For what is there to stay?
It is not necessary to solicit my reader’s attention with a litany of statistics evidencing the rapid exodus of young adults from our church communities. The inclusion of these statistics would only initiate, with varying degree, a paroxysm of despair. Like death knells, cries ring across the country from parents and church administrations to “save the children,” as though these were hapless, passive victims of some covert scheme.
But, I believe youth are people, too. I also believe they can recognize a dead end when they see one. Instead of asking, “how can we keep our kids in our churches,” perhaps we should be asking, “what is here for them to stay?” The question is applicable not only for churches, but for communities, cities, regions, etc. In as much as cities, in order to retain their populace, must be more than a location for the generation of income, churches must be a great deal more than sacramental dispensaries. It must be a “place” where our children want to belong and feel that they belong. But, what is entailed in the meaning of “place,” and how can we nurture a sense of belonging, a sense of true community. In other words, how can churches be more than dead ends from which our children veer with understandable aversion as soon as they’re old enough to drive? Can we build a Christian community, a Christian culture that can retain their interest and loyalty? The short answer is no. The long answer forms the content of this series of essays.
When confronted by discouraging statistics, church administrators inevitably gather in war committees to develop new strategies for how the church can do more: more study groups, more youth rallies, more social media engagement, more this, more that. We may also be tempted to ask of them, “more community, more of a sense of ‘place.’” Yet, is the question we should be asking rather, “is the church meant to supply us with ‘place’ and community?” Or, do we have things terribly topsy-turvy?
I will not insult my reader’s intelligence by reminding them that the Greek word for church is ecclesia. However, I might remark that its meaning is often constrained. Literally, ecclesia means “called out,” expanded it means, “an assembly of people who have been called out.” There is the frequently repeated sentiment that the church is not a building, but there is another meaning that is often missed. The church is a gathering of people, real people, with real lives and interests, talents, abilities—people that have the innate desire to create, to sing, to write—people that enjoy the company of friends, the joys of a feast shared, a reel danced, a pint drunk. All these human activities constitute life and, if shared consistently, constitute a genuine community. The church, in the vernacular sense, is but one expression, albeit the highest, of a community. In itself, the church is not community, neither is it culture, nor any other human activity. It is an aggregate of these things but it is not and can never be any one of these things.
Two errors occur when we equate going to church with community-building: either our churches become completely “human” or we try to “churchify” our otherwise normal, human activities.
The mega-church, with its sprawling sports complexes, entertainment-driven worship services, cafes and small groups, attempts to create a one-stop-shop “community.” These partially succeed in as much as their members have the luxury of playing sports, finding entertainment, and drinking lattes with their peers with the added benefit that they are persuaded to think this is somehow “religious.” Even so, the retention rate of your average mega-church is far from dazzling. It would be complete delusion to think that your typical Orthodox church, whose annual budget is less than the janitor’s salary at the local mega-church, could compete.
Similar in this vein to the mega-church, but closer to home is the church that endeavors to be the locus of an ethnic-cultural identity. Understandably, those immigrating to the Western diaspora seek to perpetuate their culture, language, identity, in a word, community. These often vest their religious institution with the additional role of cultural curator. What would have been “in the village” quite distinct from the function of the church, is now assumed into its identity. In the flux of the diaspora, the stability of the physical church building serves as the safe haven for the taverna and dance floor, the cafe and the wedding hall. By no means are any of these activities “unchristian,” only it is to be remarked that, in any traditional culture, these were never seen as integral to the functions of the Church. The danger in these events (and one may add the “Americanisms,” the church-sponsored fourth of July barbecue and the like) is that the Church becomes a purely human institution, an expression of a particular culture rather than the transcendence of it.
The opposite extreme are those churches that seek to paste the label “Christian” on to every activity, as though “Christian” were an adjective rather than a noun. These speak of Christian politics and Christian business ethics, of building a Christian culture with Christian music, Christian films, and Christian literature. Again, these meet with partial success. It is easy to support a particular business strategy or aesthetic choice based on “Christian principles,” provided these choices are not too amoral and maintain a certain sense of “niceness.” But, our children are not stupid. They can recognize the insipid mimicry of Christian film and music. It takes little maturity to realize the dead-end of Christian Television Network’s “Laws of Life” reality show, where Judge Mosely deals justice “based upon God’s word” (yes, that’s really a thing). The moral straight jacket which life is persuaded to don, in which everything that is complicated, rough, and untidy is hidden, and in which life appears in a squeaky-clean tunic of “nicety” will never hold the attention of our children.
Next Up: A Christian Culture? (click here)