For Park Avenue Christian Church (The Park) in New York City, the key to growth wasn’t searching outside their building’s walls, but instead, listening to the people already inside them.
When executive minister Rev. Stephanie Kendell accepted her call in 2017, The Park already had a very diverse congregation, with a median age of 35. Still, she saw potential for further connection.
After church one Sunday, she asked a few of the young adults if they knew each other, and they said no. Recognizing that New York City can be a difficult place to connect, she organized a meal, expecting around seven people to attend.
Twenty people showed up.
Since that first meeting in November 2017, The Park’s “YASS” Young Adult Socials program has had 100 percent retention, and 20 percent growth with every event. Several new participants have since become members of the church.
“When they showed up, we weren’t what they expected us to be,” Kendell says.
“We aren’t trying to subvert the norm of church; we’re trying to create our own new norm.” As an “unabashedly justice-seeking congregation,” Kendell says, “our message seems to resonate with young people looking for a place to connect.”
Kendell attributes their success to a critical factor: listening.
The Park has been intentional about not making assumptions about anyone or any age group. Instead of researching what researchers say young people want, The Park listens to what their young people are requesting.
When the young adult group met for lunch, Kendell listened intently to their conversations. She kept hearing the phrase, “But what about…?” In their discussions around Biblical teachings and spirituality, members would interject with questions like “But what about women?” or “But what about poor people?”
This phrase stuck in her head, and became the name of a new Bible study to answer her question to the young adults: “What’s not being talked about in church that needs to be talked about?” Kendell says leading the discussions of taboo topics allows participants to feel comfortable exploring their passions in a faith context. “Not being afraid to be bold in our journey with Jesus is what is bringing people to our church.”
The first monthly study, led by Rev. Sydney Avent, The Park’s pastor for social justice and worship life, has focused on intimate partner violence. Wanting to be intentional and sensitive to the importance of this work, The Park hired a counselor to be on-site during these conversations, to support those who may seek deeper support around their own experiences.
Through these programs and more, Kendell says, The Park is showing their members of all ages that there is a place for them at the table.
“Every generation becomes the generation that leads. We need to value them for who they are, not for who we want them to be. We need to tell them that we see God in them now, not just when they get older.”