‘Young adults don’t need the church’

July 20, 2016 | Focus On | Volume 20 Issue 15
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld | Alberta Correspondent

The seminar title started in response to the young adult “problem.”

“[‘Young adults don’t need the church’] is not meant to be a defiance statement, but a statement of fact,” said presenter Chris Brnjas, a co-founder of  Pastors in Exile (PiE) in southwestern Ontario. “The church is no longer a central force in the lives of young adults.”

Brnjas has the background to know what he is talking about. He and others seek to be pastors “outside the church walls,” which involves meeting with many young adults. He also works in student services at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, is a member of the Gathering Church in Kitchener, and was a Mennonite Church Canada youth delegate to the to the 2015 Global Youth Summit of Mennonite World Conference.

The seminar began with participants sharing reasons for their interest in the topic. These included:

  • Living among young families who do not attend church;
  • Wanting to support the faith life of young-adult believers who have chosen not to go to church;
  • Being concerned about the drop-off in youth engagement with church; and
  • Curiosity regarding alternatives to the way church is done.

Brnjas cautioned against painting all young adults with the same brush at the same time, although he pointed out that there are commonalities shared by people who share a generation. Currently, millennials are negatively characterized—mostly by older generations—as cynical, shallow, narcissistic and selfish. Conversely, they are positively identified as creative, connected, confident, and interested in diver-sity in thought and practice.

A new twist to generational changes is the observation that, because technology is changing so quickly and changing people with it, every five years results in a unique generation. A 25-year-old may have grown up very differently than a 20-year-old in the same geographic area, he said.

A general understanding among young adults is that the word “church” tends to have negative connotations because of the awareness of things like sexual abuse scandals, the history of residential schools, and exclusion based on things like race or sexual orientation. “I think [churches] should be masters of apology,” he said. “Yet we often seem more interested in protecting our institutions than to rectify past sins.”

The highlight of the seminar was cross-generational dialogue. Brnjas had participants pair off with someone at least 15 to 20 years different from themselves. The pairs discussed how they grew up, what was happening in the world when they were young, and what attracts them to church or keeps them away.

While it seemed clear that the church today is no longer the centre of community life as it was years ago, there were a remarkable number of similarities in spite of age differences, and discussion was lively. Community, connection to good people, and social justice were named as things that drew people to church.

One cross-cultural pair—Canada and Sudan—laughed at the discovery that they had both grown up in quiet, rural areas, following cattle on foot, and connecting with a small faith community. Another pair noted that rebelling and rebuilding were parts of both their stories. A pastor from a young-adult-oriented church noted that it was having trouble holding on to its boomer and senior generations, who kept leaving in search of a “peer group.”

In conclusion, Brnjas encouraged participants to think of church as people, not as institution, and emphasized the “mutually beneficial” effects of cross-generational conversation.

More about seminars at Assembly 2016:

Making a case for community
The future lies in the past
A vision for the MHC Archives and Gallery
The place of a ‘confession’ in church life
Laments and hopes for MC Canada
Exploring tough subjects and intense spaces
Good news sometimes comes in small packages
‘Partnering with God’s healing and hope’
Seeing dystopian heroines as prophets


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