I recently read an article about the importance of showing up to church and it really got me thinking about what that means in the context of my life and, possibly, the lives of other people of my generation. As a 30 year-old, I am a member of a demographic that is largely absent from the (institutional?) church. There is a very large concern in the church that people my age, for the most part, just aren’t showing up. Few days go by that I don’t see a study posted examining the reasons young adults aren’t actively engaged in the church or an article with # ways to get young adults to attend/join/stay in your church. As one of the young adults in question, those articles almost always bother me. They bother me partly because it seems to me a basic Christian belief that I am not a demographic to be targeted by the church along the same lines that companies would target me to buy their goods, rather I am a person created in the image of God who should be related to in a personal way. I also find those studies frustrating because I think they usually take a misguided approach. Maybe they are asking the wrong questions and supplying the wrong solutions?
If you look at my church attendance, especially over the last few months, it probably looks like I’m not “showing up”. I’m not showing up to worship; my kids aren’t showing up to children’s activities; I’ve missed all the fundraisers and meetings. There have been a variety of reasons for my non-attendance, ranging from worshipping with friends to celebrate baptisms and retirements, to just needing a Sunday morning at home to rest. Many a statistical study might put me in the category of someone not committed to the Christian faith. But I am committed. I have a deep and intimate experience of the presence of God in my life. This way of life consumes me. It occupies so much of my thought and has become the lens through which I see the world. I’m not claiming perfection by any means, but I am certainly in this and striving to be all about this. I am committed.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the statement “Christianity is only one generation away from extinction.” I suppose there is a technical truth there but, if what Christians believe is true, there will always be a church. The question is, “what will the Church look like?” The Church is undeniably changing. We have moved out of the era of Christendom – the time when the church was the center of society - and into a new unknown. We are in a stage of transition. Can I just say that living in transition is difficult? There is always an element of fear when we move from something we know and understand to something we don’t. I can understand the frustration and fear that older adults in a congregation feel towards younger generations that don’t seem to be sharing the load. I understand the fear when there doesn’t seem to be enough money in the offering plate to keep the bills paid. I understand the frustration when only a few people seem to be willing to help in the ministries that have been a part of a church’s tradition for decades. I can understand how difficult it must be to see the generation gap in the pews on a Sunday morning. I get it.
But the other side of the coin is this: living in transition is exciting. Rather than living in fear that the Church (as we know it) is dying, we can live in the understanding that God is doing something new. Maybe we need to stop asking the questions of how to get young adults to come to church and start asking how church works in the lives of Christians who are living in the midst of this change. These are the questions I’m living with and they are exciting questions but they are also difficult questions.
Understand, as crazy as it sounds, that sometimes not coming to worship on a Sunday morning is my most faithful response to God’s call on my life. There are lots of ways to show up and lots of people I need to be present with. Church is important and gathering together to worship is important, but I’m finding that God is really stretching my understanding of the concept of “Church”. My Church family doesn’t gather in just one place. There are Christians who are my brothers and sisters spread all over the place. I have responsibilities to each and every one of them on a personal level and I delight in those relationships. And each of those relationships comes before obligation to an institution. Beyond that, I feel strongly the importance of being around people who are different from me, people who ask different questions and who have come up with different answers, people who can challenge me to think. I have valued and close friendships with people who are 70 and people who are 2, with people who are extremely conservative and people who are extremely liberal, with fundamentalist Christians, with “liberal” Christians, with atheists and agnostics and with people who don’t give the matter of religion much thought at all. These relationships shape me, they challenge me, they are important to me. I have a need to be present in these relationships, even if that sometimes means not being in the pew on a Sunday morning.
Understand that when I don’t put money in the offering plate, I’m not shirking my responsibility to give. Instead I’m asking really big questions about what faithful stewardship means. I have to confess that I have big questions about the ways the Church spends money, from the money we give to support hierarchical institutions to the money that goes to maintaining buildings (which is difficult as someone who loves old church buildings). I’m asking questions about the nature of charity and how God can use all of my resources instead of just 10%. I’m asking questions like, “Is it better to spend less on coffee so I can give money away or is it better to spend more money to buy coffee from a company that is employing people who have spent time in prison, helping them to develop job and social skills that will afford these people life opportunities that would otherwise be lost to them because of a bad decision in their youth? (Seriously, check I Have a Bean coffee - it is just the best and comes from a fantastic company!)
Understand that when I ask these questions, I’m not always criticizing the way generations before me have lived out their faith, I’m only seeking to be faithful to a living God who doesn’t always choose to do things in the ways we’ve grown accustomed to them being done. And I’m trusting that those changes will ultimately be for our good.
What I need from my Church family as I ask these questions is grace. I don’t know the answers to my questions and I’m stumbling along trying to find them. Sometimes I’m going to get things wrong. Please be patient. Most Christians of my generation are living in a period of tension between the way things were and the way things are going to be. Pray for us. Support us. Join us and live in expectation with us as God challenges all of our assumptions and creates something new and beautiful out of a difficult and unsettling period in the history of the Church.