[Warning: Long post ahead.]
This past Sunday was the youth-led service at my church. The youth were wonderful, eloquent, and generally awesome. During a transition between pieces of the service two folks seated behind me whispered that if these teens were so invested in the church, the congregation and Unitarian Universalism as a whole, why do they disappear. Well, it was certainly not the time or place for me to throw my two cents in, but, as a young adult myself, this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart.
I participate in the youth program at a congregational and a district level, and have done so for four years. The youth program as I have watched it, works a lot like a covenant group, although conferences that have large participation can clearly change that up. The conferences I have attended used family groups (or touch groups) to try to alleviate that. People check in with each other, usually have a topic(s)to discuss, but are also open to suggestions based on other participants' input.
Youth worship is typically circle worship - where the leaders encourage group participation (rather than square worship, where people are talking at you and your participation is standing and singing at the appropriate times).
All of this leads to opportunities to get to know the people sitting next to you and near you. Certainly the structures of conferences where there are several days to work the process are different from what you can accomplish in a single day or morning. So these kids often come away with close friendships, or at least a clear sense of community - deeper than the we all go to the same church feeling.
Then they age out or bridge into young adulthood.
Now, I hear that there are churches and congregations with really active young adult programs. I have participated in some young adult stuff at my church - covenant groups and pot lucks - and within the state. But they tend to be monthly, sporadic. Certainly that has to do a little with the fact as you move into young adulthood, schedules fill up.
But I think a lot of churches just assume that hey, young adults are just like everyone else now, so square worship is all fine and good. And if you want to get to know folks, join a committee! And when they look around and see that they don't have many young adults, they say that it is because young adults don't like church. Young adults want to sleep in. They'll come back when they have kids. And certainly some will come back. And some will go somewhere else, because it's closer or offers more support and community to people like them.
And I don't want to knock the hard work that many people are doing for and with young adults. But I think there are a lot of people who don't understand any reason that young adults need anything different than people in their forties (old adults?) or fifties or nineties. Or who have written it off as a natural part of the growing process to leave the church you were raised in for a while.
I was looking for a church in college, but I kept finding traditional stuff. Nothing that inspired me to choose it over sleeping in with any regularity. There was a Thursday evening service at one church but it wasn't my kind of church, so despite the convenience of the timing, I didn't go back.
The other piece is that, having spoken with the folks who run the middle school program, a lot of kids are lost before they hit middle school, so they spend a lot of time trying to get some of those kids back. I know we never get the full population of rising eighth graders. So it is as both sides of this that people are being shaved off of the whole. And sure, the older you get, the more choices you are likely to have about how you spend your Sunday mornings, so some of that is inevitable.
So, I guess, to nutshell it, instead of asking why they don't come back, I think we should ask what we are doing to keep them connected, to make them want to come back.
ETA: Clearing out the backlog in my email box, I came across this, written by a former YRUU member and current young adult. Ethan touches on something I didn't get into of fear of writing a novella, the risk of losing experienced UU leaders