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    Real, Authentic Church

    What does it mean to be a church inclusive of younger demographics? May 19, 2021 by Brianne Zelinsky-Carew
    Filed Under:
    Opinion & Critical Thought
    Emma Wong in front of a collage of pictures
    Emma Wong in front of a collage of pictures
    (Above) Salvationist Emma Wong leads a youth ministry in Kemptville, Ont., where church takes place during backyard campfires and thrift-store fashion shows

    When I think of the millennial experience, I think of a comic strip I once came across. It showed a speaker asking a crowd, “Who wants change?” as everyone raised their hands in response. In the next frame, the speaker asks, “Who wants to lead the change?” and all the hands are lowered. When I think about that illustration, I imagine a third frame, in which eager young people are jumping and waving their hands in the air, yet they remain unseen behind the crowd.

    After graduating and finding my first full-time job in 2017, I was suddenly without default goals in place, such as get accepted to university or graduate from university. If I wanted to achieve a goal, I first had to find a goal to chase. These were often arbitrary benchmarks that, when put on paper, sounded like one of two things: unrealistic dreams (e.g., write a book) or underwhelming realities (e.g., pay off student loans). I felt like I was finally sitting in the driver’s seat, but I did not know how to drive. It was also at this point when I struggled to fit into my church community. I was no longer a student, nor did I fit in with the young families. I felt lost and unseen as part of an underrepresented demographic in Salvation Army circles.

    Many, if not most, of the friends I met growing up—attending a Salvation Army church, working at a Salvation Army summer camp or volunteering with a Salvation Army social services centre—have moved on to other church denominations or non-profit organizations. While I do not see this as a negative thing if they are finding meaningful ways of connecting with their faith and community, it does concern me that so many young adults do not feel like they can belong in my church, my place of work or my community. As I have learned in hearing feedback from the recent territorial survey of young adults, I am not isolated in that experience.

    There is no denying we are the broken generation. Young adults are bleeding out of our churches. For those who stay, there is immense pressure to be the change from within; however, if our model for “doing church” remains so risk-aware and failure-fearing, we are in danger of dampening creativity and rejecting the innovation that is bubbling up from emerging generations.

    It is not difficult to imagine what a millennial revival in our churches might look like if we trusted millennials to lead. Look no further than Emma Wong’s ministry with @youthgroupinsights in Kemptville, Ont., where church takes place during backyard campfires and thrift-store fashion shows. Take notes from the campus churches who are embracing student demographics and discipling them, all while providing educational supports along the way. Listen to the broken yet hopeful voices in our Army who are demanding that leadership address issues around equity, diversity and inclusion in our churches.

    What does it mean to be a real, authentic church, inclusive of younger demographics? The responses from the millennial survey might help in identifying what that looks like:

    The Salvation Army is too much at the forefront. Put God first.
    I wouldn’t attend the Army if it weren’t for my personal community.
    Trying to sustain cultural relevance is not how you become relevant. Start with asking, “What can we do to help people?”

    I believe in the mission of our Army. I align with the values of our Army. I resonate with the vision of our Army. But for me, as with many young adults under age 38 across our territory, engagement requires more than believing, aligning and resonating. We must reimagine how we do mission, how we demonstrate our values and how we will achieve our vision.

    Perhaps the most profound response to come from this survey was one millennial who responded, “I still believe we can change.” I, too, believe that we can change, but I also believe that we need to change. This global pandemic forced us to think differently about the how of our mission engagement. Consideration was given to how we gather, communicate, worship and stay connected. That same sense of urgency for reviving our church, the body of believers, is necessary when our building doors open post-pandemic.

    I frequently return to the Scripture, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). We are here, a broken generation, asking, seeking and knocking, knowing that God will give and help us find, and open, the right doors.

    Brianne Zelinsky-Carew is the communications specialist for Mobilize 2.0.

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