Precript: This piece is only intended to look at some shifts in generational motivation and connection. The follow up piece to this will look at some particular ways a parish can communicate a deep and abiding faith in Christ and its commitment to work, pray, and give for the spread of the Kingdom. This piece uses marketing and communications analysis to consider parish communication with younger adults. It is not intended to be a grand unified theory of ministry and discipleship – simply a look at two concepts critical to reaching Gen X and Gen Y in marketing.
I recently did a workshop on young adult ministry at the Colorado Episcopal Diocesan Convention. I talked extensively about authenticity as a core value for young adults. It was the portion of the conversation that generated the most feedback as parish leaders looked to find ways to articulate what it meant to be authentic in their context. Below are a few steps for developing an authentic articulation of parish identity.
There are really two cohorts of younger adults that will respond to different aspects of a message of authenticity. The first is Gen X members who are more likely to respond to a message that focuses on a more classic definition of authenticity: origin, history, and heritage. The second emerging cohort is Gen Y. The emerging consensus in marketing seems to be that Gen Y is more likely to respond to a message that focuses on honesty as a core value. This means honest to self (the parish’s DNA), to youth (transparency and welcome), and to society (social responsibility and engagement).
The classic definition is key and lays the foundation for the evolving understanding of authenticity. Without a story to tell and a clear sense of history and purpose, it is difficult to accurately and compellingly communicate in such a way that honesty is clearly evident.
Origin: Where did your parish come from? This is not the dry recitation of history. It is delving beyond the who and when to the why of a parish’s identity. What need did the founders see? What was their vision for engaging your community? What is the common thread that ties you as you now exist to the founding vision? Where you come from is essential to understanding where you are going.
History: How has the parish lived into the founding vision? This is not simply the linear communication of key moments and milestones. It is the articulation of how your values and virtues have been lived out over time. No parish is simply the sum of its stories. Every parish is more – it is the shared dreams of those who have come before for those who will come after them. How has your parish history led you to where you are today? What in your parish history is unique and vibrant?
Heritage: Heritage is the DNA of an organization. It is the articulation of your parish’s unique way of being. What marks those who come through your parish? What makes you who you are as a body of faithful people? What do you see in your life today that would be recognizable to those who came before? Heritage is the emotional tug of holidays and the deep-seated call home on special occasions. It is hard to define but clear when it is present and vibrant. Heritage is the essence of loyalty.
Those form the classic understanding of authenticity. Together, they create the emotional and spiritual longing that a community has to be together and to share who they are with others.
The emerging Gen Y is, perhaps, less invested in these core elements of authenticity than they are in something even more fundamental and hard to define – honesty. The two go hand in hand but honesty is more definitive and hard-won. It is easier to tell a story than it is to live into that story by word and example such that it is not simply an articulation of who you were but of who you are. It is hard to have honesty without authenticity but it is possible to have an authentic identity that few actually live into.
This is the trap of many churches – we have a great story – but we don’t live into it in such a way that our essential qualities are readily apparent and evident. Gen Y, hyper-marketed to and attuned to falsity, can sense intuitively when they are being sold a false bill of goods.
So how do we make sure that our congregations are places of powerful honesty? We have to live it out.
Honest to our self: Who is your parish? What is it facing now that it is challenging with radical honesty? Whatever your parish’s core identity is, there is nothing so precious, in terms of communication and evangelism, than living into it with integrity. If you are an evangelical parish then live into it. If you are an Anglo-Catholic parish, then live into it. If you are a parish focused on social justice, then live into it. Lean into your strengths and allow them not simply to be a story that you tell but a way of being that defines those who are part of your parish.
Honest to youth: How can we be more honest with our youth? We must begin by being a place of transparency. Is your Christian life hard? Admit it. Are you struggling with faith? Admit it. Are you wrestling with temptation and sin? Admit it. We spend too much time as Church coming together to pretend everything is fine. Gen Y culture is surprisingly adept at dealing with complexity and flux. We don’t need to be perfect Christians, just honest ones. The more we can create a climate of trust and healthy vulnerability, the more we will be ready to engage youth and young adults. They don’t want us to be a projection of the ideal Church – they simply want us to be honestly open.
Honest to society: How do we preach the Gospel and confront the injustices of society? The Church is called not to be relevant but to be an authentic presence that offers a counter-narrative to the falsity of marketed identity. We have to be a voice that young people can turn to as they sort through who they are and what values they will live by. Your church is ideally positioned to address a host of issues locally with integrity and boldness. This means confronting the ills of homelessness, environmental abuse, broken families, a failing education system, and more. We need to be the kinds of churches that hold up a mirror for society and do what the Church has always done – lift up the holy and heal the broken.
The combination of a comprehensive and authentic narrative paired with the honesty of well-lived lives will go far in communicating with and drawing in young adults. Yet we must be ready to name those places in our common life in which we fall short of both our founders’ vision and our call to mission and evangelism. I can think of no place better to begin than for a parish to sit with the Baptismal Covenant and honestly ask itself, corporately and individually, how it is living into the heart of our shared identity.
Drawing Gen X and Gen Y is not easy because being authentically and powerfully honest is difficult. Yet every congregation can find itself powerfully equipped for this ministry by doing the hard work of self-examination and joyful inquiry. Nothing is more liberating than finding those places where God is calling us to rejoice in our strengths and to leave behind those things that are inhibiting us from being places of honesty and authenticity.