Transcript of a Presentation by Rick Zomer
We’re going to be talking about empathetic listening, why posture matters when engaging with youth and emerging adults. And to start us off, I thought I’d tell you a little story about a trip I took to the doctor about 10 years ago.
I went to see him for an annual physical. Now, I know it’s not the most exciting appointment, but it typically begins with my doctor taking my vitals. They take my pulse, my blood pressure, and then they ask me to step on the scale. Now, over the years, I’d become accustomed to what to expect during this part of the routine. The first number on the scale was usually a two. And so, that wasn’t an issue. The surprise came, however, when the second number turned out to be a three and the third was a five. I wasn’t prepared for the fact that the scale told me I now weighed 235 pounds.
Now, upon receiving that information, I did what many of us might do, I blamed the scale. I told the doctor that it must be broken because there is no way I could weigh that much. My doctor, however, told me that the scale was routinely calibrated, and as a result, it was accurate. In essence, what he was saying was the data wasn’t lying. He said my weight had been creeping up over the past few years, and as a result, I now had a decision to make.
My first option was to simply do nothing. I could continue my current diet of pizza, burgers, French fries, I could continue to avoid exercise, and in doing so, I’d have the opportunity to watch my weight climb along with the fact that the likelihood I would develop high cholesterol, heart disease, or other health issues would increase.
The other option he gave me was to change what I was currently doing. He suggested I become more acquainted with salads, fruits, and vegetables, and become more active, and consider spending less time on the couch. According to him, the decisions I made now, at this point, either positive or negative, would impact my health over the next 30 to 40 years of my life. What he told me next, however, was even more direct.
He said, “Most people look at their health data, decide they don’t like the negative impact future an action might lead to, but decide they don’t want to do anything different.” Put another way, he was suggesting that most people don’t want to experience negative consequences that come from doing what they’ve always done, but they also don’t want to do anything different. As I’ve had time to reflect on this interaction with my doctor, I’ve come to believe that he was unknowingly describing the reality many congregations are facing in regards to their connection with emerging adults and their involvement in their church.
We see the data and we notice that young people are leaving the church when they finish high school and enter college, then the workforce. Our first response might be to doubt the data, it’s not accurate, or we’ll find some other reason to find fault with the numbers. Our second response might be to acknowledge that our church has an issue in regards to emerging adults and their connection and engagement with their congregation, but we decide that we don’t want to do anything different in response. After all, that age group has always drifted from the church during that timeframe in life. They’re the ones choosing to leave. We can do what we’ve always done because they’ll always come back.
The first approach would have us believe that there isn’t an issue, while the second acknowledges it, but it says, “It’s not my problem to solve.” I want to suggest that neither of these approaches are helpful to the reality many of our congregations are facing. Instead, I’d like to make the case that a better response might be to approach emerging adults with empathy. To do this, I want to consider three specific questions. First, how do we, the church, often approach emerging adults, those ages 18 to 25 years old, and their experience in the church?
Secondly, why is it this approach helpful? And thirdly, why might empathy be a more appropriate approach or strategy? How does the church often approach emerging adults and their experiences? The question is often asked of me and others who work with this population, why are they, they being emerging adults, why are they leaving the church? Or sometimes, even more boldly put, why are they leaving my church? The assumption is often made that they’ll come back whenever they reach a certain milestone, be it getting married, starting a family, or whatever the case may be.
Also, the question about emerging adults is often rolled into conversations related to the long-term health and vitality of the church. “If we don’t figure this out, we’ll no longer exist.” Put another way, the focus is placed on what impact this will have on me, not what impact this is having on the life of emerging adults. Why isn’t this approach helpful?
I believe it places primary responsibility for the current reality on emerging adults while minimizing accountability or responsibility for older members of the church. “They’re leaving, so it’s their fault.” To emerging adults, it can feel like they are a problem that needs to be solved, rather than a person that is valued. The discussion focuses on solving the emerging adult problem so our church won’t be impacted.
Churches often look around and notice the number of emerging adults who are no longer attending. I wonder how often does this conversation begins with the names of emerging adults who we don’t see in our pews and throughout the week. If the congregation’s working assumption is that the reality is the fault of emerging adults, it’s unlikely that a congregation’s response will focus on what they, as older adults, might need to do differently. It’s equally unlikely that our response would be rooted in empathy or compassion.
However, if older adults like myself begin to think about our responsibility in this conversation, we might view things differently. By that, I mean what if we began to think about why emerging adults are no longer part of our congregation as a response to what they’ve experienced in the church? You might ask, “What might have they experienced?” Maybe some of these statements are realities. Well, when I was your age, I had, and tick off whatever you want to put, I had a career, I had a house, I had a family. When I was your age, I was told to wait to be involved, to lead, that there wasn’t a space for me to be a leader in my church.
