So I have been trying to put together some grand unified theory of youth and young adult ministry that will tie up all of the loose ends from the last two posts into some beautifully woven and elegant tapestry.  However, that piece is forthcoming – though slow in doing so!

In the meantime, a friend of mine asked me what hope I saw in the up and coming leaders of the Church and how we both reach them and prepare the Church for their leadership.

A Church that seeks to be relevant or to matter?

The young adults I talk to are not looking for easy answers, vague spiritualities, dumbed-down theology, slipshod worship, therapeutic relativism, private faith, or a mono-cultural God.  They are desperately searching for a Church that offers an encounter with the Holy that transforms, convicts, inspires, and draws them in.

They are searching for a Church that demands their best.  Whether it is in mission, worship, theology, or daily life, they want a Church that is relevant not because it tries to tell them only what they want to hear but because it offers them a vision of the Holy and its transforming power.  A Church that reaches for and preaches relevance is a Church that makes itself irrelevant.  The quest for relevance is the mark of quiescent extinction.

This does not mean we quietly make our way off to the Grey Havens exiled in our own sense of righteous irrelevance as a new age dawns.  It means that questing for relevance, as if it is a goal worth achieving in and of itself, is a sad and tired pursuit.  It is not relevance that defines a people, that marks transformational leadership, but passion and purpose.  It is passion for God that shines through and marks a Church as Holy, as set aside for God’s use, and as deeply and overwhelmingly relevant.

There is a profound difference between a Church that is “relevant” and a Church that matters.  We are relevant only insofar as we offer a way for our believers to have their lives formed to the pattern of Christ’s own life.  We are relevant only insofar as we offer cruciform living and it is only in offering that transformation that we matter.

Young people are not looking for the easy path in life.  They don’t mind a challenge – it is too often us who fear the challenge.  They are not looking for the path of least resistance.

Look at the number of young people Occupying across the country or those joining Teach for America, the Peace Corps, the Episcopal Service Corps, Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Americorp, Lutheran Volunteer Corps, and the countless other service programs out there that call young people to live sacrificial lives in the service of others.  These young people are not trying to find an easy path – they are trying to find a path that makes a difference both to themselves and to others.

The Church must honor that deep desire by offering more – by offering them all that we have ever had to offer – the life-changing encounter with Christ.  Young people are searching for a way of being that is honest and rooted in something greater than themselves and we are too timid about offering that.

We can do so with joy for we are part of a Church that has a way of being the Body together that at once honors individual gifts while calling us to a higher common identity.

One of our teenagers, whose parents are at another parish, came to Christ Church because, as she told her dad, “The Prayer Book offers so much!” She was searching for a place that honestly tries to live into the fullness of our common identity as Anglicans.  She was searching for a place that knows that the Church has so much to offer.

A Generational Shift

We are not a Church that is really very well led by only Baby Boomers nor Generation X.  Let’s not forget that the Boomer generation was called the “me” generation.  It is a generation that places primacy on self-actualization and individualism.  These are not the marks of a thriving Church that can call others to sacrificial living.  They sought to overturn tradition and learned a way of being that is rooted in either/or thinking that is premised on a zero-sum approach to a variety of fields (including faith).

In “Mind the Gap,” a book on generational differences, Boomers were typed as “Talkative, Bossy, Inquisitive, Stylish, and Competitive.”  Generation X fares not much better, in some respects, and was marked as “Pragmatic, Individualistic, Arrogant, Risk Taking.”

It is the next generation that offers hope for a new kind of Church leadership.  Generation Y was termed “Tolerant, Caring, Honest, Balanced, Independent, and Optimistic.”

The next generation of Church leaders is one that is ideally prepared to bring the Church forward.  They understand the complexity of human nature and society.  They value honesty and real relationships (despite how we might disparage the falsity of Facebook and the like).  They have a healthy approach to life that finds identity more in relationships than career.  They have seen both the challenges of fundamentalist religion and the costs, especially to families, of a society without grounding.  They are always searching for the real amidst hyper-marketing.  They are generally optimistic and not saddled with Generation X’s deep cynicism nor with the Boomers’ reflexive distrust of (and desire to deconstruct) everything.

