One of my favorite modern writers Carol Howard Merritt wrote an article on The Christian Century entitled “Generational Roadblocks.” In it she identifies five obstacles to young adults’ participation in the church:
1. The leadership is from one generation.
2. The leadership lacks diversity.
3. Our congregations disregard technology.
4. The church ignores its physical spaces.
5. The congregation focuses its ministries on traditional families.
At the end of the article Rev. Merritt posed the questions: What would you add? What roadblocks have you seen in your ministries?
For those of you who don’t know much about me, I am a 24-year-old female seminarian and a Candidate for Teaching Elder (formerly known as Minister of Word and Sacrament) in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I have held six or seven official church leadership positions of multiple kinds. I grew up doing all sorts of things at my local church where both my parents were involved in various kinds of ministries and leadership.
So based on my experiences of being a young adult in the church I would like to add the following to Carol Howard Merritt’s list:
6. Short-term vision
The 21st century Church isn’t going to look like the 20th century Church. The longer we hold on to the past vision of what the Church “should” be, the longer we’re going to miss opportunities to minister in new situations and old situations in new ways. Rev. Merritt’s top 5 list is spot-on in my experience. As a young, single woman #5 is the most difficult because many think single people without kids cannot understand or minister to parent/s, child/ren, family/ies, etc. Or it is assumed I’ll leave my job if I find a spouse and have kids. When people cannot look past their own assumptions they will only see a short-term vision.
For a long-term vision we need to broaden our understandings of the Church and ministry. I know many current and future church leaders. I am certain we will be able to meet future challenges. However, we have to discuss our vision of what the Church is and how we train our leaders (ordained and lay) for that Church. Scripture is full of stories of people who have a different vision for their community and work toward that vision. It’s not about a particular vision statement that churches write hoping to explain their church. It’s about being church.
We are called to be the church at the risk of losing the church’s life, right? Check out F-1.03 in the Book of Order. The church is a community of faith, hope, love, and witness. We’ve often limited our vision of what church is to what happens inside a church’s building or within the official ministries of a church. Look around! People are ministering all the time without the title of Reverend or a degree or any official backing from a denominational body. The Body of Christ is a huge, diverse, and in many ways mysterious group of people.
The American context is ripe for the Spirit is blow anew and for people to hear and see Her in new ways. It’s hard as a seminarian who plans to make a career in ministry because I can see possibilities for myself and others to minister in unique contexts, but many of us are too scared. We worry about our student loan debt. We worry about our ordination processes. If we can’t get ordained in to a ministry and make a living in it, that idea is disregarded. I hear whispers of tent-makers, but I have no idea how one would go about being a tent-maker or what skills I could use to support myself. Then there’s the question of how would we raise support from our spiritual communities for church plants or other (perhaps “unorthodox”) ministries.
The first-career seminarians are aware of the job situation. Most of us try to keep our sense of call broad so we don’t limit our job options. Many call stories are no longer about specifics like “I will be looking for associate pastor of family ministries position.” Call stories have become about passions and willingness to serve in different places. We can follow our calls no matter where we are. If I can’t find a congregational position I will get some two-bit job to pay the bills and minister in my off hours. Unfortunately, many recent grads I know who haven’t found positions where they can get ordained are stopping their process or are being told by others that they should stop their process. Someone who spends four or five years in an ordination process only to leave it because they cannot find a job that is judged ordination-worthy will most likely not attempt the process again.
A long-term vision for the Church will look to not only to leaders of the generations that exist but also several generations down the line. We need to nurture current and future Church leaders while allowing them to discern God’s call for themselves which may look incredibly different than what we think God’s call for them is. We need to be willing to try new things… and maybe fail. We need to have faith so real that it changes our lives so that we can go witness to others and help change our communities. Look at the Occupy movement and the spiritual leadership involved in it. Spiritual leaders are not only a part of the Occupy movement, they are also trying to transform and re-interpret the Occupy movement based on their faith. Although participating in the Occupy movement is a current event, it is part of a long-term vision where the Church advocates for economic justice.
The Church can’t try to pause time and stay in one decade or century or millennium. Enough people already think the Church is irrelevant, including many within the Church. We need to break down the walls we’ve built between communities and start listening to each other. We need to look to the entirety of our spiritual traditions for ideas and support but not rely on those traditions to feed us all the answers. We need to take a hard look at our resources and ask whether or not we are using them for the praise of God or whether our resources have become idols. We need to figure out where our categories end and where God’s love begins. We need to take risks and trust that God really is God and is with us in everything we do, even when we screw up. The calling of the Church is to be the Body of Christ in the world. Different parts will look and function differently. We need some of that foolishness Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 1.
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. -1 Corinthians 1:26-29
If there’s one thing I know young adults can be, it’s foolish. It’s foolish to go to a grad program you can’t afford for three to seven years. It’s foolish to hope a group of people twice and three times your age will think you have maturity of faith and all the other virtues they’re looking ordained ministers to have. It’s foolish to stop attending church in college and focus on incredible emotional and spiritual growth opportunities elsewhere. It’s foolish to have your child baptized in a church you haven’t attended in years. It’s foolish to give your hard-earned money to a church when you can’t even pay off your loans. It’s foolish to bring a new idea to the table in a 100-year-old church where the same people have sat on session for ten years or more.
We need a little less logic and a lot more foolishness to be the Church in the world. If young adults keep meeting roadblocks while trying to become leaders, some will continue on the same path. Some will find other routes. Some will back pedal. Some will just freeze. Many of us who want to pursue ordained ministry want to because of the communities we come from. The backing of the community is important; but, like I said, there are plenty of opportunities to minister in this world. The world needs it. The world needs ministers on the streets, in offices, writing books, advocating for economic justice, running food pantries, taking in LGBTQ teens who have been kicked out of their homes, engaging in conversations in coffee shops, protesting non-violently, composing music, visiting the sick and shut-ins, and any number of other things. Young adults can and will do all these things and more.
Young adults can help the Church remember how to be foolish… or we’re going to go and be foolish elsewhere. That’s not a threat. It’s a reality. Any long-term vision the Church, or any part of the Church, tries to imagine needs to keep this in mind. I have heard several baby boomers in the past few weeks blame the Millennial generation for their own misfortunes, including the economy and the church. But all those youth who grew up attending churches and haven’t participated in years aren’t lost or gone. They’re walking their life path somewhere where they have a voice as to what happens and where they can be leaders, even if they’re just trying to lead their own lives. That whole “spiritual but not religious” thing? That’s about the organized religions and leaders of organized religions, not God or even the Church. It’s about churches, systems, and people who refuse to see us as valuable and who refuse to nurture and support us in leadership roles. A church with a long-term vision will be able to reclaim some of the foolishness we’ve misplaced along the way and nurture young adults in faith and leadership.
Long-term vision. It gives us perspective and empathy.
Long-term vision. It helps us realize that it’s people who are important, not buildings or systems of church government.
Long-term vision. It will give the Church back our foolishness.