A letter from an exhausted, exasperated young person

Hat top to the Rev. Steve Pankey who pointed us to this letter at the Scriptorium blog maintained by the Grunewald Guild. Having just returned from the Chicago Consultation's gathering of bishops and young adults, it really resonated with me.

These two passages will give you a flavor for the piece, which is worth reading in its entirety:

I exist in a world of diversity and globalization, of extreme expression and sharing (a la social networking). I engage a society and culture that connects virtually, that speaks more with sounds and images and “Likes” than it does words, and where the words themselves are becoming symbols and codes for other words through an almost tribal form of emotive texting. I am comfortable with (and actually excited by) the mashing up of ideas and concepts and sources into a cacophony of stories and thoughts and experiences (notice my almost obscene use of hyphens?) in which there isn’t any one right answer or message save for the one that YOU take away from the whole thing. I am deeply postmodern. This is the world I live in. This is my experience of existence. Except at church.

At church I step back into a veritable time warp…and I’m not talking about a “This is so old/ancient it’s cool!” sort of scene, but more of a “Why does this place smell like my grandma’s living room? Seriously, it smells JUST LIKE her house” sort of vibe.

And:

And here’s the clincher: young people will put up with a LOT* …to a point. They will put up with dreary music. They will tolerate outdated worship spaces covered in countless shades of off-white and the same silk floral arrangement that’s been sitting next to the alter since 1973. So the fact that they are willing to let a lot of things slide, yet are still so meagerly present in so many congregations is a problem worth worrying about.

Because there are a couple things young people simply won’t tolerate. They will not put up with what they deem to be a lack of community and/or authenticity, and they will not abide anything that appears to simply be going through the motions or the semblance of just being part of some spiritual/religious club. They aren’t interested in towing the party line that has no bearing on their social and cultural experiences. And–most terrifying to previous generations–they aren’t threatened by threats of “It has to be this way or nothing at all.”

Why?

Because this is a generation of self-starters and micro-entrepreneurship. They have no problem whatsoever starting up their own things. And they have been. And they are. And they will continue to do so.

And they’re not coming back to darken the doors of the places that insisted it had to be done THIS way and THAT way or it couldn’t be done at all. Churches have been reduced to elementary school playgrounds with the endless bickering and threats made by this faction or that one taking their proverbial ball and going home. And those playgrounds are getting noticeably more empty.

I appreciate that the author, whose name is Ron, and who may be Ron Skylstad of the Guild, although I couldn't verify that, isn't talking about one particular denomination, but about a broader phenomenon. That is a helpful antidote to looking for scapegoats close at hand. I would love to hear from people who think they have some sense of how our church, or any church, can move forward at this point in a way that is attractive to young adults. My sense--and perhaps our concerns about the structure of the Episcopal Church here on The Lead have contributed to this--is that people are looking to the Church Center or General Convention that can't be solved by programming or legislation, but that have to do with the vitality of our congregations. Of course, I could be wrong about that.

Comments (23)

Thank you again for sharing this with your audience. To your point, Jim, John Ohmer of The Diocese of Virginia's "Center Aisle" reminded me of his post from a few weeks ago. http://unapologetictheology.blogspot.com/2012/05/general-convention-straining-gnats.html The gist here is that change will happen through parallel structures. My concern, however, is how we live with each other in the interim. When the powers-that-be don't approve of what is happening on the margins, things can get quite ugly.

As a young adult, I don't agree with everything he wrote, BUT I 110% agree with the need for congregations to be authentic and genuinely communal. Really, this wouldn't/couldn't be a top down mandate (that would destroy the very essence of the objective); it would have to be grassroots. I believe that it doesn't necessitate throwing out traditions in liturgy and music - rather, it would/could mean living into them. It also invites the possibility of continued revelation, locally and universally, by the Holy Spirit.

-John Shirley

There was the unchurched high school senior who stopped at my door and asked, "Do you know anything about this John of the Cross guy? I've been reading some of his poetry and it is really cool!"

Two weeks later he was doing 1/2 hour contemplative prayer every day.

Mainly, we need to demonstrate that we really are on deep and close personal terms with God—not as an idea or construct or a creed or an emotional jag, but as an ineffable Mystery.

Mystery is a major component of what they want and hunger for.......and now the only places they find it is in vampires, werewolves, and zombies!

Just to clarify (building on my last post):

I'm all for hierarchy, by that I mean embracing the episcopacy and all that it entails, but community and authenticity have to begin at the parish level. By beginning at the local church, the National Church would have the potential to grow stronger.

-John Shirley

Steve, I'm wondering what this parallel change looks like on the ground. Do you have any sense of that? I have seen it happen in a few congregations, but I don't know that that is what John is referring to.

One of the commenters on the blog post wrote, "the church does not exist to serve us…(and I know this won’t be popular)…Christians exist to serve the church." Wow! As I wrote in a response to that: Christians don't exist to serve the church; Christians ARE the church.

I think one thing working against us is this pervasive mindset of "the church" as this thing that needs serving rather than a community that includes all sorts of people.

