One of the more articulate spokespersons for a new generation of Christians is Rachel Held Evans. She is a 30 something, 32 to be exact but my mommma told me never to give away a woman’s age. She's an evangelical christian, sorta kinda, drop out and drop in on the church type. Hey, I got no problem with that, as I myself was an outsider for 21 years, and have wondered for the last 33 if I really do belong here. This morning I did, but this afternoon, well, I just wanted as much distance as possible. She is smart, savy, funny and has her pulse on the latest and greatest. She’s written two books, and blogs frequently here.
Today’s article on CNN.com “Why millenials are leaving the church” is getting a lot of thumbs up on social media. It is definitely worth a read, and besides CNN will appreciate the fact that you clicked through to it, as the metrics will mean more advertising revenue. I enjoyed it so much I read it three times.
But then I started seeing some of the responses on Facebook and Twitter. While most were harmless or bold “likes”, every once and a while I saw a post that made me realize the profound truth of the author Anais Nin. She said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”
I saw this most clearly in this post on Facebook. “Evans is so right. I’ve been saying for 30 years that keeping liturgy the same is what will bring people back to church.” Hmmmm, really? Is that what she is saying? Yes, she does indicate a preference in her generation for liturgical forms of worship. The exact quote is: “Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic”
But, my guess is that Held would also agree that there is no one size fits all for millenials or any generation. I fear that my friend who posted on Facebook might be suggesting that a return to a certain form of liturgy is the key answer, the magic clue, the easy way forward. I would argue that what this generation or anyone outside or on the margins of the church is really attracted to can be summed up in this statement by Evans: “We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”
I’ve been to lots of different churches, both recently as a newly elected bishop, but also over many years as a curious Christian seeking out an authentic way to worship in this empire context called North America. I’ve been in amazing worship settings in Pentecostal charismatic settings with hands held high, as well as Lutheran and Greek Orthodox settings that were truly magnificent magnificat. I’ve also been in the most vapid and pretentious worship services in those same or similar traditions. I’ve connected with God while worshipping at Willow Creek, and been equally repelled in the same setting a few years later.
As a pastor, when I lived in New York City I embraced the high liturgy of Lutheran worship, because the context was culturally and spiritually appropriate. But, I also worked to add a more relaxed worship service with musical rhythms of rock n roll music, because there were those in our neighborhood in Brooklyn who connected with God in that style. In Rhode island, we did what some people call contemporary worship, but I like to refer to as culturally appropriate worship. Yes, I wore blue jeans once for a drama, but most of the time I dressed like I was right off the pages of Land's End, not because I wanted to be cool, but because that's the way I like to dress.
In our New England Synod, I’ve witnessed authentic and powerful worship with jazz music at Zion Lutheran in Pittsfield, MA, formal liturgy and beautiful organ music at Trinity Lutheran in Worcester, MA, and a more relaxed guitar and drum driven worship at Sanctuary, Marshfield, MA. I've danced with the Puerto Rican rhythms of spanish language worship at Iglesia Luterana and Gloria Dei in Providence. I cannot believe that God wants me to pick one of these as the 'right way.' The common theme was an authenticity, a hard to describe connection with the numinous, and well, a hard to describe match between the people in worship and the leadership.
I’m going to invert Evan’s statement from above and rephrase what I see. “People are returning to churches because they find Jesus there.” And, I don’t mean that statement in some prefab everybody’s saying “Jesus loves you” kinda way. What I see is congregations that are seriously attempting to engage their communities are being Jesus communities. To quote Bonhoeffer: “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others...not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.”
These churches are making a difference in the lives of people who don’t frequent the door of a church building. They are serving meals, raising funds to keep swimming pools open in the city in summer when municipalities are fiscally constrained, they start AIDS ministry, they are starting medical clinics, they are providing pro bono legal services, they are reading to children in first grade. AND THEN They are connecting worship to that Jesus servant lifestyle in a way that speaks to the pain and suffering of human life. They are not providing sermons on 6 points to raise your stock portfolio, but they might do a series on 12 steps of AA and Christianity. They are telling biblical stories of Job, and Hosea, and Peter, and connecting them to the suffering of life, and the peculiar way inwhich God enters into that pain, not to fix it, but to somehow be present. In that presence, there is a redemption. After all who hasn’t wondered why is God punishing me like Job, or why has my spouse run off with another (Hosea), or denied the very existence of God/Jesus (Peter). These are not old stories, these are living stories that are alive today, its just the names are changed.
My point, if there is only one here, is to encourage us to look, not for easy answers. (Fix the worship, fix the Sunday school, fix the way we receive the offering) No, the answer is to embrace the challenge, and realize that authenticity is really really hard work. It is marathon work, not sprinters work. In a person it takes a lifetime of community, honesty and vulnerability. In a church, it’s, well, it’s even harder, cause you are working with people. Some people want to grow, some people think they wanna grow, some people think they’re done, and most people are doing the best they can.
Here’s to the journey, and the reminder that most of all of us are doing the best we can. Somehow, that's an attempt at Grace.