Church and the 20-Somethings

Like so many of my peers, I both started and left university without very much idea what I wanted to do with my life. I'm still there largely. Of course I have dreams, aspirations and hopes. And a long list it is too, but nothing concrete. Unlike my Grandfather, I don't expect I'll spend forty years in the civil service and get a gold watch at the end for my loyalty. Loyalty takes on a different meaning for my generation.

The generation that I belong to -- one that has redefined commitment, trust, love, hope, and, to a certain extent, Christianity -- are mainly no longer students (except for the few of us who continued with years and years of postgraduate study), and are not married. We are either on our OE, have returned from our OE, or want to go on our OE if only we could afford it.

We'd like to be settled, but the white picket fence, two-point-four kids and family dog doesn't really do it for us. We also like to be on the move. Our roots are in different places, or more particularly, with different people. Some of my peers come from 'broken' homes and more than a few of them have had broken hearts. Places can conjure up a mixed bag of memories and emotions: they speak of fun and laughter in the same way they do of arguments and anger. People are marginally safer to anchor to. But even then . . . .


Bred in the Bible-belt

Many of my peers were brought up in the Church. Like me, many of them were bred in places like Tawa, the Bible-belt of Wellington. We were the well-washed-behind-the-ears choristers and leaders of our Christian Union. Me? I was a Baptist (still am): "I don't smoke, drink or chew and I don't go with girls who do". At secondary school, life was relatively black and white; its complications were relatively simple (in hindsight anyway) and tended to centre upon (actual or intended) flutters of the heart.

At university things were different. I recall recoiling at what I perceived to be rampant secularisation in our education system. I, as the forthright Baptist that I was (less forthright now), was going to be the martyr to the cause, flying God's flag in the face of postmodernism. It wasn't long before my good intentions were shown up for what they were: arrogant bravado and a sense of unswerving rightness.

Recently I finished my university studies. I've discovered life is rarely black and white, that postmodernism is both bad and good (and exists, in part, to keep academics in jobs), that God will work in whichever way he chooses through whomever he pleases, and that many of my peers-- just as righteous as I was once -- have embraced life and love, and left the Church.


Finding Godot

Of course, it didn't happen overnight. There were those whose faith (in the Church, in God etc.) worked best in the protective cocoons of Christian Union and other similar groups, but once outside those groups they were like fish out of water: they couldn't swim because they didn't know how to or where to go. Perhaps a better analogy is to see them as lost sheep.

There were others whose faith was inherited from their parents. Much like their parents' looks or traits of personality, it served them well for the first eighteen years of their lives, when the umbilical cord is still worth something, even if it's just for money to pay the rent. But come independence, individuation, going it alone, growing wings and flying away -- that faith, along with one or two other things probably -- was discarded. It was not necessary for their journeys. They were going it alone.

Then there were those -- the majority of my peers -- who perhaps belonged partially in both camps, but also had a tentative grasp on their own faith, which was neither wholly inherited nor lived wholly away from the real world. These people, myself included, engaged with issues without entirely accepting them. We asked irritating questions; we had too many questions. We still do.

We found, though, that there were places where these questions could not be asked, or were answered in such a way that we needn't have bothered asking them. "Just because", "it's in the Bible", "God said so", "it's what Christians do", "doubt is wrong" -- these were unsatisfactory answers to us, yet they were the ones most often received from the Church.


The Sixty-Four Million Dollar Questions

I can see now that for many of my peers, there is little incentive to stay in a church that belittles their questions and questions their doubts. They might say they're moving on to another church because the teaching is better there, or the music is better, or the girls are better looking. But there's a sub-text: I'm not welcome in this church, this isn't my family; there isn't room for me to ask questions.

I think it's even more than the classic division between modernism and post-modernism. At an intellectual level, sure -- there's some merit to that debate. But my peers and I probably know this anyway. We can sit down and have an intellectual discussion any day. What we want though is relationship: we want friends, we want family, we don't necessarily even want answers -- we just want to ask the questions.

The questions we ask are what the Alpha Course designer Nicky Gumbel calls 'first-order theological questions'. We're not interested in how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; rather, we want to know does God exist? Does he care about me? Is there a future for me? What is it? Why did God let this happen? Why did my parents divorce/friend commit suicide/lover leave me? These are the questions our generation are asking. These are first-order questions, but we are getting second order responses.

The Church, it seems to me, responds to these questioners in several ways. Sometimes they are sidelined. The impression is given that people who have questions about or for God are in some ways less 'Christian' than the rest of us. There can be a feeling that if we do not have it together in our faith and our lives then we're not even worthy of sitting in a pew. People who question are either isolated or patronised; they are rarely listened to.


