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Wanted: An adult faith in a youth culture

Wanted: An adult faith in a youth culture

Chaplain Mike at The Internet Monk has a distinctive take on some of the issues of generational leadership and the importance of reaching out to young adults that we have been discussing here on The Lead lately:

Contrary to what I hear around me so often, I want my grandfather’s church.

I know, I know… there are characteristics of that old, traditional church that are not desirable: many had a narrow, parochial spirit, many were characterized by pervasive judgmental attitudes. They could be exclusive, racist, uncreative, and stuck in their ways. This I readily admit and abhor. A congregation that replaces a living, thriving, growing tradition with anemic or dead traditionalism is of no interest to me.

But I want a church where I know and feel that the adults are in charge, where wisdom trumps enthusiasm, where historical perspective is considered, where depth is valued as much as breadth, where stories have shaped us for generations.

I understand the attraction of youth and enthusiasm and energy. We need young leaders too, but let them be those who have older mentors to guide them and recommend them, not brash entrepreneurs who come with all the answers and stake out territory on their own. As I said before, I want the adults to be in charge.

If you read his entire post, you will understand that Chaplain Mike is comparing mainline worship, broadly defined, to mega-church worship, and it is entirely true that many young adults prefer the former to the latter just as he does. But he also seems to be asserting the importance of tradition–and, it would seem, older leadership–at a time when much of the church feels called to figure out what our rapidly changing institutions will look like a decade or so down the line.

What do you think about this?

(Hat tip: Derek Olsen)

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Ceryle Alcyon

Donald Schell says, “Living traditions are handed on from one generation to the next in an offering, re-examination, and acceptance/adaptation. When it works it’s a mutually respectful conversation across generations.” I like this very much. It’s what makes a church a family, and it was one of the things I valued greatly as a young adult.

When I was in college, I could have participated in our university’s interdenominational United Campus Ministry, which was perfectly acceptable (if a little bland) and consisted mostly of undergrads, graduate students, and a handful of faculty and staff. But I chose instead to attend an off-campus church very like the one in which I had been brought up.

I didn’t want to be isolated with my peer group, and I really hated so-called “contemporary” services that were supposedly tailored to people my age, who were reputed to consider classical music and traditional church language stuffy and outmoded. I wanted to be around people of all ages and generations and to be part of a real community, and I found traditional worship–the hymns, the language, the service music–deeply comforting and uplifting. We did have an active student group at that church, and I made many friends there, but I also sang in the church choir every Sunday and volunteered to help teach Sunday school and even was invited to join a couple of committees. For me, it was part of the process of maturing and taking my place in adult society.

I am now a member of an Episcopal parish affiliated with the university where I work. It is a small and vital congregation. The liturgy is very, very high-church, almost Anglo-Catholic, and the music is also wonderfully traditional. Our numbers have actually increased in the last couple of years–partly, I suspect, because we have become a haven for refugees from megachurches and megachurch wannabes–again, people of all ages, both town and gown.

I don’t why it should be so hard to grasp that the way to involve younger people in a church community is to tap them to serve on committees, participate in the worship service, and gradually assimilate into the life of the church, gradually taking on more and more responsibility for its continued growth and vitality. A new member of any age should be able to sit quietly, listen, observe, and get to know people, but I don’t understand why that can’t be better facilitated, or balanced with asking directly for feedback and suggestions from younger folks and treating them with respect and seriousness. As for aspects such as worship style, people tend to find the level at which they are most comfortable. I think a church is perfectly within its rights to determine what sort of church it is and what it is not, rather than trying to be all things to all people and failing miserably and spectacularly.

That our church attendance has increased recently testifies to the fact that obviously, not every potential new member feels he or she needs to be surrounded by his/her own demographic–and that not everyone finds a high Anglican service stuffy and outdated.

Harriet Baber

The problem is both deeper and broader because it’s not just about younger people. The powers make a priori assumptions about what people want and need: “young people” want music in a contemporary idiom, little get-togethers over pizza and do-good work and everyone wants “community” etc. And if we don’t want these things we should–or aren’t the kind of people the church wants. Or we’re told that we should sacrifice getting what we want so that the church can cater for the interests of others (Yeah, you old bag: you don’t like the music but the Young People do. Shove over, Granny.)

And, of course, we’re told that it isn’t the church’s business to give us what we want. Tsk, tsk. That’s crass consumerism.

Well, Church. You can’t have it both ways. If you don’t give us what we want, we leave. And many of us have. If you don’t give us what we want, what we enjoy, why on earth should we come: fear of hell? social pressure? You can’t have it both ways. Evangelical megachurches, which have nothing of value to offer, grow because they aim to please: they’re unabashedly consumerist, work hard to find out what their clientele want and satisfy their wants. Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church, sniffing at consumerism doesn’t give us what we want, and then wonders why it’s declining.

Adam Wood

The previous two commenters touch on one of the big problems here: the “old people in charge” aren’t (in many cases) doing much Tradition. Even the ones who think they are have often confused Tradition with habit, or “whatever we were doing before YOU got here.”

Two thousand (plus) years of Christian worship- Tradition is hardly “the way things were in 1927” or “the way things were in 1978.”

Harriet Baber

When I was young the church went mad trying to appeal to us “young people–by promoting a middle-aged clerics’ safe, sanitized version of youth culture. Adding insult to injury we were told that we liked it the silly stuff they were pushing, which we didn’t. It was out of date and, worse, sanitized.

The church has been doing that ever since–ghettoizing “young people,” stereotyping, engaging in tokenism. The issue isn’t “mentoring” or providing guidance or special leadership roles for younger adults but recognizing that at the legal age of majority people ARE adults–not “young adults” or “young people” or a special generation with special interests but just plain grown-ups. And it isn’t a matter of style that can be fixed by engaging with pop culture, or even by promoting it’s compassion-and-social-justice agenda.

Nowadays the church is still trying, and still with no success–just alienating older people in the process, telling us that we should sacrifice our interests in order to bring in “young people.” I’ll never forget one of the curate’s sermons when I was in college, and the only “young person” in church. Being British and hired for his accent, he told one of his little stories, this about an old lady who insisted on walking down the center aisle, walking slowly and blocking everyone else. Wasn’t life like that? Old people were blocking the young people’s way–it was important for them to get out of the way in the church so that the young people could pass.

First, and most importantly, this is plain unChristian–“shove over, Granny, and let the young and beautiful pass. Secondly, the majority of the congregation, who were over 50 couldn’t have found it appealing. Finally, I found it outrageous, because I hoped that I’d be an old lady some day–considering the alternative–wouldn’t have wanted some twerp of a curate then to tell me to shove over.

Donald Schell

I think there’s a deeper problem (or should I say a deeper healing) beneath this –

“he also seems to be asserting the importance of tradition–and, it would seem, older leadership–at a time when much of the church feels called to figure out what our rapidly changing institutions will look like a decade or so down the line.”

My generation, baby boomers, those who claimed “we all want to change the world” and eventually settled in to an unyielding hold on leadership in church (and culture) broke our tradition-shaping mores (even those who framed themselves as “traditionalists”). Living traditions are handed on from one generation to the next in an offering, re-examination, and acceptance/adaptation. When it works it’s a mutually respectful conversation across generations. To some extent, we’ve forgotten how to have that conversation together. At 66 I do find both wisdom and enthusiasm in some of my peers AND in some amazingly resourceful, inspired leaders who are my childrens’ ages. Playing it out as young vs. old or traditional vs. new/contemporary denies the real processes of living tradition. (and again, I think it was the sheer numbers of boomers unconsciously defining all by our experience that set us up for this).

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