As church-goers we should "begin to imagine our churches a little differently," said the Rev. Carol Howard Merritt, an author and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister, who spoke April 17 at the Clearwater 2010 conference here.

Using the Israelites' time in the wilderness as a metaphor for today's church, Merritt said, "We’re kind of in a wilderness. We're in decline. Everyone knows it." Addressing the conference theme — "Finding Our Way in the Wilderness" — Merritt asked, "What's over the horizon?"

Speaking of the first congregation she served in Louisiana, Merritt said, "I looked out at my congregation. I started adding 20 years and it didn't look like my congregation was going to be here."

As a denomination, Merritt said, we are quick to lament the "missing generation," acknowledging the need to attract young adults and families with young children. That group is missing from churches. Merritt placed the number of "the missing" at 6 million.

While young adults are missing from church, Merritt said, the church fails to understand how to relate to this younger generation.

"The women's group is meeting on Tuesday morning and they're angry because the young women aren't involved," Merritt said, noting that it doesn’t seem to occur to them that on Tuesday mornings many younger women are working.

Merritt, author of Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation, said substantial generational differences can be found along the lines of employment, finance and commitment. Those substantial differences cause barriers when it comes to church.

The pastor of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., Merritt said, we are in a time "where most young adults aren’t making it."

In the area of employment, she said young adults are often working more than one job and more than 30 percent of 19- to 20-year olds have no health insurance, a higher proportion than any other age group.

In the last 10 years, Merritt pointed out, college costs have increased 44 percent and young adults are carrying substantial student loan debt in a stagnant economy that only offers temporary employment.

At the same time rent has increased by 50 percent while income has remained stable.

But, Merritt said, congregations see young adults as lacking commitment and saying, "If they didn’t buy expensive coffees and iPods, they could afford a house."

She cited statistics that show 57 percent of men and 47 percent of women ages 18 to 24 are living with their parents. Young adults are marrying later and having children later. During the 1970s, women had their first child at age 21; now the average age is 25.

Merritt said the church does a good job of caring for children from the time they are baptized until they are confirmed, but then the situation changes. "We have beautiful, great graduation ceremonies, but in a lot of ways we’re saying goodbye," Merritt said. "We expect them to be gone until they have a baby. Then we expect them back."

Young adults of today, she said, are "worried and consumed thinking about money." Merritt described a "can't win" situation for many young adults. She said a stable household today requires two working adults, but in order to get to that level of stability, both adults need to be financially stable before entering the relationship.

"Less than 25 percent of households today are made up of a mom and dad and child," she said.

At the same time our churches, she said, "expect young people to become something they’re not before coming to church."

Merritt called on the church to see young adults differently, keeping in mind that the church is in the wilderness and searching to find "what and to who God is calling us to be."

Merritt encouraged the church to establish relationships with young adults offering them the opportunity to connect with God, with the world and with one another.

The connection with God will likely require a change in worship, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the creation of a praise band. Merritt offered contemplative worship options, including taize and Iona, that enable young adults to connect with God, to know "we're alive" and to know that "we're created from our heads to our toes by God."

To connect with the world, Merritt said young adults "need to be connected to a greater cause." Citing a popular coffee house marketing effort in which a portion of each purchase is dontated to support a specific cause, Merritt said, "People don’t just want to buy a cup of coffee. They want to change the world." The church can do the same, she said, "because we're changing the world."

The church also needs to show young adults that it can provide a personal connection. An important part of that connection comes when church members recognize differences. It also comes, she said, when the church provides "a place where people can count on one another."

The bienniel Clearwater conference is held at Presbyterian Clearwater Forest, a camp on the shore the lake that bears the Clearwater name. It is sponsored by the presbyteries of Minnesota Valleys, Northern Waters and Twin Cities Area, and the Synod of Lakes and Prairies.

In addition to Merritt, other conference leaders were Byron Wade, vice moderator of the 218th General Assembly; J. Andrew Dearman, longtime professor of the Old Testament at Austin (Texas) Presbyterian Theological Seminary and now director of Fuller Theological Seminary's regional campus in Houston, Texas; and Diana Stephen, former associate for network support for rural and small church ministries of the PC(USA).

Richard Bruxvoort Colligan, Strawberry Point, Iowa, led conference worship.

Duane Sweep, associate for communications for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, is a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service.