Since moving to Norfolk, Virginia where I am completing a one-year Clinical Pastoral Education residency, I’ve found myself shopping for something that I thought I would never shop for again: a church. While I found my home congregation, St. Luke Presbyterian Church in San Rafael, California, about four years ago, I’ve been looking for a place to worship on Sundays while living in Norfolk for the next year.
For many of us in ministry, we easily forget how scary the church shopping process can be. While I have been active in various congregations all my life and have even preached in new and unfamiliar congregations, it can be scary to walk into a congregation for the first time by yourself and only know about the church from its website.
But as I found myself spending the first few months in Norfolk visiting new churches and at times, found myself swamped by congregants during the passing of the peace who had spotted me as I tried to I sneak into the back of the sanctuary unnoticed, I was offered something beyond handshakes. I was offered a sense of community in the churches I did not expect to find it.
Since I graduated from SFTS and left my seminary community, I have found myself experiencing the loneliness many new people in ministry talk about when they leave seminary and lose their community. And while I do have a great deal of friends and family whom I talk with regularly, it can be difficult being a 29-year-old single adult living in a new place with no connections.
It has been said that my generation, which has been dubbed as the “millennial generation” or “generation Y,” is also known as the “transient generation.” The reason we are called this is because many in my generation have left homes and families to pursue our careers in new places that offer more opportunities.
However, while many of us are often the first ones who have left our hometowns in generations, many of us lose the communities we once relied upon. And even though young adults rely on websites (such as Meetup.com) that help individuals find and create communities based upon activities, there aren’t too many communities that offer a sense of spiritual and emotional care to those new in an area.
While most of the local PC(USA) churches where I have been attending consist of mostly congregants over 60 – and simply don’t have young adult ministries because they don’t have young adults in their congregations – I found myself surprised at how many congregants in these churches didn’t use our differences in age to stop themselves from inviting me into their church. From an older man and his wife who offered me a place to have Thanksgiving dinner, to a group of older women who invited me to their church game night, to a congregation who even invited me to be a judge at their baking contest, I did not feel a sense of generational division that many claim exists in older church communities today. In fact, I felt a sense of generational community through compassionate invitation and shared need for spiritual presence.
Like others, I believe churches need to do more to reach young adults. But I also believe this cannot be done by offering contemporary worship services and having a pastor who wears blue jeans and plays the guitar. Instead, I suggest that churches who want younger adults should not feel ashamed of the average age of their congregants or feel they need to change their worship style to attract young adults. Rather, I would implore congregations who have older members to be themselves and reach out to young adults by offering to be a community where young adults feel welcomed no matter their difference in age, background, orientation or lifestyle may be with those in their congregation.
And for those in my generation who are new to an area and are trying to find a place to worship on Sunday morning that offers something more than being a big-box mega church based only upon their use of contemporary music and technology, don’t be afraid to visit a smaller congregation predominately of older members because you think they will be too different from you. Because you just may be surprised by how those in other generations not only think, but are looking for the same thing our generation is looking for: a sense of belonging.
Christopher Schilling is a resident chaplain at Bon Secours Maryview Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia. He is originally from Hookstown, Pennsylvania and is a 2013 graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary. Currently, he is a candidate for ministry in the Presbytery of the Redwoods in Northern California. Christopher is also a freelance journalist, creative writer, and has a passion for the outdoors, running, radio broadcasting, and cars.