Earlier this month, I was one of many who gathered in the new Marpeck Commons building at Canadian Mennonite University to hear from a panel of “young adults” on their age group and the church. Judging by the size of the audience (they had to go get extra chairs!), and a feature article on a similar topic in the Feb. 16th, 2015 issue of Canadian Mennonite, this is an issue that many churches are currently profoundly concerned and anxious about. We were informed that in Canada, only about one out of three young adults who attended church as a child is still attending church in young adulthood. This explains the sensational title, which I’ve borrowed and complicated a bit (since “young adult” and “church” shouldn’t be seen as mutually-exclusive categories!).
As someone who has resented being labelled a young adult long after I felt I fit that category, a lot of what was said at this panel discussion resonated with me, some of it from the panel, some from the audience response. A few key points were:
- Many young adults feel as though they’re not needed in the church. It’s not only about what the church can do for young adults, but what young adults (emphasis on adults!) can do for the church. “We’re a generation of doers,” someone stated.
- Many young adults find the bureaucracy of the church unappealing. Yet another budget or building-project meeting isn’t going to keep them engaged when they would rather be living out their faith and “being the hands and feet of Jesus.”
- Most young adults are critical thinkers. Having grown up in the age of access to overwhelming amounts of information and media (internet, smartphones, etc.), they’ve had to think critically about what they’re told. This means that for them, faith is likewise not about simple platitudes or pat answers but about wrestling with faith, doubt, social justice, and being counter-cultural.
- It’s simply not true that young adults only value “contemporary” worship styles! It’s rather a matter of opportunities for “creativity, involvement, and initiative” in worship. What’s appealing is for the church to be authentic, to be the church – and thereby to be open to others and their involvement in the life of the congregation.
- There’s value in the intergenerational aspect of church. For many young adults, church is the only context where they’re in such an intergenerational setting and also where they’re in community with those with whom they disagree.
- What centres us as a Mennonite church? Since for the most part, it’s no longer the Mennonite Germanic language and culture, it’s Jesus Christ. Church programs and music aren’t going to attract people as much as who we’re following. We’re now in a post-Christian context, which requires us to re-examine our identity. This can be scary, but it’s also exciting; rather than discouraging, it can be an opportunity.
- As part of this search for a renewed identity, the church needs to repent and ask forgiveness of those who have been hurt by the church (including LGBT Mennonites and their families and friends). The church needs to “hold loosely to the way that things have ‘always’ been.”
- Many young adults are searching for community and groundedness that is not restrictive, a search which may lead them to not attending church for a while, especially right after graduating from high school. The church shouldn’t give up on these people, but maintain connections with them and offer support. There’s no single formula for how people come to faith or commitment to the church.
I was encouraged by what I heard at this panel and discussion, particularly that the young adults who spoke weren’t coming to the discussion with a consumerist attitude toward church which I find irritating and unhelpful (i.e., only asking “what do I get out of church?” instead of “what can I contribute to the church?”). I was rather surprised, though, that adult baptism, that key distinctive of the Mennonite church, wasn’t really discussed at all! It seems to me that it’s one of the reasons for the strained relationship between young adults and their congregations. We no longer have a set time when catechism and baptism take place in people’s lives, so congregations aren’t sure how to relate to those who have not yet committed themselves publically as baptized members, while young adults might be waiting to be invited by their congregations to make this commitment – or at least for more of a discussion as to what it means.
I hope, though, that this relationship between young adults and the church goes beyond a simple airing of grievances. Peter Epp, who facilitated the panel, wrote an excellent opinion piece in The Mennonite, entitled, “Why don’t young adults go to church?” He wrote, “Our generation tends to be great with honest reflections. We were brought up to tell the truth and find our voices. Our love of blogging is a testament to that. Unfortunately, though, we haven’t always been so great at allowing our honesty to be evaluated. We haven’t been great at this because we haven’t been sticking around to receive it. We casually inject our honesty from the outside and then move on. So even if we’re right, we’re not committed or vulnerable enough to be a part of actually making those concerns mean anything.” He concludes that the church is “no longer asking us to sit quietly in the pews in our Sunday best, pretending. They’re just asking us to come out and help them fix the problems we’ve told them about.”
Overall, while I heard some ambivalence toward the church and some expressions of hurt, I also perceived a deep love for the church in the “young adults” who spoke. I get it. Sometimes I too get impatient with the church or feel hurt by what it does or fails to do. But I also need the church, and I’m also part of the church. It reminds me of the story in Genesis 32:22-31, of Jacob wrestling with an angel. It’s the middle of the night – a time of darkness and uncertainty – and Jacob encounters an unknown figure, maybe an angel, who represents the presence of God. And Jacob says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he receives a blessing and a new name. Maybe that’s how it is with the church; in this uncertain time, we, all of us, need to hang onto the church – especially those parts of it where we sense God’s presence – knowing that God’s blessing will come.
 For more of the particulars of the panel, see http://youngvoices.canadianmennonite.org/articles/fivereasonsyoungadults...
 See my previous post on this topic here: http://youngvoices.canadianmennonite.org/blog/susieguentherloewen/%E2%80...