October 26, 2014
One does not have to be in the church, any Christian church, for long before hearing a low wailing bemoaning the loss of young folks. I do not know if the same holds true for folk in Judaism, Islam, or other religions, but the loss of young adults have freaked-out Christians for a number of decades. The freaked-out truth is seen in the countless books and blogs on strategies to bring youth and young adults back to church.
My ten cents worth (and ten cents ain’t worth much today) is we Christians don’t deserve to have young adults in our congregations. If that comment is raising a rash and face muscles are tensing up, let us talk for a moment or two, before the fits kick in.
Hiring a young pastor, a youth pastor, creating a youth group, supporting youth events, funding youth worktrips, and giving youth the fireside room are all actions congregations have taken to keep or attract youth to church. There is nothing wrong with implementing any of those. However, each can be problematic if folk believe those actions alone will lead to young adults returning to their congregation. After all, congregations have been implementing those ideas for decades and young adults still are not in their churches.
Youth groups in and of themselves are a problem, for they are about youthful children rather than youthful adults. I go into this a bit deeper in the reflection Protecting the Young, but what I am getting at is when children move into adulthood at twelve or thirteen years of age, the church continues to treat them as old children rather than youthful adults.
Now the youth pastor may treat them as youthful adults. But they are supposed to. The real problem lies in the elders of the church. I’m not talking about only the spiritual elders, but the aged elders as well. Elders have too often failed in their elderhood. What I am getting at is when the raising of our youthful adults has been assigned to one person (youth pastor) or one couple (well, someone had to step up and begin a youth group) the elders have failed in their natural and normal role of the aged. What I am getting at is, being an elder is to invite and meet a youthful adult for coffee, or have a youthful adult to the house for dinner, or work beside a youthful adult on a worktrip, or protest beside a youthful adult, or bring a youthful adult to the Tuesday Men’s Breakfast or the Wednesday Woman’s Lunch, regularly. What I am getting at is, decades upon decades of aged wisdom has been forever lost and continues to be lost every day because the elders of our communities are no longer inviting youthful adults and young adults into their homes and their lives.
This summer I had the wonderful experience of hanging with two young adults for weeks at a time. All of us spent time together in Emmonak, Alaska where we worked on flood-damaged homes. One young adult I had known from his wombed days. His story is telltale of the elder problem.
Because I moved to the reservation when he was a child, there were few instances where we saw one another. So, our time together was filled with learning about each other’s lives over the last eighteen years. It is important to know that he had grown up in the Christian church, went to camp every summer, participated in youth group, and engaged in yearly worktrips; in other words, he had been engaged in a congregation that most congregations strive for.
As we began getting reacquainted, he said that he was atheist. Interesting, but not shocking. It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard a young adult say the same or something similar like I’m spiritual but not religious. To hear this from an eighteen-year-old is a cool thing for he is engaged in the world, creation, and his own spiritual wellbeing. After reading Peter Rollins book Insurrection: To Believe is Human, to Doubt, Devine, when I hear this said I now lead with Ernest Bloch’s statement, “Only an atheist can be a good Christian; only a Christian can be a good atheist.” Over the next two weeks there were a number of good atheist conversations between him, the other young adult, and many elders who were with us.
After we returned home, he came to the farm for a few weeks where we continued the conversation. At the end of our time together I found what bothered me most was not his doubt, his wondering, or his searching, but rather his answer to one question: “Tell, me, you grew up in the church. You went to camp and worktrips and were in the congregational youth group. What do the elders, both those who stand at the communion table each Sunday and those who are twenty or thirty years older than you, think about this? What have your conversations been like?” His answer, “No one has ever asked. No one knows I am atheist.”
How is a young man raised in the church and no one knows he is atheist? And before one jumps to, “not in my church,” consider this. For years, young adults in college who have visited the Mission and the Farm have been asked, “Tell me, how often do elders in your church call you, email you, or Facebook you: once a week, every few weeks, once a month?” The repeated answer is, “never”—there are exceptions, but they are rare.
After searching and wondering how this may be, there is only one answer at the bottom of the barrel: elders are not eldering. Can we truly be surprised young adults are not in the congregation?
It turns out we are preaching relationship but not engaging in relationship. If young adults are ever again to be normal in our congregations, then we need to begin eldering and…Take that 10¢ of advice that is worth little, add seven or eight dollars to it, call that young man or woman and say you would like to take them to the coffee shop (yes, it is a place where everyone of every age shows up these days) and get to know them a little more. And once there, have a conversation! Talk about real life in the same way you do with your 40 or 60 or 80 year-old friends—remember life isn’t any more different for you as it is for them.
Will it make a difference? Well, consider this, remember when you were a twenty-something and a forty or fifty-year-old turned to you and asked for your thoughts? Remember how much that mattered to you? Well, it still does!