by Elizabeth McBride

Imagine throwing a party and inviting only people who wear green hats. You spend weeks focused on attracting green hat-wearing people to the party. When the day of the party comes, a couple of green hat-wearers come through the door, and you’re thrilled! Except that after a while you notice that these green hat-wearers aren’t what you expected. You don’t have as much in common as you hoped you would. The shade of their hats is not exactly the shade of green you had pictured. And where are all of the other green hat-wearers? Why did only these few show up? Furthermore, to the people that actually do show up to your party, you express your discouragement and proclaim that green hat-wearing women never show up to your parties. Everyone is disappointed—you, the people in green hats and the people without hats who feel unappreciated and unwelcome.

Does this example sound ridiculuous? It is. But often when congregations or women’s groups want to add new members, they fall into a similar trap. A lot of focus is placed on attracting a certain kind of person into our groups – young people, new families, a hip new pastor, etc. But the problem with this kind of focus on building congregations is that it can come off as tokenism and inauthentic. It is ideal to include people who may see things differently than you or your current group, but there has to be a genuine connection and willingness to be receptive to changes that may come as a result. A quest to fill your pews with younger bodies does not make an intergenerational community, and it doesn’t serve younger women of faith either.

Sometimes before we set out to attract new, younger or different people, we need to ask ourselves why we are doing that in the first place. Is our group really hoping to create an inclusive community, or are we thinking that we are not as valuable because we lack young bodies in our photos? Are we hoping to connect with younger women to build and sustain an authentic relationship, or do we think a younger person will somehow magically save our congregation or revive our burned out group?

I see this a lot in my work as director for intergenerational programs at Women of the ELCA. Women’s groups want younger women to participate but don’t know exactly know why. Or perhaps they do know why, but the reason is out of a sense of fear or scarcity. Communities that focus on scarcity aren’t sustainable; however, communities that foster a sense of abundance may succeed.

Authentic abundance

Parker Palmer writes in his book, Let your life speak: “Authentic abundance does not lie in secured stockpiles of food or cash or influence or affection, but in belonging to a community where we can give those goods to others who need them – and receive them from others when we are in need.”

There is something special that happens when women of different backgrounds, ages and experiences get together bound by a common faith in Jesus Christ. They celebrate the abundance they have been gifted by God with others so that they may too experience it. They give what they have to empower women and girls and make the world a more compassionate and positive place.

I’ve seen it. Women meet monthly over Café, Women of the ELCA’s online magazine written mostly by young women. Women in their 20s to 80s have met to discuss the articles, prayed together and shared their ups and downs—they’ve built authentic community.

I’ve witnessed teens at a Women of the ELCA display focused on raising awareness about human trafficking at the ELCA Youth Gathering asking, “How do we get involved?” and emptying their pockets.

I met a woman who told me how one article about miscarriage in Café inspired her to invite women of different ages—even women of different faiths—to come together and talk about a topic that brought grief but also healing. This is authentic community—different women, different faiths even, looking to a community to “give those goods to others who need them and receive them from others when they are in need.”

Intergenerational community works when there is an authentic relationship. Relationships that are built on mutual respect are sustainable—but if we focus solely on including a certain demographic, like young adults, we will fail both current and potential participants.

Leaders can make a difference

Leaders must also be aware of how their messages to attract new or younger people may sound. Women’s groups may use language at their meetings or in their newsletters that sounds negative about struggling to engage young women in their groups. Leaders who preach scarcity and stoke fear about their group dying will not bring new and younger people to participate. They will only alienate current participants at best and scare off younger people at worst.

Do you remember that saying, “What am I, chopped liver?” Women who do show up at your events do not need to be made to feel unimportant because they don’t fit a “desireable” demographic. The problem with focusing on younger women is that it is completely subjective. Age has nothing to do value. It is a biological process that does not make up someone’s identity—and that single criteria certainly does not help build or sustain community. Young women have skills and gifts that can benefit a group. Let that be the reason you want to build a more inclusive community.

