Caring for Young Adult Friends

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Monthly meetings all over the United States struggle with attracting new attenders, particularly Young Adult Friends (YAFs) who fall between the ages of 18 and 35.  It’s a rather large and indiscriminate cohort, but the people in that cohort (including me) have something in common: whether convinced, birthright, or exploring, we just don’t seem to be sticking around.

I began attending unprogrammed Quaker meetings when I was six years old.  My parents found their way to Orange Grove Monthly Meeting in Los Angeles on a quest for a faith tradition that could straddle the gulf between my mother’s disillusioned Catholicism and my father’s steadfast atheism. I was twelve when my parents moved to the San Francisco Bay Area.  Palo Alto Meeting lacked a cohort of kids my age, so my mother plopped me in a lightly padded chair, and I became a “real attender.”  When I turned 18, I became a member of Palo Alto Monthly Meeting.

In college, I became an entirely different kind of Quaker. Without my family, I gradually fell out of the habit of attending Meeting for Worship. It should have been easy – I attended Swarthmore College; the meetinghouse is right on campus; I practically could have rolled out of bed and into Meeting. But it didn’t feel like “home.”  After graduating, I moved a few times and attended a few different meetings – Race Street in Philadelphia, Palo Alto again, and 15th Street Meeting in New York. During that time, I’ve gotten a sense of what works and what doesn’t work in encouraging vibrant Young Adult communities to emerge.

It can be tempting to assert that the primary problem is simply the result of demographic changes.  A 2012 study by the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University found that only one-fourth of “College Age Millennials,” those ages 18-24, attend religious services weekly.  A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center found that a third of people under the age of thirty are religiously unaffiliated.  More and more young people are saying that the religions they grew up in haven’t met their needs, and they’re failing to find any religions that do satisfy them.

However, despite these broad demographic trends, Quakerism still ought to be a highly attractive religion to young adults.  Studies show that “Millennials” feel strongly about social justice issues, particularly about issues concerning race, gender and sexuality.   Quakerism has a long tradition of inclusiveness, independence, and radical social justice, and it offers support to young adults who seek to act on these concerns.  Quakerism also offers support for young adults to develop their own spirituality, as it arises from their personal communion with the Inner Light. Despite all this, many Quaker meetings are failing to meet the needs of young adult Friends and are failing to open their arms to new attenders who could contribute to the life of the meeting, both in its business and its spiritual life. When young adult Friends do feel welcomed into an established Quaker community, we refresh and invigorate the Quaker practice there.  

Quakers often feel that the level of effort needed to establish new connections with young adults is simply too much.  Young adults are notorious for attending meeting sporadically, or attending intensely for a while and then disappearing.  However, it’s important to remember that even when a young adult moves away, if they have had a positive experience at one Quaker meeting, they are more likely to seek out and invigorate another monthly meeting. Conversely, if they have a negative experience at one meeting, they may not search further. Also, addressing the needs of young adults has the added benefit of addressing the needs of other new attenders. Effective outreach to young adults will strengthen effective outreach generally.

There are several different difficulties that meetings experience when trying to hold onto their young adult communities.  I would summarize these difficulties by saying that they are all related to seeing, listening, and engaging.

Seeing: It’s sad, but there are meetings that simply fail to see and recognize the presence of young adults in Meeting for Worship.  The best time to see whether young adults have dared to attend is during the introductions time after worship. Too often however, when Meeting breaks for fellowship after introductions, new attenders look around and slither towards the door, ignored by the long-time attenders chatting animatedly over animal crackers.   Members can make a huge difference by really paying attention to those who introduce themselves and by introducing new attenders to others. Race Street Meeting and 15th Street Meeting are both successful with this type of welcoming.

Friends also need to see that not all young adult Friends are alike. They might not have much in common with each other besides their age.  Some may have been raised within the Quaker tradition, while others may have encountered Quakerism after they become adults.  Some young adults are settled, while others move frequently. Some are single, some partnered, and some have children or dependents.  Some are ready to shoulder the costs of membership – both in terms of time and money – and some are not.

