Recently, I went to an indoor water park with my daughter. After a cruel, cold winter and spring in the D.C. region, I haven’t seen my legs in months, and when I looked down, I noticed that a have multiple bruises in a neat line above my knees. I pressed on a brown spot, felt the dull ache of confined pain, and wondered how the small injuries occurred. I couldn’t remember, couldn’t figure it out.
It may sound strange, but the experience reminded me a lot of being a pastor, especially when ministering to people under the age of forty. Some of them, when they enter the sanctuary, don’t come in with fresh and flawless skin, they have these bruises, sensitive places where they’ve been hurt, often by religious organizations. Inside our church and outside of it, I’ve seen the discoloration appear. Recently the marks have surfaced with the repeated and adamant claim of young Christians who say, “We’re not like them.”
I began noticing it one Saturday morning when I drove through a neighborhood on my way to the local farmer’s market and saw all sorts of people in black shirts. The front of the shirt had a two-word question written in a small font: “Hate Church?” And the back had the answer: “Try Grace. Grace Community Church.” The t-shirt clad people were scattered about the up-and-coming Arlington neighborhood — the subway stop, vegetables stands, and street corners — Inviting people to their congregation. I was taken aback by the anti-campaign.
I found myself thinking, What? Nice. The Christians are out, attacking the church. Do they really think they’re doing anything different? It’s been the same business for 2,000 years, whether you meet in a gym or in a sanctuary, whether your pastor wears a robe or a pair of jeans. I wanted to roll down my window and yell out to the man holding a poster, “Hey, y’know what? It’s still messy. It’s still human. It’s still church.”
I refrained. After all, that was just my own bruise talking, the one that mysteriously appeared after leaving the rock-and-roll megachurch I joined as a teenager.
I also bit my lip because I could see the bruise on his skin. Something happened. That person hated church, yet he’s found a place where he can worship and connect. In spite of the bruise, he found a way to be a part of the Body of Christ, and that’s a very sacred thing.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard of Grace Community. They worship in a local school, and since I have a child in public education, I’m generally aware of what’s going on in their buildings. I know a couple attending there, and judging by the character of these wonderful people, it must be a great church. The husband grew up in the neighborhood Presbyterian church, but when they had children, they wanted to get more involved and they couldn’t find a space within the elderly congregation. They longed to worship alongside people with whom they could relate, people who looked like them. They didn’t exactly hate church, but they couldn’t bear to return to their traditional Presbyterian congregation.
The next morning, I went to my church, Western Church, located in D.C., a couple of subway stops down from the farmer’s markets. In the past dozen years, the congregation has grown significantly, mostly increasing its attendance with young adults and families. After the service, I met with the young adult class, a wonderful group of people in their twenties, many of whom lived in that North Arlington neighborhood. They came from all sorts of religious backgrounds, but they attended Western, a very traditional, very progressive congregation. I described Grace’s advertising campaign and said, “Maybe we should do some promotion in your neighborhood, with signs that say, ‘Like church? Try Western Presbyterian.'”
They laughed politely, but they generally thought that would be a terrible idea. They explained that they attend Western because it’s not like other churches, and when they tell their friends where they’re going on Sunday morning, they always have to add the caveat, “But it’s not like that.”
We are a distinct congregation. Western’s filled with 250 bleeding hearts who care for the homeless, the environment, and AIDS victims. We house a feeding and social services program that assists more than 200 men and women, giving them a hot nutritious breakfast every weekday morning. Our ministries range from helping prostitutes, to teaching children art, to building an Ethiopian clinic. So, I would say that this is Western’s particular urge to define ourselves as “not like them,” that we’re a progressive congregation trying to delineate ourselves from the Christianity portrayed on Fox News, the faith of Ann Coulter and Jerry Falwell. I would say these things, except that doesn’t explain Grace Community’s disenfranchisement.
Plus, I’ve read these words from charismatic authors like twenty-something Margaret Feinberg, who writes about wanting to know an “organic God,” as opposed to the polluted God of her youth. In her own way, she’s saying, “but it’s not like that.”
I’ve heard it from the evangelical emerging church leader, Sally Morgenthaler, who seems to bristle when people compare the emerging movement with the seeker churches and she says, “I’m talking about everything but that.”
From every spectrum of Christianity, a new generation seems to be calling out, “We’re doing something different here. If you hate church, you’ll still like us. We’re not like that. Really.”
So what is the origin of these painful bruises? The answer to that is as individual and distinct as the people who wear them. I can say that, generally, the political landscape of young adults is changing. According to the Harvard Institute on Politics, among college students, 60 percent are traditional liberals while only 16 percent are traditional conservatives. In our country, Christianity is synonymous with the Religious Right and the Christian Coalition. These powerful lobbies oftentimes work against the very things young Christians care deeply about, namely the environment and poverty. That’s a brutal, damaging blow for this generation.
Evangelical leaders like Brian McLaren and Jim Wallis have been criticized by the old-school patriarchy for their attempts to move the Christian political focus from a pro-life, anti-gay agenda, to the care of creation and speaking out for the poor. Yet, at the same time, this transition has allowed them to delineate themselves from the overarching evangelical movement and gain great momentum from young adults by clearly stating, “We’re not like them.”
The Presbyterian Church needs to continue listening to the voices of a new generation, even when it’s uncomfortable. As we do, we can keep in mind that this surfacing movement is made up of people who see the bruises, who are even pressing on those sore spots, and they still want to be a part of the Body of Christ. Within our broken body, may we allow for these distinctions and may we treat those tender wounds with great care.
Carol Howard Merritt is the associate pastor of Western Church in Washington, D.C. She’s the author of The Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation, which will be published by The Alban Institute in June.