Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Dude, Where's My Twentysomething?

One of the more disturbing trends in the American church today is how many young adults disappear from church between graduating from high school and their early thirties. Undoubtedly there are several good ways to analyze and deal with this issue, and I am hoping some of my readers may have some of their own insights. Recently Brian McLaren has taken up the issue and an article of his is previewed in a recent blog post in Out of Ur. More extensively, Paradoxology has interviewed Sara Cunningham, the author of “Dear Church: Letters From A Disillusioned Generation.” Her book is all about the attitudes of twentysomethings and their general sense of disaffection with the church.

Part of what I really appreciated in the interview was the author’s openness to twentysomethings being pushed back on by older generations. At times there is a tendency among youngish authors to imply that their frustrations with “institutional” church are nigh unassailable and are problems their parent’s church cannot answer. Cunningham’s attitude was much more irenic: she clearly and openly states the realities of disillusionment while noting the need to remain an active and maturing part of the church.

A couple of points in the interview were interesting to me. The interviewer, DesertPastor, asked several questions regarding “institutional church.” This exchange was interesting to me:

Q: Local churches are undoubtedly "communities of flawed humans" - as you point out in the book. Does this change when it comes to alternative expressions of "Church"? And if not, what dangers do such alternative communities of faith face?

A: You're opening the door for a crucial point here. Alternative faith communities face the exact same dangers as the traditional church. ANY approach to faith can become institutionalized. For example, if there is even an implied suggestion that "truly authentic churches should meet in homes," we institutionalize house churches. If there is an implied suggestion that "truly relevant pastors should read Relevant Magazine," we institutionalize Relevant.

Now, of course, I don't deny that there are core habits and practices that DO produce spiritual growth. Things like devotion to prayer, worship, study of Scriptures, and community. But when we place rigid expectations that people pray at our 6 a.m. prayer services, that they buy up our recommended worship CDs, that they read our devotional materials, that they attend our Wednesday night services, we may short-circuit their otherwise natural tendency to pursue other experiences that God has customized for their growth.

The church must always--ALWAYS--guard against institutionalization. It takes away from our love of personal transformation; our love of craftsmanship!

On one level, Cunningham hits the nail on the head-there is no avoiding institutionalization. Any expression of Church, alternative or not, will on some level be systematic and deliberate. Though I come from a non-liturgical tradition, we still have our own form of liturgy though we never name it as such.

But on another level I think there is more to be said about institutionalization. Cunningham believes it stifles individual spiritual creativity, but I am not sure she intends that to be applied to every form of institutionalization. Later in the interview, she notes this about liturgical expressions of faith after telling us that more and more twentysomethings are making their way toward liturgy:

A: Liturgy, on the other hand, speaks to us of a timeless, unchanging God who is not reliant on magic tricks or aces up the sleeve to get people into his congregations. There is something proven, and therefore credible, about practices that extend back to ancient times.

Liturgy, properly understood, is the absolute height of institutionalization. It is literally the systematic expression of worship that, in its more orthodox forms, really does “force” the faithful to worship at 6:00am, 7:00pm, on the Sabbath, during Lent, on Ash Wednesday, etc.

In other words, and I think this is generally true of twentysomethings who write about their evangelical church experience, the institutionalization they are accustomed to is something they think is hallow and the institutionalization they find novel is non-trivial.

Now, there really may be something to that. Maybe the evangelical church threw out the baby with the bath water when we reacted against liberal mainline theology in the late nineteenth century. Critical and irenic analysis is called for when working on the difference between a “typical” evangelical institution and the ancient/future thrust popular in many circles.

I look forward to reading more on this issue, as it is of genuine concern for me. Is the rift between young adults and their churches a maturity issue? Is it a cultural issue? Do most leaders in our churches really lack that much understanding of the younger generation?


Rusty Lopez said...

I think the issue is complex enough to include aspects of maturity, culture, generation gaps, etc. Ultimately, though, I think we're simply seeing an effect of our self-centered mentality, here in the West. We seem to expect church services to meet our needs, be interesting, be relevant, and not stifle our personal relationship with Jesus. Worship of God can, of course, take many forms, but exactly how does an expectation of individual relevance square with Paul's teachings on the importance of the Church as a body?

Phil Steiger said...


As usual, I find your thoughts right on target. I too think there are a lot of reasons why the stats on twentysomethings are the way they are, but we ignore adolescence to our own detriment.

We really are so accustomed to having church the way we want it, that any time we can find an "institutional" target we attack it. The spiritual formation hinted at in the interview sounded like a food court in a mall-I take bits and pieces from all the different stores I like and leave the bits I don't find helpful behind. That kind of spiritual formation begins and ends with "me."

True liturgy (and church life for that matter), on the other hand, teaches us how to pray and worship the right God in the right kinds of ways. (Paul got upset at the Corinthians for worshiping God in the wrong way in Cor. 11-in case someone finds that thought repellant.)

Anonymous said...

I think one (of several) reasons for this is the mobility of young adults in our society. Like any community, it takes time to become integrated into a congregation. Once young adults head off to college, they are separated from the congregation in which they grew up, and it may be 10 years or more before they settle back down in one location. Even those young adults who do attend worship services regularly are likely to remain somewhat separate, because frequent traveling will tend to prevent full integration into the life of the church.