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‘Wandering generation’ looks for connections

    The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt speaks about the importance of making church friendly for young people and single adults. A UMNS photo by
Cassandra Heller, Board of Global Ministries.

By Elliott Wright*
Aug. 5, 2008 | ORLANDO, Fla. (UMNS)

The fact that many Americans have little idea what "church" means or what happens there was a recurrent theme at the 2008 United Methodist School of Congregational Development.

The point was underscored by sociological data and pastoral experience, but more attention was given to ways of responding creatively to the challenge than to decrying the concern.

Lack of knowledge of "church" is most acute among those under 35, prompting one pastor and author to focus her presentation on that population.

The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt is co-pastor of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., and author of the 2007 book Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation. She is herself a young adult and describes her generation as "wandering" when it comes to connections to God and systems of meaning.

"We have a huge opportunity with the wandering generation," she told 300 people gathered in Orlando at an annual event focused on church development. She was linked by satellite to another 150 at a similar event in Grand Rapids, Mich.

At its best, the “church is a place where they can form connections—with God, the world and each other.”
–The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt

"What young adults are looking for is right there in our congregations," said Merritt, whose church is located across the street from George Washington University in the Foggy Bottom section of Washington.

However, church-as-usual to those over 40 may not be recognized by young adults as a place of caring or a repository of answers to life's questions.

Contemporary young adults, according to Merritt, don't need the church in its present form, but they do need a church interested in relationships and connections rather than programs. At its best, she said, the "church is a place where they can form connections—with God, the world and each other."

Based on media presentations of religion, many young adults do not know that "Christianity is not the Republican Party, its leader is not Pat Robertson, and its message is not what you hear on Fox News," Merritt said.

"We need to think about 'church' a little differently," she said, picking up motifs from her book which uses "tribal church" as a metaphor for those who band together on a spiritual journey. The emphasis is on relationships.

A different lens

Merritt invited her United Methodist colleagues to look at some of the realities of life for young adults today. "Yes, we may be used to getting what we want, but there is a great shortage for young adults when it comes to medical care, housing, community and other basics that are needed to make connections," she said.

Young adults, she continued, face difficult challenges with regard to employment, finances and a sense of stability. Many are deeply in debt, often from college loans, and find it necessary to live with parents.

Western Presbyterian Church is a progressive-minded, inclusive congregation that is growing. It engages in a variety of community ministries, including a feeding program that it successfully defended in court against some of its neighbors in Foggy Bottom.

Merritt encouraged congregations new or old not to base their entire appeal or plans for growth on nuclear families or the pattern of getting children involved so they will bring their parents to church.

Those are good models, she said, but there is also a large population of unmarried young adults among the unchurched, and the church has a responsibility to that wandering generation.

*Wright is the information officer of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

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

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Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation

TribalChurch.org blog

School of Congregational Development

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