Youth are not the church of the future: an interview with Connor McCarson

Connor McCarson

As an avid follower of the blog 10 Things That Annoy Me, I was intrigued by the post from Connor McCarson. Among other things, he is annoyed "When peole say that the youth are the 'church of the future.'" I asked him about this and much more in the interview you read below. You can hear more from Connor on his blog Born in '98.

The basics: Your name, age, grade in school, school you attend, church you attend, diocese

I’m Connor McCarson, and I’m a freshman in high school. I go Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Missouri. I attend St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in the Diocese of West Missouri.

Tell us a little bit about your involvement in your parish and in the Episcopal Church. 

I’m a cradle Episcopalian, and have been going to church almost every Sunday for my whole life. My family and I used to attend the diocese’s cathedral, but we moved to a church closer to our house when I was in third grade. I hated church when I was little, but what can I say? Most children do. It was boring, quiet and I would rather be at home watching TV or playing with my friends. It wasn’t till that fateful Sunday a few years ago when my mom made me go to the fall kickoff for our church’s youth group that I started getting a grip on my faith. Ever since then, I’ve become a leader within my youth group, and also a leader in my parish. I have a powerful voice in my parish, which is surprising even for me. I also have been attending Diocesan events since sixth grade, and have grown into a leader there as well. I am a part of the Youth Action Council of the diocese, which is a group that gives youth leadership skills and are usually in charge of planning events. This summer a designated group of these teens, including me, who were known for their maturity and leadership skills took a trip to General Convention #77. That experience changed my life and has thrown me into the heart of the Episcopal Church. It is my passion, and I hope that passion never dies.

How would you describe your ministry? How has the Church encouraged you--or hindered you?

I am so glad that I happened to be born into the Episcopalian faith. It has made me who I am today in every way. I was raised in a house where opinions were shared with, not forced upon the children in it. The same is with the Episcopalian Church. I was able to form my own opinions on what I believed in, and in how I applied those to how I used those beliefs in my everyday life. It has pushed me to be mature in how I act, and to try my best to pick up my cross and follow Christ.  By doing this, the Church has also put me in a much different maturity level than most of my peers, sometimes leaving me stranded.

You posted a list of 10 things that annoy you. #6 was "When people say that the youth are the 'church of the future...'" How and when have people said that, either overtly or through their actions?  

Actually, the amount of people saying it has dies down exponentially very recently. It was said almost exclusively by older Episcopalians who thought they were being they were being sympathetic to the youth. Nobody who’s said has been an enemy to the youth of the church; in fact they’re usually trying to help. What they don’t see is that by saying that it’s separating us from the church now, like we don’t matter until we’re not youth anymore. There are a lot of adults who appreciate the fact that youth are a part of our church, but don’t get to the heart of why they’re there. It’s a simple lack of enlightenment. If we brought out these people to one my youth group meeting or a YAC (Youth Action Council) meeting, they would probably change the way they behaved almost immediately.

Annoyance #7 was "when people think my opinions don't matter or aren't useful because I'm 14." When have your opinions been ignored or overlooked? 

It happened a lot more when I was younger, because I was still in middle school. In the Episcopal Church, this instance almost never happens. There a couple of people who just won’t take mine or any other youth’s opinions into account, no matter how old we are. I’ve met priests of other churches who disregard me, yes, priests. It’s more in the outside world that I am still not a “member of society” yet. I haven’t been through high school or college, so therefore I know nothing. Teachers, parents, coaches, etc. have pushed me aside because I’m younger and don’t matter.

What do you think can be done to change these attitudes in our churches?

It’s a simple answer that will make you think I wasn’t paying attention to the question. We need to evangelize. Almost every youth that wants to be involved in being a part of the church already is. Youth keep trying to change what they’re saying to the church, but that’s not going to change anything. We need to change how loud we’re saying it. The more youth you have to show, the bigger the impact is. We need to find those people in our schools, teams, and work who are searching for God and be courageous enough to invite them to church or youth group. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge about being a teenager in the church?

Explaining it to your friends. Some of my best friends are in my diocese youth program, but I have so many more than that. Since I go to a Catholic school, all my friends are catholic, or basically not Episcopalian. I have to explain to them what I believe almost every time I bring up my church. Not only that, but I end up being the kid who goes to church camp and is really invested in his church. And at school, that isn’t always a good thing.

What do you think marks a successful youth program? What can churches do to make that happen? 

A youth group that as I say “learns hard, plays hard, and prays hard” will do everything to satisfy youth from 6-12 grades. You need to provide youth with not only time to socialize on the weekends, but time to get close to God and delve into what that means in the world today. Youth group is the place where you learn more about your faith and how to apply it to every day of your life. Structurally, that will create a cohesive, well put-together youth program in the sense of what you’re providing. It’s so much more than that though. Many youth leaders like to say that numbers don’t matter, but I think they really do. It’s all about percentages. If you attend a church that has 12 youth in the congregation, a 5-8 people youth group is totally acceptable. If you go to a church with over 100 youth in the congregation and have that many in youth group weekly, you are definitely not reaching all the youth that you can. A successful youth program not only gives the youth all they need, but reaches out to everyone.

On another topic, you're going through a confirmation program this year--some program called Confirm not Conform, I gather. What do you hope to get out of the confirmation process?

The one thing that I want to take from my confirmation is my true membership in the Church that I have called home for the past fourteen years. 

What else do you want the church to know about? What advice do you have for churches who want to better serve their members of all ages? 

I’m going to get off youth for a second here and transition to young adults. Look at your congregation. Who do you see? Probably young families with children; maybe some older families with teens. You’ll see an old person, that’s inevitable; they’ve probably gone to your church since they were kids. You might even see some teens by themselves. What’s missing? The college kids and young single people. Churches nationally are not only missing a huge demographic of people, but doing nothing about it either. We seem to forget them, and by doing that forget to make it a habitable place for them. We need to fulfill our promise of “the Episcopal Church Welcomes You” to include our own family. Make your church a place where all people, of all ages can feel a connection to God. 

Thank you, Connor, for your time and insights, and to Tim Schenck for helping me arrange this interview.