An emerging adult may have experienced a faith formation model built on staff, programs and curriculum, but with limited interpersonal interaction with other members of the congregation. An emerging adult may have experienced a church as a place with limited space for their questions or doubts. And lastly, they have experienced a church as a place where no one noticed when they left. If this is true, why might empathy be a more appropriate strategy or approach in this situation?
Now, I’ve heard several older adults say that they can’t relate to the world emerging adults live in, and as a result, they don’t feel able or equipped to connect with younger people. I believe empathy provides a pathway to building connections with emerging adults. Let me explain by offering a quote about empathy from the author, Brene Brown. She says, “Empathy doesn’t require that we have the exact same experiences as the person sharing their story with us. Empathy is connecting with the emotion that someone is experiencing, not the event or circumstance.”
What might that look like for older individuals? Let me offer some suggestions. First, rather than offering comparisons to what you had to come accomplished at a given age, ask what it’s like now for young people just starting out. You might hear that the ability to get a full-time job with benefits now requires a graduate degree, and to achieve that, young people are having to take a significant amount of debt and time to complete their education.
You might hear that the current housing crunch has led to a spike in home prices and significant increases in rent, which means emerging adults, who might prefer to have their own place, can’t afford to move out of their parents’ home. You might hear that these realities have created an environment where emerging adults don’t feel financially prepared for marriage and starting a family. You might hear that emerging adults want several of the things you’ve accomplished at their age, but they simply aren’t available to them.
Put another way, they’re trying to address some of the same issues you had at their stage of life, for example, questions around calling, family, giftedness or career, but these questions just take longer to navigate now than they did 25 years ago. You might consider asking them how that feels, listening to their responses, and asking how you can help. Secondly, rather than responding by saying, “I had to wait my turn to be considered a leader in my church,” I would consider you think about how that made you feel when you were in your twenties. My guess is, at that time, that response made you feel excluded, frustrated, angry, or maybe even disinterested in the church. I’m wondering why we’d want emerging adults today to feel that way.
Thirdly, rather than relying on a church’s program and curriculum, things like youth group, gems, cadets, catechism, all well-intended, other staff, children’s pastors, youth pastors, volunteers, consider what reliance on this model might be saying to an emerging adult. When you age out of our programs or staff structure, we don’t have people who connect with you or build relationships with you.
One of the things the church can provide emerging adults, which is often absent in other parts of their lives, is carrying older people who are willing to listen to and support them as they navigate a challenging life stage. Rather than saying, “I don’t have the answers to your questions or issues being raised, so I’m not going to say anything,” consider how silence might be received from an emerging adult. Let me start with this brief example.
For older individuals, a well-known phrase about silence goes like this. No news is good news. Put another way, silence is golden. That is not the world emerging adults inhabit. A world of silence can be unnerving to them. Technology has created a reality where they’re able to give and receive feedback from each other and receive answers to their questions in an instance. So, what might it say to them if they find their church as a place where questions are treated with silence, or worse, a response like, “We don’t talk about those things here.”
Let me suggest to us that it shouldn’t be surprising if they stop looking to the church for wisdom and insight on the issues they’re facing, and they begin looking to the numerous other sources available to them. To an emerging adult, no news is not good news. Silence from a person or community can simply be a reason to find a new source of information or answers to their questions. Let me suggest that oftentimes older individuals in the church are hesitant to engage with an emerging adult’s questions because we might feel ill-equipped to give an answer or struggle with the same questions ourselves.
The good news is that many of the emerging adults I know aren’t expecting older people to give them the answers. They’d simply appreciate a more experienced person of faith to say something like, “That’s a good question. I struggle with that too. Let’s explore that more together.” They’re looking for an empathetic response.
Let me conclude by saying I’m hopeful about the future of the church and the presence of emerging adults in our faith communities. I say this because of the conversations I’m privileged to have with emerging adults who share a longing to grow in their faith as they move through their late teens and into their twenties. I’m also hopeful because of the theology of the Christian Reform Church, specifically when it comes to the sacrament of baptism.
In our context, when parents bring a child to be baptized, through questions and answers, we acknowledge that every member of the congregation has a part to play in the faith formation of a young person, not just paid church staff or Christian school teachers. I believe that emerging adults are eager to have older adults enter into mentoring and discipling relationships with them. It might require those of us in our forties, fifties, and beyond to do something new and learn how to build these types of connections. The good news is when it comes to building discipling relationships, emerging adults aren’t looking and for us to be perfect. They’re just looking for us to be present. Thanks.