Most of my childhood was spent in Florida, United States, which is known as the Sunshine State. As a kid I was always amazed during the height of winter when we locals would be layered and bundled, that visitors would be in shorts and flip flops—some even enjoying the beach or swimming in a pool. In January!
But it’s 50 degrees outside! Brrrrr!
These people often came from the northern United States, where it was bitterly cold; and many had come south to escape the frigid temperatures and harsh conditions. I heard some of those folks called “snowbirds,” because they “migrate” to places of warmth and sunshine. Leave the cold, go where it’s warm. Smart move, snowbirds! Smart move.
Those words, “escaping the cold,” brought to my mind life today in the church, and how sometimes our faith communities can be downright, nose-numbing chilly. Recently I posted on a comment on social media that received considerable reaction online:
“What I love about that church is they are so cold and condescending,” said no one ever.
The departure of young people, as well as people of all ages, from relationally cold churches has been well documented in research.1 It seems like common sense for warm-blooded humans. “I’m don’t like the cold; I want to go where it’s warm.”
Could a change of interpersonal temperature be a key to not only keeping, but also attracting young people into local church life?
Authors Kara Powell, Brad Griffin, and Jake Mulder, in their book Growing Young, researched more than 250 congregations that were drawing young people into their churches. In speaking to more than 1,300 young churchgoers, ages 15 to 29, the authors discovered what next generations want: authenticity and connection.2
In a word: warmth.
The Growing Young authors analyzed the terms that young adults used to describe the churches or faith communities that they chose, and noticed these words repeatedly: welcoming, accepting, belonging, authentic, hospitable, and caring. The authors began to call this finding the “warmth cluster.”
My friend and mentor, Roger Dudley, put it best:
“I concluded that while there are many factors in retention, I really think that the congregational climate is perhaps the most important thing of all. Young people, when they think about Seventh-day Adventists, they don’t think about the denomination as a whole. To them, Adventism is that congregation. If that congregation is a warm, accepting place, then Seventh-day Adventism must be a good thing. If that congregation is a place that is struggling, then they wonder, ‘What’s the matter with Adventists?’ I guess adults do that too, but young people do it particularly.”3
This rings true for me too. When I think back to the reasons I have remained in love with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, my first impulse has rarely been to point to a belief, doctrine, policy, or cultural practice. It’s just as rare that I point to a building, location, or region.
When I identify what has adhered me to the faith it is almost always a fond memory of a person embodying the “warmth cluster,” someone who was Jesus to me. From my teen years through young adulthood, I can point to people who showed belief in me, interest, and most certainly . . . warmth. I can name wonderful and warm Christ-followers who made it hard for me to imagine being anywhere other than the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
As an adult, and having lived at times where winters can be brutal, I definitely identify with the snowbirds who are drawn to places where the sun shines and the climate is warm. Like young people, I too tend to migrate to spiritual spaces where people are kind and the relationship temperature is inviting. May our churches be filled with warm, accepting, genuine relationships.
Next time a snowbird flutters to your faith community, what will the temperature be? My prayers is that they will find in you a person who is welcoming, accepting, authentic, hospitable, and caring.
Here are some suggestions to fuel a warm community in your local church:
- New to You: Introduce yourself to who you don’t know. Having some intentionality to your approach is important so that you don’t stumble in your attempt (saying “Hi you’re new here,” Only to find out they have been attending for some time). Say something like, “Hi, you’re new to me. My name is __________,” allows you to meet new people at church, work, or school.
- Food: It used to be customary to invite new people over for lunch after Sabbath services. But with time this practice has faded some. Meals are still a great way to get to know people, and for young people food is always attractive. You may find it rewarding to regularly make new friends over a meal.
- Serve Side by Side: Community service, humanitarian causes, and social justice afford all generations opportunities to work alongside each other to help those in need. Such opportunities also serve to forge friendships and meet people with whom you might not otherwise interact. Be intentional to serve regularly and look to build relationships with those around you.
For more ideas about fueling warm relationships, go to GrowingYoungAdventists.com
1 Report by Alex Bryant at 2019 eHuddle, http://www.facebook.com/NADAdventist/videos/562687697544563/