

Kristofer Roof

“The youth ministry program here at Collierville is not typical of youth ministry across the denomination,” says Kristofer Roof, 24, the director of young adult ministries. “Adults, the pastors and those who support the youth really encourage them to step up and take more leadership roles ... and we do more than other churches typically do.”

Roof, a recent graduate of United Methodist-related Duke Divinity School, was a youth ministry intern at Collierville during the summer of 2006. He has delayed his candidacy certification for ordained ministry to get more youth and young adult ministry experience and preached his first sermon as the director of young adult ministries on June 21.

“This is a church committed to young people,” he says. “I could not turn away from that.”

Acknowledging that ageism exists across the general church, he says it is “not a stained glass-ceiling issue but more of a labyrinth, where we are trying to figure out what the best path is to take so that everyone is on board with youth leadership.”

Following their call

Collierville United Methodist Church youth say the approach is working.

Maribeth Russell, 17, has been attending Collierville since she was 9 months old, and she describes the church as being full of opportunities for all people. “This church grows people and inspires them.”

Russell says she appreciates the lack of routine in the Vineyard experience.

“You worship how you want to worship and not because you feel like it is expected,” she says. "This is not just people who meet together in a building once a week,” but a place “where they are going to do everything in their power to help you be whole.”

Jared French, 18, says he has visited other traditions but has found “a connection” at Collierville through its hand-bell ministry. “It is one of the first things that led me to God. I cannot imagine living my life without it.”

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Leadership is an important part of faith development, Woodard says.

“I am a leader at Collierville United Methodist Church because I do not follow the patterns of teenagers my age. I have been given the ability and strength to give other teenagers the words and encouragement to go out and do the things that will change their lives,” she says.

The desire for a closer relationship with God and to help spread the word motivated Jacob Sammons, 15, to take a leadership role at the Vineyard and in a service group combating hunger.

“I am a leader here because God is calling me to do that,” Sammons says. “Once he breaks down my personal walls and barriers, I think it will become more of a reality for me.”

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn. Betty Backstrom, editor of the Louisiana Conference NOW, contributed to this story.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


"I'm a leader because..." 

Kristofer Roof: "...God's called me to that..." 

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