Better than slicing carrots

There’s recent news that the United Methodist Church is about to unleash a $20 million ad campaign.

The messaging, targeting 18- to 34-year-olds, highlights the many opportunities for involvement within United Methodist churches – from community hunger programs to basketball leagues. Meanwhile, the denomination is engaging in dialogue within its churches about enhancing those opportunities.

“We aim to reach young adults who are not familiar with church, who are concerned about the world in which we live, who want to make their lives more meaningful, and who have a deep yearning to connect with God and with a community of support,” said the Rev. Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communications. “We also hope to reach people inside the church who will reassess what it means to be people of faith.”

Campaigns like this are sorely needed. More to the point, the church is sorely needed by a whole generation.

Here’s what the Methodists found:

New research conducted by The Barna Group on behalf of United Methodist Communications found that 66 percent of young adults surveyed were searching for meaning and purpose in their lives and 62 percent considered themselves “spiritual.” Two in three said there were specific events or times in their lives when they were more likely to search for spiritual answers. But 78 percent said they never attend church, or only attend once in a while. The Rethink Church campaign aims to bridge that gap.

Lots of people inside churches are frighteningly complacent about the situation. “Oh, the ‘young people’ will ‘come back’ to church” they say. Bah! At this point, there is no positive peer pressure for most people to be involved in churches. The “young people” will not “come back” to church because they were never in church in the first place. And yet there is a deep spiritual hunger out there. Every time I hang out in a coffee shop, without exception, I hear people talking about God. And I’m wearing mufti in Godless New England.

So if people have spiritual hunger, why aren’t they coming to church? Two good reasons I can think of. First, the church does a phenomenally lousy job of telling people about itself. Second, we are often entirely too mushy about our reason for being. If some of the 18-34 year-olds show up at your church next Sunday, what will they find? How many people of that age are in leadership positions? What activities do you have that might appeal to these generations? Is your worship largely unchanged from the 1950s? Or the 1970s? What reason do you give someone for getting out of bed on a Sunday morning? And please don’t tell me it’s because your church is “friendly.” That’s not life changing, and Jesus didn’t say a bit about being “warm” and “friendly.”

So, let me congratulate the Methodists. I hope they prosper. They’re certainly committing some serious resources to telling people about the church, and for that I am grateful. Now I’ll be interested to see what happens if someone shows up in their churches.

And it all puts the Episcopal Church to shame. Our last ad campaign was about slicing carrots. I didn’t make this up. And we’ve never — to my knowledge — allocated enough resources for a proper ad campaign. It’s time to fix that. And it’s time to stop whistling through the graveyard while an entire generation is starving, spiritually.

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