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Why Young Adults Are Disappearing from Our Congregations

Discovering What’s Valuable Enough for Our Investment

My work life so far has focused on the youth and young adult communities in Muslim and Unitarian Universalist (UU) settings, and this essay is about the challenges they face. Many American faith communities face the problem of large elderly populations and small to non-existent populations of young people from 18 to 30. The Pew Forum reports that a third of the U.S. population under 30 now identifies as religiously unaffiliated. Clearly, faith communities are having trouble maintaining relationships with their estranged young people.

Why this great decline?

One critical factor is the way youth and youth ministries are perceived. In his book, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, Eboo Patel states,Too many adults secretly consider the absence of young people in mainstream religious communities the natural course of events, viewing the kids as too self-absorbed, materialistic, and anti-authoritarian to be interested in religion. The result is that adults pay lip-service to the importance of involving youth in faith communities but let themselves off the hook when it comes to actually building strong, long-lasting youth programs. Youth activities are typically the top item in a congregation’s newsletter but the last line in the budget. Youth programs are the most likely to be funded by short-term grants, and youth ministers are the first to be fired when a religious community has financial problems.”

Adults in both Muslim and UU congregations speak about the importance of youth programming but only perceive that importance as a short-term goal. That is, youth are perceived as leaving a congregation at the age of 18, hence, the budget for youth ministry programs is the first to be cut and comes with additional limits. Congregations stop investing in maintaining a relationship with youth after they leave their congregation for college.

The Role of Clergy

Another factor is how clergy perceive their role and relationship with young people. Often older ministers depend on training they had 20 or 30 years ago. Youth ministry is not going to be the same today as in the sixties or seventies, whatever a pastor’s expectations. In the case of most imams, they’ve not had any youth ministry training. With Unitarian Universalists, youth ministry training for ordination finally became a required competency about ten years ago.

The disconnect between clergy and today’s youth generation is a disadvantage that prevents adequate pastoral care for those who can fall victim, for instance, to cyber-bullying or sexting. How can an older minister provide pastoral care to a youth victim of digital abuse when that minister does not know anything about Facebook, Tumblr or Pinterest? Youth advisors, usually volunteers, can help but cannot provide the pastoral care that a minister might offer. That said, the first and easiest way to learn about the constantly changing youth culture is to build intentional relationships with younger congregants or youth groups in faith communities and maintain that relationship through consistent presence. Mindful presence requires seeing value in youth ministry and in those youth relationships.

In a recent article titled “American Imams Too Few to Meet the Demand in American Muslim Community,” Omar Sacirbey notes how the American Muslim community has to reach out to immigrant imams in order to provide the demand for religious leadership in Muslim communities. However, most immigrant imams are not trained in youth ministry, and cannot connect to American youth with Western values. One religious leader, Imam Nasr, is quoted saying, “It’s not part of our training to work with the youth. We’re trained to teach the religion,” said Nasr. “I don’t think this [youth programming] is the imam’s job, just to go and play with the kids. Imams should keep their dignity, and keep their character.”

The Imam’s perception that ministering to youth is equivalent to playing with youth is one reason youth ministry or youth programming is undervalued in Muslim communities. There’s more focus on getting young people to memorize the Quran than there is in teaching them about Muslim values through action on social justice issues and service projects. The good news is that not all Muslim communities are like this. In fact, there is an increase in youth programming in American Muslim communities, and my local mosque, Dar Al Hijra, exemplifies investing in youth.

The Role of Parents

Another important factor is the role parents have in these challenges. The general perception is that youth programming is basically babysitting. Parents drop their kids off to programs, classes, and events but don’t engage their children in religious education at home. For youth to value or appreciate their faith and morals, they have to see them in action through their parents at home. Youth ministry and religious clergy can only provide so much in terms of values-based learning. We need more commitment from parents to uphold the values being taught to their daughters and sons. Don’t be afraid to engage in your kid’s spirituality. And by the way, you don’t have to have a theological background to communicate the importance of standing up for the oppressed, taking care of the poor, and not being wasteful.

In short, our perception of youth and youth ministry has to evolve and be understood as an investment having long-term value. Rewards for such an investment are immense and measurable. In my work last year at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, our youth group raised $10,000 to attend the Unitarian Universalist Associations General Assembly focused on immigrant rights. Additionally, the group made a documentary focused on what their faith means to them and how it inspires their social justice interests. They also raised $750 to pay for one Guatemalan high-school student to attend school for a year in partnership with a local organization.

The simple act of sending surprise care-packages to youth who are away at college goes a long way in maintaining the relationship they have with their faith communities. To engage post high-school youth to stay involved, we must engage them before they graduate and long-term after they leave the congregation for college. That means transforming perceptions about the value of investing in youth ministry.

Please share your thoughts and experiences about engaging youth in your faith or interfaith community and the challenges you’ve faced in either the comments section below or via our TIO Facebook group.