Ironically, young adult Friends who were raised as Quakers sometimes find it harder to integrate into the adult life of the Meeting than do young adult Friends who discovered Quakerism as adults.  Young adult Friends like me, who were brought into Quakerism as young children, sometimes find we must struggle against an ingrained sense of who we were in our meetings as children and teens.  

Listening: Also vitally important in fostering a welcoming atmosphere for young adults is the practice of active listening for ministry from them. In unprogrammed meetings, it can take months or even years for an attender to develop enough bravery and connection to the Spirit to feel moved to speak. Long-time attenders may fail to recognize that special nervousness, because it has been so long since they first spoke.  The emotions can be so intense that they send attenders fleeing. Thanking people for the messages they offer is a simple way to reassure them that their ministry is welcomed. New attenders’ lack of practice at spoken ministry can make the messages seem awkward, but if experienced members can listen for the meaning and not the mode of delivery, new attenders – especially young adults – will be more likely to share in and enrich the religious life of the meeting.

It’s important to listen respectfully to the ministry of young adults in Meeting for Business as well.  Ministry by young adults in Meeting for Business is sometimes labeled “naive” by members who have spent countless hours in Business Meetings.  Experienced members might believe that young adult Friends lack the extensive, deep understandings of the issues at hand that they themselves carry, and they can respond dismissively instead of with care and consideration. If young adult Friends feel like our input will be heard and addressed, we will be more likely to become active members of the business side of Meeting as well.

Engaging: I will conclude with a list of suggestions that come from young adult Friends I know from many different meetings. These ideas that have been shown to be effective in helping Friends foster more vibrant young adult attendance in their meetings. Some of the suggestions are simple, while others are more complex.

  • Be Friendly:  New attenders are always nervous.  Make an effort, every week, to greet the brand new attenders and express your joy at their presence.
  • Talk About It:  Have a meeting-wide discussion about how to be welcoming and inclusive.  Alyssa says that her meeting hosted a speaker and discussion on this topic at about the same time she first began to attend the meeting.  As a result, she knew that the meeting was “willing to work . . . to include outsiders in their community,” and as a result, she’s remained engaged with the Meeting.
  • Change the Way You Welcome:  Erika suggests having a person or group, like a welcoming committee, attach themselves to new attenders the first few times they come, and introduce them to people.  The more people a young adult knows, the more connections they will have to the meeting, and the more likely they are to return.
  • Listen:  Just because someone has less experience than you doesn’t mean that they have less insight. Open your mind to what young adults have to offer.
  • Show Your Service:  Many monthly meetings support long-established service opportunities. Remember to ask new attenders to help out.  Many young adults are attracted to the Society of Friends because of our historical commitment to peace and social justice causes.  Opening up opportunities for them to serve shows new attenders that Quakers still care.
  • Start up a YAF group:  For this one, you’ll need some committed volunteers.  Young adult Friends love knowing that there are other YAFs around, and a Y group can help spread the news.  Catherine, a young adult Friend who has attended meetings in Palo Alto, San Francisco, and DC, says that building a vibrant young adult group can be tough, but it can work if you have a couple people who are committed to fostering this community.

Find two volunteers to organize a young adult Friend get-together once a month after Meeting for Worship. Announce the get-together weekly, and make it low-pressure, low budget, and easy to attend. Be committed and consistent.  At least 3/4 of the young adults who come on any given week might not come again, so the organizer needs to keep on organizing the get-togethers, even if people flake.  Make sure you keep an e-mail list of attenders, and send regular reminders.  

Every monthly meeting is different.  The best way to figure out what might work for your meeting is to ask young adult Friends and other new attenders what has worked for them and what has not.  Ask questions, see the Young Adult Friends among you, listen, and engage.  Grow the life of your meeting! ~~~

Cara Arcuni is a member of Palo Alto Monthly Meeting.  She was a founding member of Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Youth Program Coordinator Supervisory Committee. She attends graduate school in New York City.

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