In other words, they are prepared to lead a Church that is grounded, honest, thoughtful, optimistic, complex, and engaged.  For those despairing for the future of the Church, I can honestly say that we have a generation of leaders coming who will make all of us very proud.  However, we have to have the courage to pass on to them a Church that knows who and what it is.  We will be deeply blessed as our leadership becomes increasingly inter-generational.

Gifts we can pass on

We have a number of gifts that equip us ideally to be the Church of the next generation (if we have the courage to hold on to them) – and they are the very things that have always marked us as a Church:

  1. Authenticity – the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion have an authentic identity that is steeped in a rich history of honest engagement with the world around us.  Authenticity might also be thought of as the “tradition” which we have been blessed with.
  2. Scripture – We have an approach to God’s Word that respects its profound truth for our lives and yet recognizes the Word’s changing message to a changing world.  Scripture lives and breathes through the Spirit which means it changes and expands.  Rather than narrow we seek to deepen our understanding of the Word and its always challenging message for us.
  3. Rigor – Historically, we have not been the Church of easy answers.  Faith is a complicated thing and never more so than now.  We live in a world that poses a host of hard questions for people of faith.  Our tradition of honestly wrestling with the intellectual and spiritual challenges of faith has formed us for a cultural moment which demands a faith that welcomes reason.
  4. Beauty – We value the beautiful in a world that increasingly denies the power of the beautiful to change and transform us.  The Holy speaks through beauty and we are a people that have a special place in our liturgy and common prayer for the Holy to continue to speak.  Let Church be an encounter with the Holy rather than a chat about it.
  5. Catholicity – We are a Church that finds its unity in the Sacraments.  Baptism and Communion form us to be citizens of the Kingdom.  We are a body that finds that unity expressed in Common Prayer.  That unity and our commitment to it mark us as a people who know the difficulty and joy of living with the other, our sister and brother, always in our heart and mind.  Our identity is not ours alone – it is shared with those that have come before and those who are yet to come.
  6. Mission – Increasingly, we are coming to reclaim our identity as the Domestic and Foreign Mission Society.  We are living into our call to seek and serve Christ in our neighbors at home and abroad.  This sense of mission helps us to see our faith not only as something that is only personal but as deeply needed by the world around us.
  7. Diversity – No one approach is the right approach.  God speaks to us in manifold ways and our Church reflects our manifold answers to God.  We are seeking, across the Church, to offer praise to God that is rooted in the local realities of God’s universal call.

We simply have to have the courage to stop trying to pretend that being relevant means aiming for the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, or the ‘00s.  Whether it is the business-speak of the ‘80s, the liturgy and music of the ‘70s, or the “emerging” church of the ‘90s, or the countless other ways we are trying to catch-up, we are failing to look to the future and to be honest about who we are.  We keep aiming for marks that have already passed.

Rather than being the confident fellow who slightly overdresses (and is unashamed to do so) we have become the fellow trying on the mock-turtleneck, then the t-shirt under the blazer, then the skull-cap, then the slightly too tight merino v-neck, then the necktie casually loosened, then the leather jacket, then the jeans with the navy blazer…In other words, we are trying too hard to be something else (and something sadly dated) rather than just being who we are.

We will not manage, hand-hold, or emerge our way into the future.  We will only grow into our future as the Church when we reconnect with those essentials that define us, that are authentic to us, that make us matter as a Church.  Young people are not looking for a cool Church, the whole culture is selling them cool, they are looking for a real Church – a Church that matters.

Some interesting related things

“How to get more young people in church” by Bishop Kirk Smith

“The Entrepreneurial Generation” from the New York Times

“Yes, young people do like traditional liturgy” from the Episcopal Cafe

“Authenticity, Lessons from a Gen X Traditionalist”

“Brooklyn Church looks to tradition, community building to attract young adults” from Episcopal New Service

“It’s not about you” from the New York Times