by Andrew Stephens-Rennie
In late November, when I was preaching at a mid-sized Anglican church in Ottawa, I found myself finally putting into words something I’d been thinking about for quite some time. I’ve been directing youth ministries in the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa for nearly 3 years now, and yet I suspect this was the first time I put these thoughts into words on a Sunday morning. I probably should have spoken up sooner.
Week in and week out I have conversations with people who are wondering where the young people are. They’re not in the church pews. Preaching in churches, speaking with concerned parents and youth group leaders, there are many in mainline churches who are still asking for a fix to ‘the youth problem.’
They’re not there. That’s the problem.
But what concerns me, and what continues to cause me to reflect deeply on the absence of young people in our midst is what it might just say about our common mission and ministry.
The thing is, I’m not desperate to get young people saved in order to fill the pews, and throw money into the offering plate. Seriously, that’s not the best financial strategy. Working alongside so many dedicated men and women ministering amongst young people in our congregations, they’d probably tell you that I’m less concerned with institutional preservation than I am with deep discipleship.
What I’m concerned with is inviting young people into the world-changing story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. If there’s anything I hang my ministry on, it’s this.
The struggle, as I see and experience it, is that we struggle to hang our lives on such things.
We have many other concerns that get in the way, from building maintenance to shrinking attendance, to funerals and internal debates. Sometimes I wonder if we don’t need bigger problems to shake us out of our self-imposed, self-important isolation.
Sometimes I wonder if we don’t need bigger problems, in order to help us refocus our lives, mission and ministry on the reality of God’s redemptive work in this world, and our call to participate in the redemption of all things.
The story of redemption is a compelling, world-changing story, but it’s not the one I hear most often. We fundraise for money “to keep the lights on,” so that we can “continue to meet here.”
We can meet anywhere. We can meet as Christian brothers and sisters in any number of different places, many of which would cost less of our resources, and free them up to participate more fully, more holistically in Christ’s cosmic redemption. And yet, we find ourselves fixated upon, and slave to a false bottom line.
Our bottom line should have more to do with the gospel, not the maintenance of our buildings (or any other stand-in, for that matter). If our buildings empower ministry, great. If they’re incredible tools for ministering in the context of our communities, all to the good. If they encumber us in our participation in God’s mission, maybe we should just get rid of them, and reduce the needless busy-work.
When attendance is falling and deficits are growing, we end up looking for the magic solution. Sometimes in the midst of this, we default to blaming the young people. They’re the ones who will maintain our churches when we no longer can. They’re the ones who will keep this thing alive. Or they would be, if we could just get them to come.
But I’m not sure if young people are going to sign up for institutional maintenance. You’re more likely to find young people seeking something different. Princeton scholar Kenda Creasy Dean puts it this way:
Young people today are looking for a soul-shaking, heart-waking, world-changing God to fall in love with and if they don’t find it in church, they will settle for lesser gods elsewhere. In short, they are seeking what we all are seeking, unless, as adults, we have forgotten or given up!
My fear is that we have given up. Our reserves of creativity have been drawn down, and we don’t know how to hang our lives off of this story anymore. If we can’t hang our lives off of these things, can we plausibly expect it of our young people? We spend our time fighting about surface-level stuff, all the while ignoring the world around us – the world that God has called us to love and serve.
We ignore people, the world over (including our backyards) who are suffering from great injustice, or loneliness, or hunger. Those who are ill. Those who have been abused and battered – sometimes at the hands of the church.
What about that soul-shaking, heart-waking, world-changing God?
As I shared my reflections that Sunday morning, I felt as though I was looking at a sea of blank stares. Yet, when it came time to share the peace, one older woman shook my hand and said “you really gave it to us, didn’t you?” I said I hoped it helped.
After the service I had a number of conversations with parishioners. There were a number of parents concerned about children who no longer come to church. One person pulled me aside to talk about how such a world changing God and gospel needed to underline their upcoming stewardship campaign. Why raise money, if you don’t know how it will be used in service of the gospel? Still others were returning to questions about how they might passionately live out the gospel in their context.
My experience that Sunday was both encouraging and challenging. It’s challenging to figure out how we can passionately serve our God and neighbours, especially if we’re also dealing with the realities (blessings and liabilities) of the institutional church.
It’s a tough road to walk, with many challenges along the way. I just hope that as we do it, we’re constantly doing what we do in response to the call of the carpenter’s son, and not merely the self-preserving cry of institutions in the throes of decline.