by Billy Doidge Kilgore
A few years ago, I interviewed with a search committee for an associate pastor position. As I was answering their questions, a well dressed and refined elderly woman asked me a sharp, direct question. "What do you have to offer this church?" Feeling caught off guard, I scrambled to think of something to say. After hesitation on my part, she said, "I bet you could offer us a new set of eyes." Around the table I heard snickers, because some thought she was making a joke about the graying of the congregation.
To the contrary, she was making a serious observation. She went on, "As a young adult, I bet you could help us to see our ministry from a new perspective. If you are given the opportunity to be our associate pastor, I hope you will use your unique experiences in life to help us better understand how to minister to the world around us." Sensing her wisdom and authority, I nodded my head and agreed. Her words still stick with me today, as I think about what it means to be the Church. God's people are at their best when they are eager to see the world through the eyes of others. Jesus spent a great deal of his time inviting those who gathered around him to see the world through the eyes of others, especially the poor, downtrodden and marginalized. Our faith grows and deepens as we step into the shoes of those who are different from us.
Do you think it would make a difference if your congregation made the effort to see the world through many different eyes? I am not asking you to look at the stereotypes that our culture often uses to describe groups of people, but to make an effort to stand in the shoes of individuals who are often complex and multifaceted. Ask yourself what life is like for a young adult, a gay or lesbian person, an unemployed person, a homebound person, a person outside the Church, or a person of another ethnicity. I am willing to bet that if a congregation empathizes with those who are different than their average member, it would reshape their ministries for the better.
A large part of our struggle as mainline Protestant congregations is our unwillingness to see the world through the eyes of others. Recently, I met with a group of faithful church people who happened to be significantly older than me. As a young adult in the Church, I have grown accustomed to my interests and concerns being underrepresented in church meetings. After I finished introducing myself to the group, a middle-aged person said to me in a dismissive tone, "How old are you? You don't look old enough to be a pastor." This individual's tone suggested that not only did I not have the experience to be part of the group, but I did not have anything of value to offer. As I tried to remain calm, I thought to myself, "Yes, you're right. The last thing the Church needs is the voice of a young adult at the table. It is doing such a wonderful job of attracting people my age on its own!"
I wonder if this condescending remark could have been avoided if this person had dared to see the Church through the eyes of a young adult. This individual's limited perspective is part of a larger mindset that is driving young adults away from our congregations. The reality is that young adults have much to offer. In case you are wondering what a young adult sees when they look at your church, let me offer you some perspective. Often, we see churches that are either trying too hard to attract younger generations by turning the church into entertainment centers with large screens, high-energy bands and perfectly constructed stages, or congregations that are not trying at all and seem content to pretend we are still living in 1955. As a young adult, I don't want to participate in either one of these congregations. Instead, I am seeking a congregation that is willing to engage the 21st century, foster deep relationships, minister beyond its four walls, and dare to share God's love with everybody.
I believe that if the Church wants to thrive in the 21st century, especially amongst Generation X and Millennials, it must boldly look through the eyes of others. It is in the intersection between those currently in the pews, and the needs, interests and dreams of those outside the church walls that we will encounter the living God and discover the future vision many of our congregations desperately need. Then, the Church will have no other choice but to let this holy energy spill over our walls and into the world.
Billy Doidge Kilgore is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and affiliated with the United Church of Christ through an ordained partnership. Billy blogs at ourdeepestselves.com.