In an age of 24/7 transparency and on-line streaming of statuses, photos, check-ins, and tweets, we are more connected to more people than ever before in human history. We have absurd amounts of "friends" and "followers" and are tempted to allow these lists to define who we are and what we do. There is not much left to the imagination and some would even wonder why we talk anymore when what we would say in person has already been posted and made public on-line.
In a sense, we are known.
Yet, youth ministry directors and church pastors continue to hear, when pressed about lack of involvement in related activities and formation opportunities, the common refrain from adults and youth alike: "I don't know anyone."
Is it possible that in this technological age we are paradoxically more connected than ever before and more disconnected than ever before?
Despite instant access to the masses across diverse cultural, geographic, and linguistic barriers, we still fear anonymity. We are anxious about the unfamiliar. We struggle with being the new guy or new girl. We don't like not knowing anyone.
We wonder if we are really known.
When we combine not knowing and not being known the real tremptation is to not engage and assume not being welcome. That said, I offer below a few words for fence sitters and actively involved participants in the hopes of fostering opportunities to overcome a key barrier to church and youth ministry involvement: But I don't know anyone.
Words for Fence Sitters
I start here not because you bear the brunt of responsibility, but because you deeply matter. I once heard that the future does not come from the front of the room, but from the back. The real voice of influence is not the one spoken most and with the greatest force, but the real voice of influence often has yet to be spoken, heard, or considered. Faith communities need you. While we may not always come across as though we value your presence and long for your gifts, we do. So with humility and recognition of our tendency to hinder your desire to engage, we dare you and invite you once again (or for the first time) to:
Take a Risk: The first step is often the hardest. The fear of not knowing and not being known are difficult and seemingly impossible obstacles to overcome. It takes courage and risk to walk into a crowd without the comfort of a familiar face. But we are praying for you, we are looking for you, churches and youth ministries are hoping for you to come. And then, just maybe, you won't be so unfamiliar...and neither will we.
Invite Someone to Come with You: The best way to defeat the fear of not knowing and not being known is to bring someone with you who you do know. Don't travel alone. Bring a friend.
Come More Than Once: The only thing more difficult than risk taking is to build relationships and become familiar when you only have experienced a particular community once. True- first impressions are very telling of what you may be getting into, but come a second, third, fourth time and discover what these communities are really all about. We are so grateful for those who offer second chances...
Share Your Gifts: We not only want you to come, we would love for you to share what makes you uniquely you. What gifts can you bring to our community that can shed light in a new way what it means to be alive, to be human, and to be created in the imago Dei.
Provide Feedback: Again, your voice matters. Share with those connected about your experience. If you have taken the risk and decided to stay involved and connected, share with others why. Reflect with those in your community about what kept you coming. If your experience with a particular community was poor and you have decided not to return, please take a final risk and provide feedback. Communities depend on such reflections in order to improve their witness and welcome.
Words for Active Participants
Don't Hoard the Good Stuff: Jesus said it this way, and your choir teach may have, too: don't hide your light under a bushel- No! Look for ways to share the blessings of Christian community with others. Remember, the good news is not only for us, but also and especially for the whole world.
Look for the New Person: It's easy to get caught up in what's familiar and miss the person walking in for the first time. Have the eyes to see those who are taking a risk and daring to be a part of what the Spirit is up to in this place. Introduce them to others in the community and be willing to listen.
Names and Stories: Nothing says I know you like actually asking for and remembering a name. Take it a step farther and ask about who they are, what they like, and be willing to share a little about yourself, too. When it comes down to it, Christian community is an art of massive storytelling and story sharing. Know yours. Share it. Listen to those of others. Youth ministries and churches must do a better job to create space for these sorts of real human interactions and storytelling.
Follow-Up: Send a note of welcome. Post an encouraging comment on a Facebook timeline. Tweet a shout out. I hear phone calls still are possible, too :) Remind new friends and neighbors that they matter and their risk to participate was noticed and appreciated. We would love to have you back!
Pray: Know that God is the one who provokes us by the Spirit to follow Jesus. Pray for those who have yet to come. Pray for courage to extend invitations, especially to those labeled as "outsiders." Pray for those who have taken the risk and shown up. Pray for them to stay connected.
"The Church seeks to include all people and is never content to enjoy the benefits of Christian community for itself alone."
PCUSA Book of Order F.1.0302a