Several Facebook friends recently posted something that caught my attention. It was a newsletter from the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations offering advice for older adults who are greeting young adults at church. Though United Methodists may differ with the UUAC on many theological issues, I wondered if the suggestions for older adults might spark important conversation in our own congregations.
First, the writer cautions older adults not to greet young people by asking how old they are. It’s important to be sensitive to their desire for privacy. Instead of asking what year they are in school or college, invite them to share something about themselves. This approach is less intimidating and more engaging, especially for young adults who are not attending school or who are unemployed or underemployed.
Older adults are also advised not to ask a young person if they are new to the church since it is quite possible that they’ve been attending for months and that the older adult has not met them. To ask if they are new might be interpreted that the older person thinks they don’t belong in church. Instead say, “I don’t think we have met. My name is . . .”
The UUAC piece also encourages older people to think twice before greeting a young adult with a comment about the church needing more young people. Like people of all ages, young adults are anxious to be seen for who they are rather than as a token for a particular age group. Just say how great it is to meet them. Period. Welcome them into the community of faith and fellowship that encompasses all ages.
As I read the UUAC suggestions for interacting with young adults, I wondered if the ideas might not also be applicable to middle and high school students.
Gavin Richardson, youth pastor at Good Shepherd UMC in Hendersonville, Tenn., and creative partner at YouthWorker Circuit pointed out another mistake that older adults make when they think they’ve got to be cool when interacting with their younger counterparts. Instead of trying to act young and hip, he encourages older adults to be authentic and sensitive and to remember a tidbit of information about the young person that can be used in a future encounter. He also reminds older generations to tell stories as a shared experience, not as a pointed lesson or to one-up younger adults.
Jason Huffman, director of youth ministries at FUMC Palestine, Texas, adds that as mature adults and church leaders, the older generations should take the initiative in getting to know the youth. He asks older people to remember that teenagers are just that—teenagers, and encourages them to meet youth where they are when it comes to their behavior, their dress, and their quirks.
“Be glad that they are in church,” he says. “There are a thousand other places these kids could be on a Sunday morning. Thank God that they are worshipping with you.”
He also asks older adults not to be critical when students take on leadership roles in ministries. Just because the younger generations will do things differently doesn’t make their ministry or worship ungodly or second-rate. Instead, thank God for molding a new generation of church leaders and support them in their ventures.
As we begin a new year, let us reflect on what it is to be a healthy and vibrant church. Perhaps all of us who are middle-aged and older could start by thinking anew about how we greet and interact with younger generations.