If you happen to be a human that has been connected to wifi life support over the last few weeks you would have unavoidably noticed renewed interest in the issue of young people leaving the church. Surprise everyone, it happens.
Shall I add to the noise? The thing is, I'm a church boy through and through. And I really want to understand how to address this in New Zealand.
Why do I care?
I had the privilege of attending flannel graph Sunday School from the moment I escaped the womb and very quickly learned the all the evangelical classics—"Shine Jesus Shine", "Our God is an Awesome God" and "We are the Pirates Who Don't Do Anything". Eventually, I graduated to the confusing world of youth group in which I was taught the basics of keeping God happy.
These rules were something like this: keep it in your pants, don't dirty dance, or go any further than holding hands. Don't touch anything you don't have or you'll make God sad. Don't kiss for longer than 10 seconds, never do it horizontal or try a sneaky fondle, never hug full frontal. Side hug for Jesus. And only use tongue when you're married.
Well, in my graduation into young-adulthood by breaking every rule I have just mentioned (I even read Harry Potter and enjoyed it), I began searching. At first I didn't know what for, but I had a sneaking suspicion it was bigger than morality and a spirituality that seemed to put emotion and hype on a pedestal.
It suddenly dawned on me that there were really good reasons to doubt the validity of the Bible. It dawned on me that sexuality was actually quite a complex part of life. It dawned on me that a lot of my own morality and sense of self was completely culturally founded. And my own approach to spirituality was a very narrow approach in the broad spectrum of things.
As I explored this, it became increasingly obvious that I was not alone in this, and all the research seemed to say the same thing. 80 to 90% of Kiwi young adults wander away from church with better things to do on Sundays than hear about the 3 steps to living a life of holiness. Or being a leader like Joshua. Or having faith like Abraham. Or being a worshipper like David. Or experiencing financial blessing like Judas. Lol jk.
So, like many in our early twenties, I began to experience alienation that came from being in community with people who weren't interested (at least in practice) in addressing what was worrying me. And it was in this scary space that I began to drift. Make no mistake, this is an incredibly unsettling experience for someone for whom church has always been central. To not feel at home at church is a pretty bad time. In this space, my disillusionment had time to grow.
And then, all of a sudden, I got employed by another church to work with the young adults group. Weird.
Sometimes I feel like a translator
In my job, I feel like I'm always trying to get two types of people to understand each other. I am constantly surprised with the responses from some of those of older generations who like to argue that the gospel is simple, and that we just have to have faith and read the bible and the rest will work itself out as we "focus on our relationship with God."
Which is fine, except for the fact that our world is not simple, so we just don't have that option. But equally, I get frustrated at some of my peers who fob Christianity off because they find church services boring, too structured and appearing not to confirm their own theological convictions, agendas and caricatures of Jesus. Admittedly, there are some who probably came to church for reasons other than Jesus. Probably girls.
So what's the problem here?
Well I think at a fundamental level, us "millennials" (aren't generalising, broad-stroke generational categories such fun?) would like to be heard, but lead from that place. To be met where our heads are at, but not to remain there. Just because we have frustrations and disagreements doesn't mean we like it that way. The problem is that when these concerns are ignored or downplayed it just comes across as patronising or ignorant.
And then you lose us, because it looks like you actually don't care enough to hear us out, or you actually haven't thought about any of it, and so it will never be important to you. We don't address the complexities of faith, the credibility of the bible or the grounds for ethical guidelines for fun. That's a lie, sometimes we do.
The Incarnation and being Community
To get all theological on everyone to make my point and look smarter than I actually am, I'd like to talk about the incarnation at this point. In the person of Jesus, we see a God who looks at the very real problems with the human condition and acts decisively. He doesn't sit there shaking his head in disapproval, wishing we would sort our crap out and stop making everything so tricky while he barks doctrine at us.
No, this God isn't like that.
This God not only takes on humanity, but he steps into the darkest places of it. He takes on confusion. He takes on rejection. He takes on alienation. This God experiences physical, emotional and psychological pain, he is humiliated, stripped naked and becomes a social and political outcast. He becomes the very worst parts of what it means to be human in order to redeem it all.
This "stepping-into" God, this "becoming" God could have something to say about the whole discussion.
At a very simple level, you could argue that what we need here is a similar approach. We need people who are willing to doubt with us to help us move on from doubt. We need people who are willing to feel our frustrations too, in order for us to be able to hold them a bit more loosely. We need people to get right into our faith crises to show us that in fact there is a way out and there is a way to reconcile some of our tensions.
To get into our theological misgivings and estrangement in order to point the way forward. To listen well and walk alongside us to show us that some questions need not shipwreck us nor cause us to find church irrelevant.
That's all I'm looking for. And the only time I've thought about gapping it was when the operations of church seemed to have no time for any of it.
That, and that time the worship band played "I Wanna Be A Reflector." That song makes the Trinity grieve for the world in ways sin never could.
Sam Burrows grew up on the mean streets of Torbay, and the hard knocks of the North Shore prepared him for his first job as a teacher. After three years he quit to pursue his dream career in mattress jousting, but quickly realised that it wasn't a real job, so began working for his church in the youth and young adults groups. In his spare time he pretends to be a rock star and writes so that girls think he's funny and might let him talk to them.
Sam Burrows' previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sam-burrows.html