Nothing but church

Sometimes, though, these questions come from the very same young adults who are leading the worship, or the home group, or the church sports team. These questions are coming from the 'leaders'. It may be that these are the only young adults left in the church -- their peers having exited out the back door -- and because they are seen as committed, talented and Christian, they are given all the responsibilities. Sometimes the response of the Church is to keep these questioners busy enough that they won't have time to think about, let alone articulate, their concerns. However, the consequences of this potentially include burnout and bitterness toward the Church for those young adults in years to come.

When we were at university together a peer of mine -- an astute scholar who now lives in an exotic country on the other side of the world -- said: "participation is identity". He was right, at least partly. If young adults feel that they have no stake in the church, then what incentives are there for them to attend? Yet danger arises when that participation is wholly consuming -- when, either by choice or consequence young adults are living and breathing their lives through their church.

The risks are not only that they will conflate their (positive and negative) experiences of church with God, but that they will be too busy to hear God speak to them outside the boxes we/the Church put him in. I've seen this happen to friends who lived their lives knowing nothing but the Church. One in particular walked out on the Church, bitter and angry. He also walked out on God, his friends and his life as he knew it. It was not that the cost of discipleship was too high: this was the cost of exploitation.

The Church needs to recognise that it cannot treat its young adults like cogs in a machine; it needs to give space for the questions and the doubts; it needs to encourage young adults in their new careers; it needs to provide guidance and a listening ear to dreams of life and the future; and it needs to shape the identity of these young adults -- as with everybody in the congregations -- not as members of a church, but as children of God.

This generation of young adults does not know what family is, but they know what family is not. Many come from backgrounds of isolation, loneliness and despair, others from backgrounds of confusion, conflict and contradictions in their faith. They do not need to be made to feel guilty about their backgrounds; they need to be given a place that is their place to meet God. As with the 'fatted calf' party thrown by the welcoming father for the prodigal son -- they need to be shown a Christianity that says we love you for who you are, not for who we want you to be.


Hello, is it me you're looking for?

It is sad that the word 'intimacy' is rarely associated with the Church. Yet this is a generation that is searching for intimacy, with God and with each other. For the Church, intimacy sometimes appears in the form of insipid worship songs or saccharine feel-good sermons. Rarely, if ever, does it appear in the form of a crouched man crying at the open grave, or an ecstatic father welcoming home his long-lost son, or an anxious shepherd seeking out his lost sheep, or a gentle Saviour standing on the beach over fish 'n' chips asking us to love him.

I suspect that if we were to ask any group of young adults what they most wanted, they would all answer -- to be loved. They know what it is to be judged, and some to be hated. More than we might think have never known what it is to be loved at all. It is an indictment on the Church if they leave because they are not loved; it is a reflection of Christ if they stay because they are.


A shore and certain hope

But what is needed is more than a change in attitudes, or -- dare I say it -- tolerance. It's more than opening spaces for questions and doubts; it's even more than offering the intimacy of Christ. It's also about offering stability. When you are drowning in a fast-flowing river, you want people who are standing firm on the bank to stretch out their hands and pull you to shore.

The church is full of people who are standing on the bank, many of whom at one point probably also knew what it was like to be flailing in a torrent. Many in this generation of young adults have grown up without parent-figures, without people with whom they can share their lives and their questions without fear of judgement. They long to be loved. Even if they come from Christian homes, many still need others -- outside their biological families -- to spend time with who will listen to them. In short, they need points to anchor: people on the shore.


Welcome to the Real World

They also need direction. Of course, we've all heard that before: the young people of today have no direction. You hear it from some in church congregations or from the letter writers to Christian periodicals.

Direction, though, is not necessarily telling someone where to go; rather, it is equipping them for the journey, whichever route they choose to take, on the mission field or in the market place. Where churches elevate missionaries and full-time Christian workers at the expense of accountants, teachers, lawyers and doctors -- which many of my peers are -- then they also belittle the people in those occupations.

To many in the church, the hierarchy of respectable Christian occupations puts an accountant near the bottom of the list, but probably just above the waiter. Rather than condemning people for their career choice, the church should encourage them in it. Rather than suggesting that being a waiter is a poor use of time, the church should encourage waiters -- and accountants, teachers, shop assistants, and the list goes on -- to give the best effort they have to that job. Why? Because this is a good work ethic, but, more importantly, because that's where God has placed them for this moment.

Sure, tomorrow he might send them to Africa. Then again, they may get appointed Managing Director of their company or Principal of their school.

If anything, entering the work force throws up more questions than university ever did. But this is the real world. And it is this real world that my peers are living in -- though many of them feel that the Church is not.


his 'generation adrift' could become a generation lost at sea -- too difficult for churches to deal with when they are more comfortable talking about mission-work in far-flung places, or building projects that will draw in the crowds, or the latest music emanating from across the ditch.

Churches can take the easy route and maintain the status quo. Yet they will find that no matter how many lights they flash, how much contemporary music they play, or how much motivational preaching they deliver, young adults will still exit the backdoor faster than they enter the front. For these young adults are searching for intimacy, family, direction, places to ask questions, and a faith they can own.

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