Laura Toepfer

I don't know where the assumption came from that young people automatically know what's authentic and what's not. It seems to me that saying I don't want to go to church because the commnity is not authentic is a lot like saying I don't want to go to church because it's nothing but a bunch of hypocrites.
Well, yeah, that's exactly right. Kathleen Norris said something like this, 'The only hypocrite I have to worry about on Sunday is me.'
Dennis Bosley

I distrust people who presume to speak for their generation -- or any group beyond their own experience. A couple of Ron's points do resonate:

. . . Young people simply will not put up with what they deem to be a lack of community and/or authenticity, and they will not abide anything that appears to simply be going through the motions or the semblance of just being part of some spiritual/religious club. They aren’t interested in toeing [not towing!] the party line that has no bearing on their social and cultural experiences.”
Ron is quite right: a group will have no appeal to outsiders if it has no bearing on their social and cultural experiences. That is where church is having problems -- reconciling patriarchal tradition with the experience of present-day gay and feminist seekers, their families and friends.

But Authenticity is an abstract noun that marks an emotional response -- "the real thing" is what you think it to be. And there has been much discussion of community on the Café recently, notably on how to welcome new-comers. The liturgy can draw people of more different classes than can a homogenous social group. So can a group formed for civic action.

Then Ron says:

This is a generation of self-starters and micro-entrepreneurship. They have no problem whatsoever starting up their own things.
Which makes me think: Let them! Let them start their own churches. More power to them. They may get it right. But the implication of the whole statement is, like most of us, they're waiting for someone to do it for them.

It might be useful to make a distinction between whether one agrees with the article I have linked to in all of its particulars and whether it accurately captures the way in which many young people feel about the church. It certainly reflects sentiments that I have heard broadly expressed. Therefore, I believe it constitutes useful information.

@ Jim: yes, growth in local congregations is exactly what I was referring to in my "gnats and camels" piece.

In business parlance, instead of "fighting corporate" you focus almost all your energy and resources on encouraging local "franchises" that are successful not because of, but rather in spite of "corporate" structures.

In church parlance, instead of trying to change "815" (and General Convention and all the redundant and irrelevant commissions and structures) -- changes that only start turf wars as the people who are invested in those structures defend themselves and "the way things are," (or argue for incremental change...which is really the same thing)-- we focus almost all our efforts and energy on encouraging those healthy, mission-minded, growing congregations that are successful in spite of "815" etc.

@ Steve: as far as dealing with "the powers-that-be" in the interim: I have found that "the powers-that-be" fall easily to the Jedi Mind Trick (you know, "these aren't the droids you're looking for.") You just tell them a story -- a story of a changed life, a vibrant congregation -- and they get all drawn in and forget to oppose what they weren't supposed to be opposing in the first place.

Thank you, John. With a few significant exceptions that I won't enumerate for fear of sidetracking the conversation, I don't think General Convention has the power to affect the kind of change the church requires now. The congregational vitality approach makes much more sense. However, I don't think we currently know enough about what works, what doesn't, and why to argue, as some do, that either 815 or General Convention is an impediment to success. Everyone involved is groping for answers.

Jim,

Ron's reading of his generation's attitude is plausible, but I suspect he lacks experience to generalize so widely. Some aspects of his statement seem accurate, as I said, though his abstract nouns say less than he supposes. At least, his statement is a straw in the wind. You're right that the church is locked into its present structure -- which is why I wish that Ron and his friends would indeed come up with something new.

Murdoch, I think you are right that Ron may not be in a position to generalize widely, but for me he's one of many voices saying similar things, so I feel compelled to try to make sense of it.

Like you, I am trying to keep up with what people are creating outside the current structures, but I am not sure that I have anything to report beyond what one could find in any decent survey of the emergent movement.

Wait y'all- why do we count a 30-something as a "young adult"?

Also why are those hipster white people supposed to make me feel nervous? Like probably 78% of the people in the Protestant blogosphere are hipster white people.

Also why are articles like this provocative? It's not like this is the first time we're saying these things.

Willie Goforth

Having come of age in the latter 1960's I well remember the screeds against the hypocrites in church. Even as I participated in some of the euphoric communitarian gathering and experiments. None of the communities seemed capable of lasting and I finally realized that flawed as the church might be it was a group of people who managed to come together, weekly or more, over a period of decades. People who despite their flaws ran programs for kids and teens, worshiped, maintained a place where community groups could gather and did some sorts of deeds of charity.

Perhaps we don't need communities that gather weekly and sustain a common life over decades and centuries any more, but I'd submit the world is shallower and unsatisfyingly transitory without them.

Another straw in the wind:

“During the last third of the twentieth century,” according to Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, “all forms of social capital fell off precipitously.” Tens of thousands of community groups – church social and charitable groups, union halls, civic clubs, bridge clubs, and yes, bowling leagues — disappeared; by Putnam’s estimate, one-third of our social infrastructure vanished in these years. Frequency of having friends to dinner dropped by 45 percent; card parties declined 50 percent; Americans’ declared readiness to make new friends declined by 30 percent. Belief that most other people could be trusted dropped from 77 percent to 37 percent. Over a five-year period in the 1990s, reported incidents of aggressive driving rose by 50 percent — admittedly an odd, but probably not an insignificant, indicator of declining social capital.
--from a book review quoted on "Decline of Empire" blog.

