Recently, I was asked to speak about the role of young people in the church, and the need for the church to listen to young adults. The person asking wanted to explore specifically what the church could do to draw young people in through the doors on Sunday mornings.
As great as that is, it seems as though we’ve been having this conversation for a long time. So here’s the truth.
The problem is no longer that young people aren’t being heard. The ones who got tired of waiting to be heard left, either for another denomination or to found a hipster church in someone’s garage, a school auditorium or a bar. At this point, young people not being heard is a nonissue.
The issue now is that we’re still just talking about this. It’s really hard to listen to a group of people when they’re talking about how you need to listen. It’s even more difficult to engage a population that doesn’t exist in large enough numbers to be considered a substantial age group in most mainline Protestant denominations anymore. And it’s hard to listen to this group of people for guidance because, as the news stories and leaders have so adeptly pointed out, we are young adults.
We have no idea what we want. I couldn’t get out of bed early enough to eat breakfast this morning. I had to literally run to my morning class. I stayed up late reading Durkheim’s theories on religion and Christian ethics writings on suicide. I don’t want to talk about balancing your budget. I need to talk about pulling my life together long enough to buy some soy milk and eat a bowl of cereal.
We’re not going to save your crumbling buildings. We can barely figure out how to sleep, work and study in the same day.
The church is dying. We know it. You know it. The church as it is now, as it was for our parents, as it was when our grandparents shaped it, is done. The Church, though, is going to make it. We know that. Big-C Church is something beyond anything we could imagine, whether we’re young or old.
You’re asking the right questions, but perhaps you’re looking for the answers that feel safe instead of the ones that are being given. Young people, and this is a blanket statement, aren’t really all that interested in saving something that doesn’t work anymore. Our world is fast-paced, constantly changing, ever-evolving. We’re as confused as you are about all of it, but we’re going to dive in anyway, serving needs we see, engaging in service, finding things for which we are passionate. We’re not going to sit inside an old church model that only opens doors on Sundays, and only opens those doors to certain people.
The leaders of today continue asking what they can learn from young people, saying they want to listen. But I believe the reason we haven’t stopped hearing these questions, haven’t stopped being invited to board meetings on being aware of social media and on the mysterious churchless generation, is because the leaders don’t like the answers they’re hearing. The messy, hard, hands-on, Doubting-Thomas, Failing-Peter faith we’re looking for isn’t compatible with the clean sanctuaries or mowed lawns, with the Wednesday night committee meetings, or with the locked, lifeless, useless, energy- and budget-sucking buildings that stand on every street corner.
Don’t think I’ve given up, though. I’m going into ministry. I will probably, if they let me, go through my denomination’s ordination process. I am walking into that process openly acknowledging that I have no desire to resuscitate the carcass of a white horse when there’s a donkey I can ride as I step in to defend, keep and care for the Church.
Do I appreciate the history of my faith? Of course. For goodness’ sake, I’m an undergraduate researching monastic communities. I love biblical narrative, theology and the sacraments. I don’t want to wipe out the existing church and start from scratch. As much as I hate to admit it, it’s doing a fine job of that on its own. There are pieces that are so worth saving. But the church is a tangled mess of vines, and it’s starting to choke itself, killing the good and the bad.
We’re going to have to start hacking away because the days for small pruning stints are gone.
The church that loves neighbors, that washes feet, that radiates the Word of God, that lives for a God it trusts so much that it’s not afraid of looking foolish, that is a 24/7 operation? That is the church now. And that is the church young people want to see. It’s just hiding behind structure, bills, committees, rules and regulations.
We dream of the same thing: a sanctuary known to be a place of vitality and hope. But first, we will all have to gather the courage it will take to break out the chainsaws and start cutting away what is making us sick. And we must do it soon, and do it with the knowledge that things are going to be different, frightening, but more beautiful and alive than we could know on this side of the gardening process.
Stop asking us questions. Stop saying you’ll listen. Start being honest. And if we discern God in your confession of what your church is, we’ll come running to help you pick up the pieces.
MCKENNA LEWELLEN, 20, is a student at Rhodes College, a Presbyterian-related school in Memphis, Tenn.