Doing the hard work

Authentic community takes work. Throwing an annual tea for the women in your church group is not going to transform it. But continued effort in making positive change in your congregation and community will. It takes effort to bring people together. It takes time and understanding to meet others in your congregation and even more time and understanding to get to know how to relate to those in your community.

It can be uncomfortable to talk to new people in your community and congregation. Perhaps you have to convince leaders in your congregation that an intergenerational women’s group is needed so that the whole community can grow. And you might be the only person that is invested in making change happen. However, just because you lack power in numbers does not mean that there will be nothing to gain. The idea may be slow in developing, but your effort to try something new— meeting new people where they are and sharing your faith in Jesus—is never a waste.

Most importantly, if you desire authentic connection, you cannot keep meeting those who think like you. You have to be ready and open to involve those not like you.

Here are some ways that you can broaden your community, while sharing the abundance of authentic relationship connected by your faith in Jesus Christ.

Be visible, so many may find you

You have numerous tools available to you to get the message out about your women’s group: personal invitation and online tools.

You can meet people in person, and you can post messages to your congregation’s Facebook page. You can also add invitations to your events on your congregation’s website. By using electronic media, like social media and websites, you can reach a broad audience. Younger people are looking for new places to worship, whether you may know it or not.

But don’t think you have to be visible online only. Other personal invitations can work too. I recall that the young woman who raised the most money at Women of the ELCA’s Run, Walk and Roll event at a triennial gathering was an eight-year-old girl named Zoe. She told us that she stood in front of her congregation every Sunday and invited the congregation to support her participation in the race. She raised $5,000. That money went toward supporting health initiatives for women and girls. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for her to invite her congregation, but she didn’t stop after one Sunday announcement.

Celebrate those when they show up

How often do you hear people at your church talk about the number of women that didn’t show up to your event or convention. In order to celebrate an authentic community, do not rely on counting warm bodies. Do not be concerned about numbers or how many “young” women you have in attendance. Authentic community building means building relationship connections over time, maybe one person at a time.

Experience something new outside

When working to create an authentic space, why not move out of your comfort zone? Move beyond the church building and do service in the community. You can organize a group at your congregation or at your local Starbucks and connect with a non-profit that could use help.  The website connects volunteers with organizations in your area. Also, opportunities for new and young women to join in any service opportunity are best. Not all women know how to quilt, but any woman can help sort boxes of food at a food bank. Make sure you have easy entry points for all volunteers.

Help provide a solution

Are there groups of women that you know of in your community that could use some assistance? Are there local women’s shelters that could use your group’s amazing skills at providing luncheons? Think about ways your group can be a blessing to others. Take an assessment of what gifts your group possesses. Then share your gifts widely. Women of all ages can participate.

Stop using excuses

Sometimes we may be tempted to dismiss starting something new because we have been used to traditions and can’t imagine another way of doing things. We may also think that others may think like we do. Maybe we convinced ourselves that nobody else wants to do something new either—whether that’s true or not.

One of my favorite stories was a woman sharing a concern with her new pastor that the congregation she was a part of for 30 years was dying. The pastor corrected her about the number of new families that started to show up every Sunday. This woman attended an earlier service, so she never witnessed these new families simply because they came to church later than she did. Sometimes we tell ourselves things based on our own perceptions, and they may not actually be true.

Learn how to do something new

If posting on social media about your upcoming events scares you, look to take a class. Or better yet ask a friend or family member who can help you. If public speaking is difficult, you can practice or take a class too.

At the end of his book, Palmer writes: “Community doesn’t just create abundance—community is abundance.” Let us remember that we can share the abundance by working toward creating an open and supportive intergenerational community in our congregations and communities, green hats or not.

Elizabeth McBride is director for intergenerational programs for Women of the ELCA and editor of Café.