a letter from an exhausted/exasperated young person who has a complicated love/hate relationship with the church
PART 1 of 2
Can I be honest?
I find the church exhausting. At times infuriating.
I’ve spent the last decade working for a few different local congregations—from conservative Baptist to non-denominational to mainline Protestant—and to be honest, regardless of their theological/ideological/political nuances, they have all generally caused within me the same feeling: endless frustration.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love the Church. I believe it to be the single most potent and powerful possibility for the transformation of the world (and by “transformation of the world” I mean the actual restoration of the various ills and suffering and ecological devastation we experience and cause one another and the creatures around us…not the whole “getting people to think and vote just like me” agenda it’s been turned into). It’s why I continue to participate in it, why I continue to identify myself as “one of them.”
But there are times—more often than not—that it drives me absolutely crazy.
I’m in my early 30’s. I was born at the tail end of Generation X. I grew up with corporate downsizing and political scandals, and am therefore generally skeptical of people in positions of power. I was a latchkey kid, so being independent is pretty much second nature (although, inwardly, all I want is to connect with others). I spent a good chunk of my childhood in a single parent household, so the whole ‘nuclear family’ thing is actually bit of a foreign experience/concept for me. I have seen technology advance exponentially throughout my lifetime and was young enough when the trend began to have been able to ride that wave fairly comfortably and competently.
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.
I am officially at a loss for words when it comes to the insistence of so many churches to try and preserve within their walls a snapshot of a certain cultural point in time…while at the same time bemoaning the fact that there aren’t any young people around, and secretly dreading whether or not their congregation will even exist 50 years from now (which I have found many mainline Protestant churches to be doing). How many meetings have I sat in on where so much energy and emotion was spent on arguing over seemingly non-essential things? For instance: whether you use a piano or organ during worship isn’t going to determine whether young people attend or not. It’s like asking a soon-to-be terminated employee what font they would prefer to have on their pink slip (and no, Comic Sans is not appropriate. Ever). Because if the entire repertoire of songs–or philosophy of worship in general–is distasteful to young people, they don’t care what instrument is being used to accompany said repertoire. And for people who are immersing themselves in genres like stomp-grass or post-rock or prog-rock or neo-rockabilly, whether or not a piano or organ accompanies a song that has no relevance in their world (musically, at least) is simply a non-issue.
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.”
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.
And the more meetings I continue to sit in on, the more music I sing that I don’t relate to, the more input I’m asked to give on young people and their participation in the church (which will never be implemented because that would require the church to *GASP* change something)…the less I care. Not care about the Church (the whole “universal body of Christ” thing), but care about participating in the traditional local congregation, and the more disheartened I am about the whole venture of it.
I was recently in a church service where the message of the sermon was about the intergenerational representation of congregations, and one of the points was that previous generations need to realize that younger generations can’t be told stories the same way the previous generations were told them. The language has changed. The environment…the substrate upon which we now build has changed. Because of this, the pastor added that previous generations needed to be willing to listen to the stories and voices of the younger generations as well.
Now at some point in the midst of this great message the children in the Sunday school class had been taken outside to play in the grass with some balloons, and you could hear their laughing and shrieks of joy and surprise outside the windows of the sanctuary. What an appropriate backdrop for such a message!
And then it happened.
An older gentleman in the congregation stood up, walked clear down the side aisle, opened the door to the church yard and told the children that they needed to quiet down because a service was taking place inside.
And in that moment something in me broke.
Some dark, black, gloomy hole within my being dropped into endless freefall. During a message about generations needing to be willing to listen to one another, some guy actually got up and told the younger members of the church to shut up.
Any hope I had for change died in that pew. Any hope I had for conversation, for renewal, for cross-generational interaction choked to death center-aisle on the cranberry-colored carpet runner and to the sound of the words: “You kids need to quiet down.”
The closing song for the service that day was accompanied by both the piano and long-neglected organ. People were overjoyed to hear the playing of its pipes. I don’t know what the song actually was (any one of a number of songs that all sound the same to me). I just know I had to grit my teeth the entire time, that my knuckles were white as I gripped the back of the pew in front of me, that all I could think was, “Really?! REALLY?! That was worth getting up in the middle of a sermon for? That was a duty you felt obliged to carry out? Is that really ‘how it’s done’ around here?”
I can’t help but wonder how Joshua felt when he saw the beauty and wonder of the Promised Land with its verdant fields and lush produce. How excited he must have been to help get the entire nation of Israel in there to begin settling it. I mean, he had been so close he literally TASTED it. But their response?
“We’d rather suck on sand for the next 40 years.” (Okay, so that’s a bit of a loose translation.)
I wonder if something inside of him broke. I wonder if some bottomless vacuum opened up within his gut as well.
An entire generation had to literally die before Joshua could once again move into the direction he knew the nation was called to go. How often did he dwell on that? Over the span of those four decades, how many days did he sit on the edge of the river and look longingly to the other shore and think, “We should be on the other side. Our story should be happening over there.” How many times did he voice that to the council, to those in the encampment around him? And how many times did he hear the reply, “Don’t worry so much about all that, Joshua…you’re young. That youthful fire will die soon enough (we call that maturity) and then you’ll learn how to be practical and respect our cultural traditions. So have a seat, quiet down, and turn to page 289 in your hymnal…”
* They will express tolerance as long as there is hope that someday those less attractive aspects may in fact be allowed to change. If not…they are generally out the door.