It's not just the church. We've lost the sense of promoting the general welfare, so that public assistance and Social Security can be stigmatized as "entitlements," and public schools, prisons, and city agencies can be privatized for profit. The new Gilded Age was attractive when it started; the end game, not so much.

My link to the "Decline of Empire" blog doesn't work. Try this one.

Sorry.

I think the part that rang most true for me in the article was this:

"Churches have been reduced to elementary school playgrounds with the endless bickering and threats made by this faction or that one taking their proverbial ball and going home. And those playgrounds are getting noticeably more empty."

The conflict in some places—and at broader churchwide levels—is incredible (and not in a good way) sometimes.

In general, I'd like to be talking more about generational change in the church. Some initial gleanings are here.

I have just read the entire piece written by "Ron" (odd that we have no idea who this person might be), and can say this:

It is not just his generation that will not tolerate TAWADI (That's the Way We've Always Done It). ANY newcomer who finds a parish that is unwelcoming, that is bickering over piano vs. organ, that is unwilling to even consider change, that is locked into the same-old, same-old, is going to walk away, most likely thinking: "This isn't for me."

Life is change. Life is dynamic. We don't do the same things at 20 that we did at 10, at 30 that we did at 20, at 40 that we did at 30.

So what do we need to do? Infuse our liturgy with welcome and life. We can use the same words we use now (and here I include Enriching Our Worship as well as Rite I) ... but if we are doing liturgy as a "task," if we are mouthing the words by rote, if we remove the feeling and expression that we actually love the Lord, we will have more people quitting than staying, because we haven't touched their souls.

Every piece of the liturgy should be a love song to and with God. I don't "say" the Psalms; I invite people to "pray" them. I don't "recite" the Creed. I invite people to "pray" it. I try to make everything I do in the liturgy invitational and welcoming and loving. Do I always succeed? No. But I try.

If we at least try, the church and the Church will be strengthened. It's when we give up and lock ourselves into the old ways "just because" that we begin to die. And I don't mean just numerically. We die spiritually as well.

Again: This is not limited to one generation. I see it across every generation in every place I visit.

Enjoyed the essay immensely. Seriously. May I ask Ron a couple of clarifying questions, please???

Contemporary service? OK. Sounds great. How about using some of that youthful entrepreneurial spirit and plan a contemporary service for us, held before or after the boring one? I’ll attend. I do want to see what an authentic service looks like.

Authenticity? I’m a bit confused. What does this authenticity look like? In my parish we have 4 different poverty/food ministries, women’s shelter program, Habitat for Humanity teams, as well as relations with parishes in Lakota Sioux reservations, South Sudan, and Guatemala. We travel every year to help build clinics and schools and wells in these places. This is inauthentic? Ok; perhaps it is. We had one young adult trip planned and 25 people expressed interest – only 5 ended up going. Is this the kind of authenticity Ron is referring to? Maybe I don’t understand authenticity. I stand ready to be educated.

Community? Cool! What does that look like? From my limited experience, community is rather messy. There are cranks and whiners among us, both young and old - we are disciples, not perfect. Ever get flamed by a text from a 58 yr old? Probably not. They were 26, maybe? Did you write off your entire generation based on one incident? Should we write off another generation based on one crank who tells kids to pipe down?

Virtual? It’s been my experience that technology is used to keep people at arm’s length, not create human relations. Text and twitter are walls, not doorways; they are used to keep people from not getting too close. Connection is instant, yes, but shallow. No eye contact, no touch, no reality. And we should embrace this? Really? Jesus held The Last Supper where real people were present, not The Last Twitter.

I look forward to the ensuing conversation! Thanks! :)

Dear Maplewood - please sing your name when commenting. ~ed.

Ted Rall comments on the loss of common culture.

Ed.: my apologies. I forgot to change my profile. I am Kevin McGrane. I'll need to figure how to change all this.

The comment on authenticity is interesting, and I'd like to address it.

There is a very, very wide range of authentic Christian experience and worship. There should be, imo.

However, what's authentic to the Boomers and their seniors isn't necessarily authentic to young adults.

In my experience, Boomers and seniors have been unwilling to change their worship styles, for example, to reflect this.

Too many Episcopal Churches have a worship style that I don't find authentic, and that I suspect many other young adults don't. Now, the young adults who do find it authentic, are already in church, so this is NOT universal. But notice how few of them there are.

So, readers should NOT take the Scriptorium blog's statement that young folks not putting up with inauthenticity as an indictment of themselves. What folks like me are indicting is an unwillingness to acknowledge that our liturgical tastes, for example, aren't the same as others. There is no room for a style of worship that I find authentic in most Episcopal Churches, so I haven't been back. Make room by funding youth ministries. Make room by changing some elements of the services (more piano, less organ, more a capella, more guitar - those can be authentic to the 1982 Hymnal songs and LEVAS).

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