Young Adults at worship in the ELCA

The ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), like most mainline protestant denominations here in the USA, does not have a large percentage of Young Adults present for worship on Sundays- and the numbers seem to be declining.
There is no simple answer to why this is, because there are probably a lot of reasons. One of the reasons might be because there seems to be a debate about how to do worship. Should we follow a traditional liturgy, which we have used for hundreds of years? (and even thousands- if you go back to the Roman Catholic church) Or, should we go with a more contemporary style? Some young people want to move to a more contemporary style of worship. But the question is what does this mean? For some, it means just playing the music on guitars and drums instead of an organ. Others would like to see a whole different liturgy used, perhaps by taking out the standardized, prepared prayers- that are usually printed out- with more spontaneous prayers.
Some also suggest fewer scripture readings, having only one or two instead of three scripture readings and a psalm. The reasoning behind this is that some say young people now get bored by following a traditional liturgy. Visitors and ‘unchurched’ young adults would get more out of a contemporary worship, and therefore would be more likely to come back or even join. It could be hard for young people to get a full feeling of worshipping God in a traditional style. On the other hand, it is my experience that many young adults that are currently going to church in the ELCA prefer following the traditional liturgy, even though they might prefer music with guitars. Many seem to value the link with other Christians all over the world, and throughout time, following the same liturgy. They also think that a service with more readings- and a sermon based on those readings- is more biblically based and therefore desired. Should we change our liturgy? If we think that there is some value in traditional liturgy, should we change just to attract new members? Some would say who are we to change what the church has been doing for millenniums? But others would point out that our mission is to share the good news- and that requires having people in the church to hear the gospel. I think the real reason that young adults are not in the church has less to do with worship style and more to do with the practices of the Church.
Granted, people- even church members!- are not perfect, and therefore the earthly Church will never be perfect. But, when young people enter a church and hear the good news, but then don’t see any actions to back that up, they get turned off. Imagine how ironic it must seem for a visitor to hear the parable of the Good Samaritan and then hear that the church isn’t engaged in any community or service work.We seem to hear more about abuse, arguments, money and power struggles in the church than about loving our neighbors.


3 responses to “Young Adults at worship in the ELCA

  1. Ray!

    The lack of service you pointed out is probably one of the points. But we also see the lack of good ministers and the lack of warm congregations. There are two mistakes: (1) we cannot only teach and evangelize forgetting service, diakonia, etc., since the loving our neighbor is the ethical foundation of Christianity; and (2) we cannot be like any NGO, as many congregations have become: some social action but weak preachings and lack of interest to mission and church education. Our social action must be a result of the congregation’s commitment to the Gospel.

    I think we have the two problems in the Lutheran Church at least in Brazil. The evangelical congregations seem to disregard service and the liberal ones disregard teaching and mission. I agree with you that the problem is not liturgy. Possibly guitars and less traditional liturgy can help a little bit in order to attract new members, but I think there are still a lot of people who like the traditional liturgy. An option is to create alternative services in the evening for example. Then you can had two kinds of liturgy. Depending on the congregation, it can be a good solution. Of course we cannot forget that considering the local context is very important in order to achieve the best outcomes.

    Anyway, the most important thing is to find a balance between spirituality and action, diakonia and mission, in my opinion.

    If you did not like my opinions, we both agree that we can pray at least and hope that God help us in some way.

  2. hi ray,

    you’ve touched on a huge issue that is pretty critical here in australia as well. i won’t claim to have any definite answers but i can throw a few ideas into the mix:

    one of the biggest problems i’ve encountered is that people are more concerned about what style of worship they like, rather than thinking about what’s going to serve others. it’s weird how we can talk ‘love, love, love’ but when it comes to worship styles we dig in our heels & won’t budge. where’s the love of Christ in that?

    second: reflecting on Jesus’ words from mark 2:27 we need to remember that the liturgy serves the people, not the other way around. if we are blind slaves to a particular liturgical form it seems to me that we’ve fallen back into pharisee-ism. the liturgy needs to point to Christ and communicate the Gospel. how that looks might be very different from one circumstance to another.

    i’m sorry, but why do we talk about attracting new members? (please don’t take offense) surely the heart of Gospel isn’t about ‘getting people in’ but offering something that people need. if we were to view worship first and foremost as Christ offering healing, forgiveness, hope & life to people who need it, how would that shape our liturgucal style/structure?

    lastly: if we could get this right, if our worship could be places of healing, hope, forgiveness & life through a clear & powerful (dynamic?) proclamation of the Gospel, maybe the liturgical form wouldn’t be such an issue. my concern about discussions of worship (at least in this country) is that we’ve worried too much about the external wrappings and not enough about the content & substance of the service – Christ crucified for sinners. sure, it’s got to be culturally relevent (maybe/probably?) but what will bring people back is that they can find something in worship that they can’t find anywhere else – the true & lasting peace of God.

    for what it’s worth…

  3. good topic. thanks for sharing knowledge

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