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Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: Churches need action, not rules, to keep youth

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 04:23 AM

Walking through the lobby of the Tampa Convention Center a couple of days ago, I remember thinking, "There's a lot of gray hair in here."

The occasion is the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which has brought about 2,500 of the faithful to town through May 4 to debate the weighty issues facing congregations throughout the world. Delegates will talk about ways to combat hunger, poverty and injustice. They'll discuss civil and human rights.

They will take votes, issue statements, make policy, and worship. That's important work. But there's a bigger problem facing churches. Increasing numbers of young people have found other things to do on Sunday mornings.

They see the mainstream church as preachy and shallow. They say it's all talk, no action.

"Research says we're losing that generation," said Larry Hollon, chief executive of United Methodist Communication. "They say we are too judgmental and insincere, that we focus on dogma and not faith.

"It's a huge concern among the leaders of the church. We are focusing at this conference on ways to address that."

Florida has more than 289,000 UMC members, fourth-most in the U.S. Full disclosure: I am one of them.

We're not that different on this issue than many churches, I think. We go through youth directors routinely. We see large numbers of younger children in Sunday school programs, but that dwindles to a handful as they get older.

Almost 15 years ago, we thought "contemporary" worship, with up-tempo music and such, was the answer. Alas, most of our young people now weren't even born then. How "contemporary" can we be?

So what's a church to do? I asked 17-year-old Elisabeth Clymer of Virginia. She is attending the conference and telling people about her project to fight malaria in Africa. She started a campaign at her church to collect spare change so she can send children bed netting treated with insecticide to combat mosquitoes.

"It's one thing to know the Bible and be able to recite it," she said, "but I feel it's important to do something. Everything with young people today is very mission-based. It's really important to them. Book knowledge will only take you so far. It has to be put into action."

That, Hollon says, should be a warning shot for churches to change. They are smothering their congregations in regulations and committees, killing any sense of action.

It's an entrenched attitude in many congregations. I wrote a skit once that we performed on Sunday morning about what would have happened if Noah had to run the ark through committee. Not everyone saw the humor.

"Young people are skeptical," Hollon said. "A lot of churches don't realize we live in a diverse and pluralistic world. In that world, you have to be more inclusive. You have to act out your faith.

"To those who resist, I say this: Do you want your grandchildren to be part of the church or not? If not, just keep on doing things the way you've always done it."

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