I often feel lonely in church.
Sometimes it has to do with my role. As a pastor, I have certain responsibilities to the people I serve, what we call the sacred trust. I try not to be someone other than who I really am, but there is still a sense in which I am never fully myself in church. And that can be lonely.
But whats on my mind today isnt the loneliness of being a pastor. Ill save that for anotherpost.Whats on my mind today is the loneliness of being a millennial in the mainline church.
There is a kind of grief that comes when you look around a room of hundreds of people united by a common identity for a common purpose and see hardly anyone within 10 years of your age. Mind you, I have no desire to be part of a community that is comprised solely of young adultsI deeply value the wisdom of older generations and the joy of children all mixed together in one intergenerational family.
But its a little like how I felt when I was at the age where, as the oldest of the cousins by several years, I had outgrown the kids table while not yet qualifying to sit at the grownup tableand so I was stranded in between, alone.
This grief comes and goes for me, but its been in sharp focus lately. There arepeople in their 20s and 30s who are faithful participants at my mainline church, and they are wonderfully engaged and active. But for the most part, when I look around the room, I see kids and teenagers, then Gen-Xers on upand a gap in between.
This troubles me. Im already plagued with a sense of not fitting in, of not being cool enough to my peers, of struggling more than I think I should with cultivating a normal social life. Working in a church only reinforces the distance and alienation I feel from my own generation.
To be clear, what saddens me is not that my peers dont come. I totally get it. There are times I think I wouldnt come to church either if I didnt work there. I understand their qualms and aversion probably better than many of them think I do.
What saddens me is that I am pouring my heart and my life into work that seems to be wholly irrelevant to a large segmentof my generation and even objectionable to some of my peers. I often feel like I am preaching to the choir, and although I love that choir and every person in it, I cant help but think this isnt the whole picture.
And the choir knows that. They desperately want to understand why their son, their granddaughter, their little brother would choose to play disc golf or go to brunch or sleep in on a Sunday morning. (I dont understand the disc golf option myself, but thats just me.) They worry about this trend because they care about the well-being of that missing generation and about the future of the church they love.
Sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly, many people expect a pastor like mea 29-year-old with enough piercings and tattoos to make them think I might have an in with my peers but not enough to totally freak them outto know how to fix it, or even to be a draw. I get the sense that some people believe thatif they just put a young person in the pulpit, his or her peers will magically flock to church.
And there is something to be said for millennials seeing other millennials in church leadership. But if you prop up a 20-something in the pulpit merely as a sort of dog whistleto the young people, we can smell the marketing ploy a mile away.
We are the MTV generation. Weve been advertised to since we were kids. We arent interested in flashy marketing or a transparent strategy to lure us in by putting one of our own out front. Were interested in authenticity, whatever age package it comes in. Remember, Bernie Sanders, the 75-year-old crazy uncle of the Senate, was our guy.
So no, I dont know what to do about the absence of millennials in church. Most of the time, I dont want to do anything about it. I dont want to fix the problem of young people not coming to church, because thats not the real problem.
I hear people long for the days when everyone came to church because thats just what you did. But wasthe church really so much better off when people came because thats just what you did? I dont think so.
The solution isnt to go backward, and it isnt simply to move forward as is, or even to tweak our message and presentation to appeal to a new generation. Its to reorient ourselves as to what the problem is. Maybe the problem isnt millennials apathy toward the churchmaybe its the churchs apathy toward the concerns and passions of millennials, and not just millennials but the world outside the Christian bubble.
When people tell me that young adults just need to come to church and see for themselves, I ask them: Why should they care about whats happening inside our walls when we dont seem to care about whats happening outside them? I know that we do care, in our own waybut not in a way that translates to my generation.
Many millennials see the church as exclusive and insular. The churchs problem isnt attractivenessits that the church isperceived as failing to live up to its own standards. Not that the church needs to be perfectwhen people accuse the church of being hypocritical, my response is, Well, duh, its full of humansbut we do need to be more perfectly honest about our failings, our motivations, our real purpose.
Millennials, far from being lost souls secretly in need of what the church has to offer (how unintentionally patronizing our evangelical efforts can be), are constantly creating community in their own ways. It will take more than a rebranding campaign to convincemillennials that the church is a form of community worth participating in. In the meantime, I pray that my loneliness will lead me to seek solutions we havent yet dreamed of to problems we cant quite get our heads and hearts around.
Authors Note: I recognize that I sometimes use we to refer to millennials and sometimes to refer to the church. I decided to leave it that way, even (and perhaps especially) because it might beconfusing, since it reflects my own sense of conflicted identity.