General CBF

Engaging Young Baptists

This address was given at the CBF of Virginia meeting March 13 by Katie McKown, assistant pastor at Memorial Baptist Church, Arlington, Va., and the past-chair of Current, CBF’s young leaders network.

Good evening.  It truly is a blessing and honor to be with you. 

I serve on a diverse church staff.  We are five ladies and four gentlemen.  We are all American, but we are also Latina and Jamaican and Caucasian.  We are in our teens, our twenties, our thirties, our forties, our fifties, our sixties, and yes—even our seventies.  And I can tell you with an amazing amount of sincerity that we love and truly enjoy one another.  It makes for a wonderful work environment.

Our senior pastor, Bill, who is in his early sixties—he and I meet on Monday afternoons.   In the midst of a rather serious conversation about the impact of facebook and myspace on contemporary youth group culture, Bill asked me “How many of our kids are on myface?”  And then I laughed—but not really—I guffawed in his face.  At that particular moment, there were no teenagers on his face.  Of course Bill had accidentally merged facebook and myspace into myface.  God bless his sincere question, and God forgive me for laughing.

Many times when think about engaging young Baptists, we sometimes believe implementing trends—like myspace and facebook—as quickly as possible is the way to reach “the young people.”  While it’s true that technology and trends are helpful in communicating to the next generation, I’d like to suggest another way—because in the end I really don’t care if Bill is on facebook or not.  I absolutely care, however, that Bill has poured hundreds of hours of his work and free time being my pastor, mentor, colleague, and friend.

This way is as old-fashioned as they come.  This way is called relationship.  That’s how you engage young Baptists.  We don’t really want a program designed to “reach” us.  We want what everyone wants—to know and to be known. 

Can I ask you some questions?  Will you please raise your hand if you are over the age of fifty?  Those of you who raised your hands—do you know someone younger than thirty-five in your church family?  Will you please raise your hand if you are under the age of thirty-five?  Do you know someone older than fifty other than your parents? 

Before any of us congratulate ourselves for knowing someone out of our age bracket—I’m not asking if you can give me names.  I’m asking—Do you really know someone who’s younger than thirty-five?  Do you really know someone who’s over the age of fifty? 

Do you know his story?  Do you know how God has called her?  Can you name her pets?  How did you celebrate his last birthday?  When was the last time you prayed together?  That’s the kind of knowing of which I speak.  Are you friends with this person?  Are you having conversations—engaging one another in dialogue?  Are you discussing salvation and hymns and ecclesiology and denominationalism?   

Brothers and sisters, when we are in relationship with folks—they are SO much more than an age.  When we truly know one another, we listen.  Instead of the occasional wave hello in the parking lot or muffled anger over generational differences in a business meeting—when we are in relationship, the way we interact and dialogue with one another will change.

We engage one another, so when I want to play a U2 song in worship and you wonder who this BO-NO character is—this won’t turn into a full scale worship war because at the foundation there is a relationship.  And this time we may decide not to listen to Bono, and next time maybe we will.  And we’ll all grow because born out of relationship is the ability for everyone—young and old—to grow and be challenged and be changed.  

“Alright,” you’re thinking.  “How does the rubber truly meet the road?” as we say in the South.  What does this look like?  Here are my nine suggestions for laity and clergy alike:

1.                           Don’t cave in to pigeonholing.  Just because I’m under thirty-five doesn’t mean I want an electric guitar at every worship service.  Just because you’re over fifty doesn’t mean you always want to wear a tie on Sundays.

2.                           Let’s also not pretend that there aren’t generational differences.                                  

At one staff meeting earlier this year, we were discussing a sensitive subject.  I advised the staff to “keep it on the DL.”  “What does that mean?” asked the sixty-year old pastor.  “Is that the same as the QT” asked the seventy-year old pastor.                                                                

Friends, we will use language differently.  Some will describe salvation as “being saved” while others will be more comfortable saying “coming to faith.”  We might mean the same thing, but say it rather differently.

3.                           Quell denominational bickering.  Let’s invest in what God is doing in the CBF movement and abandon hurtful speech about others. 

4.                           Take a look at your church leadership—staff, deacons, church council, and Bible Study leaders.  If almost everyone is over the age of fifty, don’t panic but do this:  Go home and invite the youngest person or persons over to your house for dinner.  Get to know them.  Help them grow into leadership in your church body.  You’ve got to show us how.  And then you’ve got to listen to our ideas.

5.                           Think about starting an intergenerational small group.  Invite a seventy year old woman and a thirty year old man to lead the group.

6.                           Those of you older than fifty:  Don’t make us “wait our turn.” If there’s a twenty-six year old woman who embodies servant leadership, ask her to serve as deacon.

7.                           Those of you older than fifty:  Make it a goal to go to coffee or go bowling or do something fun with a young person in your congregation at least once a month.                                              

Do you want to know a secret?  We think you’re great.  We admire your dedication to the church.  You helped us grow into the people we are today.  You taught us about missions.  You helped us memorize Bible verses and you showed us how to love all of God’s people.  We still want to learn from you.  Contrary to popular belief, we’re not busy every Friday night.  Don’t be nervous.  Call us. 

8.                           Those of us younger than thirty-five:  Let’s make it our goal to invite someone older than fifty to our home for dinner at least once a month.

9.                           Those of us younger than thirty-five:  Let’s not wait for “older folks” to engage us.  Don’t cave in to less than charitable expectations and act as if we’re sitting at the kid’s table exclaiming “no one is listening to us.”  That is not helpful.  Relationship is a two way street.  Let’s reach out our hands to engage folks over the age of fifty.

Like most things save mathematics, there is not really a formula for investing in young Baptists.  Like most things, investing in young Baptists is all about relationship.  Certainly plans can be made and we should take intentional steps with purpose, but at its foundation, engaging one another is born out of relationship. 

All of this may sound cliché and idealistic (let’s be friends)—but I think this relationship thing is, in the words of young people—“where it’s at.”   Friendships will be born and we will do this thing called church together.  May God grant this.  Thank you.

8 thoughts on “Engaging Young Baptists

  1. Well done Katie. It’s really not rocket science is it. It is about relationships and ultimately those are about someone taking the initiative to step across some of the arbitrary boundaries we tend to place around ourselves (age, politics, social classes, etc). Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Generation Gaps (or lapse) in Church « Danny Chisholm

  3. Thanks for the great perspective! Every time I wish to be in a church with younger people some “old timers” like me cannot understand. When I taught at Campbell U Div. school the younger generation were very kind to me and my approach to teaching and missions! May your tribe increase!

  4. Katie,

    Frankly, I don’t understood this anxiety about being unable to “connect” with younger generations. As uncool as I was when my own generation was in the teens and 20s, why on earth would I presume to be God’s gift to millennials when I’m 53? We’re commanded to preach the gospel to all people, but I’ve never seen the verse that tells us to micromanage.

    Sure generational differences are real. So are differences racial, ethnic, gender, socioeconomic, cultural, ad nauseum, but if we can ever get past them, we’re all people, and we have a lot more in common than what divides us.

    Incidentally, I have two kids, 19 and 23, and they think I’m an idiot. My mom turns 82 Easter Sunday, and she drives me nuts. God truly has a sense of humor.

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