Those young whippersnappers.

As I've said before, I have begun to think of myself as a little bit unusual--not extraordinary, but a tad eccentric. Most people think of themselves this way, probably. We like to think we're special. One of the things that makes me feel this way, though, is my church-going tenure. I'm 27, and while I've switched denominations, I've never really gone through a period of lapsed church attendance. While I consider myself to have lost faith at various points, I've never stopped self-identifying as Christian. And, while I've grown extremely frustrated with the Church, and constantly question my own abilities and faith, at least since the age of 17 I've never seriously questioned my own pursuit of ministry as a career.

I bring this up because this morning I attended the beginning of "Invite: Inspire: Ignite", which I would characterize affectionately as an Episcopalian version of an old-fashioned Camp Meeting--praise music, workshops, a two-hour worship service (!) led by a Southern preacher, a box lunch, and games for the young folk. Because it was Episcopalian, a large portion of the proceedings consisted of Q and A with the 4 Bishops in attendance, focused largely on our own insecurities about our shrinking attendance roles, and on our hopes and dreams for the future our church. (We like to consider both sides of things as good Anglicans.) As discussion inevitably does at these sorts of gatherings, discussion turned towards the conspicuous fact that there are proportionately very few people under the age of 50 involved with the Episcopal Church, other than the copy machine repairmen and participants in Boy Scouts or AA. That, it seems, is a cause of concern for many, who feel that there's a chance that the Episcopal Church might actually die off much like the Shakers did, whose religion possessed as one of it's central tenets the need for absolute chastity among all of its members.

It's a common discussion topic in Churches--especially mainline--where young people really are leaving or long gone, and I've heard more than once the hopeful suggestion that that's just what young people do--they leave church to go find themselves, and then come back when they mature, realize the value of religion, and decide that they want their children to attend Sunday School (at least until their children are old enough to decide for themselves that they want nothing to do with the Church). There's probably a kernal of truth in that suggestion--a lot of the people my age in Church have followed that pattern, certainly. However, I think there's something significantly lacking in that sort of response. It seems to be an easy sort of dismissal of the mission of the Church with young adults, and ignores the truth that many young adults really are hungering for the sort of community, creative outlet, sense of purpose, and communion with the spiritual that Churches have provided, and continue to provide for older generations.

(Begin rant) There are of course a lot of explanations for young adult Church-leaving, and I would guess that the broad trend is reflective of our innate need to go out, sow our wild oats, and form our own identities. Our Churches, for a lot of us, represent one more construction of our parents generation (ooh, you Boomers and your meddling ways!) which doesn't work for us anymore. That's why, I suspect, most people leave the congregation in which they were raised by the time they're done with college. However, that doesn't suggest to me that the Episcopal Church should give up on it's mission to an entire segment of the population--the advertisers say we're a key demographic, for God's sake! Churches tends to organize mission as a numbers game--consciously or unconsciously we focus our "evangelism" on the groups of people who we think will be most likely to join our roles and, of course, become financial contributors. As a result, those who are more of a challenge--the young, the poor, the foreign, the addicted, the minorities--we tend to give up easily on, because the work isn't bearing the sort of fruit that church growth models have taught us to look for. That approach is perfectly appropriate as a business model, but I will say until the day I die that the Church is not a business--even if it means that I--an aspiring priest--end up without the relatively phat salary currently offered to Episcopal ministers, and have to work at a warehouse for the rest of my life. Mission, in the final analysis, can't be about numbers, but has to be about communicating and living the evangel in our culture (period). (End rant)

Now that I've aired that out, and calmed down a bit, here's my prescription: the fact is, I think, that one key to ministry to young adults is to provide us with a place to figure out what we want the Church to be, and allow us to work that out in a way that's productive for the larger church. Maybe we'd stick around if there were a place for youthful enthusiasm and naive optimism to be channelled towards the good, and for new models of faith and worship to come to life. My experience is limited, but my impression has been that such places are rare in the Episcopal Church.

They aren't non-existent though. Take Church of the Apostles (http://www.apostleschurch.org), for example. A friend of mine who heads up this mission church says that she considers their congregation to be the R & D department for the Episcopal and Lutheran Churches which support it. They attempt to push the boundaries, say let orthopraxy be damned, and try to infuse their tradition with new approaches to faith and worship--with a goal of sorting out what's not working in Christian faith and worship, and how it might be fixed. Predictably, their average age is something like 26. There's a lot of youthful idealism there, and their church will probably become a more normal parish as the members age and have children, but what they've done is provide a place for young leadership to lead productively. They've grown exponentially, and they're in the process of buying their building, largely on contributions from college-students' salaries.

My feeling is that you don't have to start whole new mission congregations to make this happen. I'm usually not one to suggest that we drift towards Protestant Evangelicalism, but the Evangelical churches that I've been a part of have generally been able to incorporate the new into the old without too much friction, at least in terms of worship style. (Admittedly, my hope is a little more complicated, because I'd like to see flexibility in both belief and practice. American Anglicans are pretty good about allowing for the first (which evangelicals generally aren't), but for some reason we struggle with the second. Liturgy has somehow moved from being the tool to becoming the master, so that we feel either daring or sacriligious if we so much as throw in a praise song here or there.) Certainly we can productively find room for creativity and exploration within our historical structures, so that we'll be able to see what the Church might look like if a new generation takes the reigns.

Comments

wes said…
How does one explain to an up-start church that their contemporary style and format was contemporary 10yrs ago?
Tim Mathis said…
I usually don't try. I believe in authenticity in worship style, be it traditional, outdated contemporary, or true contemporary.
wes said…
Do you believe in authentic inauthenticity? The tension is that this church is trying to reach young/middle age adults, who, they believe, are looking for a certain format popular in the 80s-90s. My generation may be a key demographic, but we can spot rotten advertisement and old trends rather easily. I'm suspicious of trends, and would love to find a place that fostered open honest intelligent discussion. I'm considering putting my low-church aside and joining the AC eventually.
Tim Mathis said…
Ahh, I don't know. My feeling is that churches should be less concerned with "reaching" people they don't understand, and more concerned with authentic authenticity. As a damned liberal, I believe that Evangelism should really be about hospitality, rather than conversion. In general, people join churches b/c they feel welcome, and they find something that meets their needs. Hence my current church, populated heavily by boomers and the greatest generation, with two services featuring differing worship styles reflective of their tastes.

In terms of "reaching" young adults, my experience is that the only way to do so is to actually employ the young adults who are already there. Enable people to do their thing as they want to, rather than trying to formulate some product that you think some amorphous group of outsiders will buy. Institutions frequently pump money into "young adult" ministries organized and run by 45 year olds, and hence things like u2charist (although I admit I'm a big u2 fan) and so many other "contemporary" services that come off as cheesy or contrived to the children of 45 year olds. (That said, if you're a part of an institutional church, you probably include 45 year olds in the "youth" category.) In a sense, I'm of the opinion that if you want worship done the right way (as defined by yourself), you have to do it your self.

Youth ministry is a little different--at younger ages youth really do want a sort of "show", or at least someone who can organize things and present them in an engaging way. There has to be a process of learning as well, but in general they need teaching more than young adults (who are, after all, adults). Add that to the fact that kids in youth ministries are frequently there against their will, and you have a different sort of dynamic. Not totally different, but different.

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