Bishop Janice Huie calls for a new approach to engaging younger people in the church. She argues for overinvesting in young people who don’t sit in our pews every Sunday by drawing resources from the center to the periphery of the church.
The primary narrative for conversations about engaging youth, young adults, and young clergy has been the metaphor of the pipeline — a linear process that moved people from children’s Sunday school to youth fellowship to a church-related college or state university with a strong campus ministry. After they graduated, we expected that they would emerge as “principled Christian leaders” ready to engage as laity or enter an even longer pipeline that starts the path to ordained ministry.
This pipeline still functions relatively well in large, healthy congregations with a critical mass of younger people and leaders investing resources in every aspect of congregational life. In those places where the pipeline is still working, we need to shore it up and improve it.
But in too many places, this pipeline no longer functions. It has cracks and leaks in every part. The flock is shrinking year by year, getting older and older. The average age of adults in our congregations is increasing. Sunday schools and youth groups are diminishing, and there has been a dramatic decline of multigenerational congregations. And the result is that fewer and fewer children and youth are entering the pipeline.
From broken pipeline to dynamic ecosystem
We constantly find ourselves trying to fix this broken pipeline by recreating patterns that served us well 30 or 40 years ago, but no longer work the way they used to. Working harder at what we have always done will not engage vast groups of unaffiliated millennials because that pipeline is a closed system. The metaphor of a pipeline is too linear and mechanistic to make sense in today’s world. We need to think differently about how we engage younger people in the church.
I believe a better metaphor is that of an ecosystem — a system that is organic, dynamic, and constantly changing. It’s a complex set of relationships in which everything influences everything else. It’s controlled by internal and external factors. When everything is in balance and the ecology is healthy, fruitful, and sustainable, it reproduces itself. The opportunities for new life in the ecosystem far outweigh the possibility of repairing a pipeline with cracks.
To engage younger people, we can no longer focus our leadership attention and our financial resources on the center. We need to focus on the dynamic edges of our ecosystem.
Overinvesting in the young
I believe this requires that we overinvest in the young — not only the next generation of pastors but the next generation of children, youth, and young adults. This means directing leadership, human resources, and financial resources on behalf of a new generation. And this is hard in a church where we are accustomed to dividing the pie equally. Overinvesting in the young will not win you a popularity contest. But it’s an investment in the future.
Many of our congregations are older, richer, whiter, and better educated than the U.S. population today. So, to overinvest in the young means investing in poorer, more racially diverse, and frequently less-educated younger people than those who sit in our pews on Sunday morning. Simply put, it means we need to invest in people who don’t look like the average church member today.
To overinvest in the young means connecting deeply with the community and engaging people who live in the community. It means taking significant risks to innovate fresh expressions of ministry that engage younger people. It requires offering ancient worship in fresh ways. It means moving younger people into leadership even though they are not “experienced.”
Moving resources from the center to the periphery
We need to take a fresh look at supporting the leadership of younger people, committing significant financial resources in a whole variety of ways including ensuring that the education of younger pastors doesn’t leave them with crushing debt. This is what it means to draw resources from the center to the periphery. Sometimes that means reallocating financial resources. Sometimes it means raising new money. But it always means that leaders must direct attention to the need.
We are past the point where we can turn things around by trying to reclaim what we once had. Instead we must have the courage to risk our missional call to overinvest in the young and move resources from the center to the margins on behalf of an emerging generation.
This article is adapted from a presentation Bishop Huie delivered at Wesley Theological Seminary at a November 2017 symposium honoring the ministry of Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.
- Reaching Younger People: Overinvesting in the Young, a video presentation featuring Bishop Janice Huie
- The Crisis of Younger Clergy in the UMC: Young Clergy and Candidates Speak Out, a Lewis Center webinar recording
- Young Elder Numbers Return to Near Historic Low in UMC by Lovett H. Weems Jr.
- Clergy Age Trends in the United Methodist Church: 1985-2020