I’m not really talking about attracting young adults to our congregations, although as a young adult, I think that would be a good thing. I’m talking about the transition between childhood and adulthood, including the teenage phase.
Some congregations are fortunate enough to have a Sunday school, or other organised activities for children. I wonder how many of those children will consider themselves to be Unitarians as adults. And of those that are self-described Unitarians, how many will become members of congregations.
It’s difficult to tell, because there are never any figures published, but I think that provision for children, young people and young adults goes a bit like this:
- under 3 years old: may also be a room where crying babies can be taken, some toys may be available, but no guarantee will be suitable for this age group
- 3 to 5 years old: may be quiet toys to play with during the service in the worship space, occasionally intergenerational activities or stories will be suitable
- 5 to 8 years old: often have suitable separate activities during the service in a separate room, otherwise may be quiet toys to play with during the service in the worship space, intergenerational activities or stories will normally be suitable
- 8 to 12 years old: often have suitable separate activities during the service in a separate room, intergenerational activities or stories will normally be suitable
- 12 to 14 years old: possibly have suitable separate activities during the service in a separate room, occasionally intergenerational activities or stories will be suitable
- 14 to 17 years old: occasionally intergenerational activities or stories will be suitable, likely to be expected to either help with the younger ones or enjoy/endure the main service, no age appropriate activities
- 18 to 35 years old: likely to be expected to either help with the children or enjoy/endure the main service
At the congregational level provision focuses on children, the 5 to 12 age group, and pretty much stops there. But those children grow up, and fast. What happens to them then? How does their Unitarian experience continue?
I suspect that many of the youth (11-17) that identify as Unitarians have been persuaded to attend national events, where they seem to find a vibrant community to connect with. This is a good thing. But, how many congregations take advantage of this connection and try to learn from the experiences that their youth have?
National youth programme events contain interesting and innovative worship created by participants. How is this trickling down to worship in Unitarian churches and chapels?
If their peers are the most important influence on teenagers, how are we helping them keep their Unitarian peer group at the local level?
If teenagers enjoy the experience that they get at through the national youth programme, and find the congregational experience completely unappealing, why will they suddenly choose to become members of a congregation when they hit 18?
Many Unitarian congregations want to attract younger adults. But we need to think about what we’re doing to keep the homegrown ones and that starts with looking at what we offer people who have grown out of our children’s programmes.