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Young Adult Ministries: What the United Church of Christ has to Offer

by Thea L. Mateu, M Ed., Acting Young Adult Ministry Coordinator, Southern California Nevada Conference UCC

Thea Mateu GiraffeIf you keep up with trends online you may surely have caught wind of the controversy generated by Rachel Evans Held’s article on why millennials are leaving the church.  There has been debate about the structure of the ‘conversation:’ who should be talking, who should be listening, and on action:  how we do and live church.  Perhaps one way to refocus the discussion is to look at a new issue, not who is leaving or why, but what we have to offer those who are seeking.

A lot of the conversations around young adult ministries focus on what’s missing, where we sin –miss the mark—as the church.  I’d like to invite us to consider what we do have to offer and to make some bold claims for why the United Church of Christ is in a great position to extend our extravagant welcome to this elusive group.

Young Adults are rather slippery to define to begin with.  Rather than focus on the generational trends of Millennials or Generation X, let’s consider developmental stages and milestones that define ages.  Quick word association illustrates the point:  If I say Toddler you might think starting to walk, starting to talk, or even Terrible Twos; Tweens might bring to mind awkwardness; Teenager screams puberty.  Young Adult designates a number of important life milestones: college, first jobs, moving away from home, new responsibilities, dating, marriage, children, legal drinking age, first real job, graduate school.   Eighteen to thirty years old, or thirty-five in some circles, is a HUGE span of life experience.  So, when we ask what young adults like/need/want, the answer is going to be long.  Young adults want:  nurseries and Sunday schools, pub theology, pastoral counseling, praise music, campus ministries, tradition and structure, opportunities for leadership, parenting groups, mission trips etc. 

So, while we could get bogged down on what we’re missing, and many do, let’s focus instead on some of our strengths as UCC:

• Issues of justice:  whether it is environmental justice, border justice, worker rights, LGBTQ rights, or international human rights, we are involved at local church and national church settings.  This summer many of us celebrated the decision of General Synod 29 to divest from fossil fuels, becoming the first United States denomination to do so.  We also approved a resolution of witness against bullying in all forms.  Here in the Southern California  Nevada Conference we hosted groups visiting our border ministries at Centro Romero, we have local churches organizing for worker rights, we have churches offering counseling, we have gardens of edibles, and we have churches converting to solar power.  We are a church that takes seriously the call in Micah 6:8 to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. 

• As an Open and Affirming conference we have taken seriously the call to inclusion of all of God’s children.  A 2011 survey of the Public Religion Research Institute highlighted the shift toward inclusion in young adults.  Not only are there a number of LGBTQ young adults who are looking for churches that will welcome them and affirm them, but we also find that for young adults who are heterosexual allies it’s important to be part of spiritual communities that are open to all.  Our commitment to inclusion for all of God’s people is an important message that needs to be shared broadly and boldly! 

• We are committed to the diversity of our leadership.  Many of us are familiar with the United Church of Christ firsts: we have been ordaining openly LGBT clergy since 1972, we have had National Disabilities Ministry since 1977, we ordained the first African-American leader of an Integrated Denomination in 1976 and we continue to invest in building leadership that reflects who we are and who we are becoming as a church.  For young adults who place a high value on communities that are diverse and dynamic, we offer this important commitment.

• Congregational polity is not just for church nerds!  Congregational polity means that the power does not come from a singular, hierarchical church figure who tells the base what to do.  We acknowledge Christ as the head of the church and we give the power to our congregations.  Because we are congregational we can live into our commitments, we can reflect the diversity of our communities and styles of worship, and we open up opportunities for leadership to all in the community.  We are not a church that is unable or unwilling to question authority.  Our covenantal relationships enrich us and challenge us to do community because we choose to do so as a sacred trust and this allows for ministry with integrity.

• Speaking of integrity, the United Church of Christ does not ask that anyone check their brain at the door.  We do not shut down questions, and we do not run from doubts.  Our openness is well reflected in the statement many of our churches share each Sunday from our Still Speaking campaign: no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here. Here at the United Church of Christ. 

We are reminded that God is Still Speaking and, that:

At a time when religion is too often portrayed as narrow-minded and exclusive, many are raising their VOICES for an alternate vision:

• – Where God is all-loving and inclusive
• – Where the Church of Jesus Christ welcomes and accepts everyone as they are
• – Where your mind is nourished as much as your soul
• – Where Jesus the healer meets Jesus the revolutionary
• – Where together we grow a just and peaceful world [1]

Serving young adults requires a reclaiming of our God, a reframing of our experiences of spiritual community and the healing and restoration of our vision of community. We have an awesome church that is already well positioned to meet the diverse needs of young adults.  Most importantly we serve an awesome God who is crazy about us, who adores us, and who calls us to live as God’s beloved people.  

Let us continue to build on our strengths and reach out to a world that needs what we have to offer: a spiritual community that is bold in its pursuit of justice, open to all, challenging, sustaining, and spirit-filled!

_________________________________________

[1] http://www.ucc.org/god-is-still-speaking/

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