I was reflecting on my time at General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio last week. While there, I experienced much hopefulness and creative thinking as I talked to people in the hallways, in the exhibit hall, or over bourbon. But I also ran into a great deal of fear and uncertainty about the future--which you might expect in a denomination that has experienced fairly consistent decline over the past forty-five years. All the mainline denominations are in the same boat (as well as many evangelical denominations); it's just that some are sitting closer to gash in the hull. So, lots of handwringing.
The experience reminded me of a workshop I did in Ohio last fall. (What is it with me and Ohio anyway?). I made note of the fact that emerging generations (Millennials and Gen-Xers), having grown up in a “disposable” world (e.g., sporks, iPods, their parents’ marriages, etc.) -- a world that, because of student loan debt and a lack of jobs, requires them to be both mobile and flexible. Emerging generations are much less inclined to want the “stuff” their parents and grandparents have been scrupulously storing up to hand down to them. This is an issue for congregations and denominations that have invested heavily in infrastructure and organizational models, which they worry are not being taken up by the generations coming behind them.
The question that older generations of leaders within mainline denominations must ask themselves, I suggested, therefore, is: “What if the kids don’t want our church?” This is an an important issue in the age of the “nones.”
I could sense the tension. In a room of 118 people, probably ten were under 50 years-old. Some were sad because they’ve labored so long to bequeath something tangible to the to the generations just coming into leadership. Unfortunately, that “something tangible” seems to be a legacy succeeding generations aren’t terribly enthusiastic about embracing.
Others in the audience genuinely tried to understand, saying, “We weren’t a whole lot more grateful to our forbears than these young people are.”
But what struck me was the anger. One woman said, “Well, tell the young people to put down their iPhones and sell their computers, and then we can talk. That’s all they’re interested in anyway.”
“Well,” I thought to myself, “‘It’s not me; it’s you’ is a strategy of sorts, I guess. The young people about whom you’re worried as they skitter out the back door of the church ought to respond well to that.”
I didn’t, though. As someone who sits somewhere between the Baby Boomers and their Millennial progeny, I thought I might try to offer a more pastoral word to those who’ve labored so long in the vineyard … only to find that the kids don’t want to run the family business:
My dear (older) friends,
I know you’re hurt. You’ve worked diligently to tend the gift that was lovingly handed down to you by your forebears. Following Jesus in the best way you knew how, you’ve come to that point in the journey when you’re thinking about the church and what you leave for those who come behind. But those generations to which you’re looking to hand the baton, often appear uninterested in taking it.
I suspect it must feel to you like a gift spurned. You care so much about the church you’re leaving behind. And it seems clear that younger generations don’t care about it the way you do. They’re walking away. I can’t imagine the hurt.
But my friends, I’d like you to consider a couple of things -- things that are almost impossible to see when you feel betrayed. These things are difficult. So, you should hear them from somebody who cares.
First, taking out your anger on those emerging generations isn’t helping you to “win them back.” In fact, what I feel certain is your quick response to feeling hurt (as if your gifts aren’t good enough -- and that’s about as painful as it gets), only serves to reaffirm to younger generations that they’ve made the right decision about leaving. To them your response to the pain sounds angry and bitter. (I know, I know, I know that’s not how you mean it. But that’s what it sounds like if you’re on the other side of the complaint.) It sounds to them either like you’re fretting about what their leaving means for your hopes and dreams (without ever finding out about theirs), or that you’re blaming them for not being who you think they should be (again, without bothering to consult them).
Second, and this might be difficult to conceive, but maybe some of those who don’t want to “do church” the way you’ve always done it will find some new and exciting expression of faithfulness that will rock the world. Of course, a lot of the ones who walk away don’t care much about finding “some new and exciting expression of faithfulness.” I’m not naïve. But there are some young people out there who love Jesus just as much as you or me, but who remain convinced that the way we’ve done church in the past is an obstacle to following Jesus. Instead of acting as a midwife calling forth new and vital spiritual expressions, in their eyes the church has become an uptight bureaucrat from the DMV, double-checking everyone’s information, determined to screw with the lives of the unsuspecting.
Young people are going to do some amazing things in the name of God’s justice and expansive vision of shalom. Moving forward, we need to ask ourselves if those things will be done with the support and encouragement of the church … or in spite of it.
Love, your pal,
This article originally appeared at the Huffington Post.