Connecting with history

How do young adults relate to the language of our church?

August 31, 2011 | Young Voices
Kirsten Hamm | Special to Young Voices

Being in relationship is one of the best things we can ever do, and yet it is often one of the hardest. If only we could be in perfect relationship with each other and with God I imagine we would come pretty close to heaven on earth.

Yet the younger generations are not in relationship with their history, and I think this is one of the major issues the North American church is facing today. By now, the answer a lot of people give to the question, “Why are you Mennonite?” is, “Because I go to a Mennonite church.” These words that used to be so transformative are losing their significance. We, the younger generations, have learned how to use the terms, but do we know what they mean?

I recently heard a conversation at a coffee shop where two post-secondary students from a Christian institution were talking about blurring lines betweens denominations and how “non-denominational basically means charismatic.” The meaning of so many words has changed in the last 50—or even 15—years, that it is often hard to know what we are really talking about.

There can be a tendency to lay the blame for a generational dichotomy on the various faults of the young and old. But, really, we are all products of our time, and the times have been changing at a pace that the church has a hard time keeping up. It is no one’s fault, and it should not be blamed on apathy or disinterest. It is simply a fact of the world we live in.

In a perfect scenario we would all be products of the church and social shifts would not create gaps, but, alas, we are human and the secular world has a large impact on our lives and the words we use. Language is so basic and fundamental, it often gets overlooked when issues are being discussed. The first step should be to make sure we are all using the same definitions. As well, we need to know why we are using those definitions.

Making sure that everyone is on the same page is important in so many areas. Something as simple as contextual explanation—especially before a reading from the Old Testament—can go a long way.

I recently opened my Bible to Zechariah and started to read. But I quickly lost interest, as I was unsure of the historical situation. This led to a mini-Bible study of sorts, flipping back and forth between Zechariah, Haggai and Ezra, and their introductions, until I had my background information sorted out. Suddenly, Zechariah became interesting because I could put myself in the space of the Israelites. Knowing the history created a connection; it created relationship between me and the Word in a new and refreshing way.

But if we cannot connect to the language of our church, church does not feel like a place we should be. To state the obvious, if we feel alone in church, the motivation to continue to come and make it an important part of our lives starts to disappear.

One solution could be a discussion topic at a youth group or in a Sunday school class, with questions like:

  • What does in mean to be Mennonite?
  • Why, and because of whom, are we Mennonite?

But it’s important that the answers aren’t just historical facts. It needs to come alive in a real way for people, in order for them to feel connected to it and to understand how that is part of their own story.

Relationships are important, and our relationships with the church and language are two that are particularly formative, yet they are rarely discussed together. Historical reminders and definitions are small details that can go a long way in connecting church and language, and helping people of all ages feel like church is a place they can feel a part of.

The world is full of stories about relationships, stories with depth that we can connect to, and the church has one of those stories. Our task is to muddle through generational differences and language to make sure that everyone knows this story of good news, and feels like they are in relationship with it.

Kirsten Hamm graduated from Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Man., in 2011, and recently finished a pastoral internship at Langley Mennonite Fellowship, B.C.

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