A couple of years ago, I met with a college student whom I was interested in recruiting as an intern. He was a philosophy major with dark-rimmed glasses, floppy haircut, skinny jeans and desert boots who had come to our meeting on his dad’s old 10-speed bike. In other words, he was the quintessential hipster!
I walked him through a two-page document I had created that was filled with bright, expressive icons and graphics that laid out the core commitments of Free Methodism. From the prophetic work of Howard Snyder and his call to Free Methodist renewal written for our 150th anniversary as a denomination (fmchr.ch/sstcgbhs and fmchr.ch/sesqhs), I used the terms of being “Anglo-Catholic,” “Anabaptist,” “Evangelical” and “Charismatic” as I walked this young man through core descriptions of our movement.
He paused and then traced his index finger around the square graphic that contained these terms. He said, “This square could be titled ‘David.’”
In other words, he was telling me that the comprehensive sweep of our legacy and mission perfectly summarized his own identity as a follower of Christ. He beamed at me as he said this.
Fast-forward to my meeting with another young man who was a communication studies major, focused on intercultural communication. As a biracial man (Caucasian and Chinese), he was especially interested in hearing about our history. As I described our foundations in 1860 — built on abolition and a rejection of the pew tax — and how those commitments are carried on today as we pursue ministry with the marginalized, he said, “I can’t believe there is actually a church like this.” I was so happy to confirm that, indeed, there is a church like this.
I came to the Free Methodist Church in 2009 after 27 years of working in youth ministry and leadership development, both in parachurch organizations and churches. I started coaching many of our Free Methodist pastors in Southern California and fell in love with the Free Methodist movement: the history rooted in social justice, the connectivity among our churches, and the diversity of ethnicity and leadership. I was thoroughly impressed with the depth and breadth of ministry flowing in and through our churches.
However, I noticed we lacked younger people in many churches. I approached one of our superintendents and said, “I’m concerned that we do not have a pipeline of emerging young leaders.” From there, we started the Center for Transformational Leadership (CTL), shaped by a vision received by Southern California Lead Superintendent Denny Wayman at General Conference 2011. Our first step was to launch a summer intern program, focusing on college students and young adults. We matched them with leaders in our churches who could mentor them. Since 2011, we have had 45 interns go through our program, and as of December 2015, 71 percent of our interns have remained with Free Methodism.
I have shared with anyone who will listen that for me, inviting young adults into Free Methodism is like “shooting fish in a barrel.” When shared in a clear and compelling way, I have found it surprisingly easy to invite today’s Millennials to check us out.
When I meet with young people, I focus on these core truths (which I discuss in an online video at fmchr.ch/ksoiferv):
• We are a movement more than an institution.
I like to talk more with student about who we are more than what we do. Recent research by Gallup has concluded that “Millennials don’t just work for a paycheck — they want a purpose” (fmchr.ch/gallupm). Bishop David Roller has stated that Free Methodism is “a movement born of rebellion.” Young people like to rebel, so let’s scratch that itch! As my opening illustrations point out, young people are drawn to things that are authentic and meaningful. We can offer that to them.
• Our history is fascinating.
I recently read Donald Dayton’s classic “Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage.” The book recounts the growth of the Holiness Movement in the late 19th century, and Chapter 9 contains a wonderfully compelling account of our beginnings as an expression of the Christian responsibility to the poor and oppressed. When I shared this chapter with a new group of college interns, we had an animated discussion about it. They were so interested in learning more.
• Our reach is stunning.
Praise God that the faithful ministry of many past Free Methodist missionaries has reaped profound results in the present. Given that more than 90 percent of Free Methodists are not in North America, we can affirm that we are truly a global movement, and this feeds the Millennial desire to be innovative and international in scope.
• Our polity creates safety and health.
In light of the media’s prevalent horror stories of abuse and dysfunction in churches, you might be surprised to hear that students are becoming more interested in the safe boundaries provided by healthy polity. I have experienced the effectiveness of inviting young people into the ways we provide accountability and vision. I’m currently working with a church that is excited to invite youth to go through membership classes in order to become members at 16 as prescribed in the Book of Discipline.
As stated earlier, more than 70 percent of the non-Free Methodist young adults I’ve recruited since 2011 have joined and remained in our movement. Some have entered the ordination process, and nearly all of them have continued in ministry in some form. Perhaps best of all, they have also invited their friends. Gallup research perhaps says it best in describing the hearts of young people today: “Does this organization value my strengths and my contribution? Does this organization give me the chance to do what I do best every day?”
If you are committed to inviting individuals into community and partnership like this, you will find interest. It’s good to belong.
Kelly Soifer is the director of recruiting and leadership development for the Free Methodist Church in Southern California and the transformational internships director for the Pacific Northwest Conference. Go to kellysoifer.blogspot.com for more of her writing.3