How many of us, when we expect persons between the ages of 20-35 to come to our churches, expect them to be fluent in the Christian life before they get there? How often do we simply assume that everyone has at least been raised in the church and thereby are able to catch on to very odd stuff we do on Sunday mornings? I’m not sure we in the church really understand what a leap of faith it is for a young person to come to church these days. For instance, eighteen percent of college students have never attended church before in their lives, but we too easily expect they will know exactly what to do when they step over the threshold of our sanctuary. They are supposed to know the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. They need to know what words like the “narthex” mean. They have to know exactly how they are supposed to take communion, or if they are welcome to the table at all. And then they are supposed to know and interpret the many unwritten social cues to which our churches adhere.
It’s important to meet people where they are. Theologian Howard Thurman wrote about his relationship with his landlady. “you have to meet people at the level of the ashtray,” he writes. There was tension between Thurman and his landlady and Thurman wasn’t sure what to do about it. Then he noticed how his landlady dumped out the lobby ashtrays each time there was a butt in it. She was fastidious about it, and so Thurman began to pay attention to those ashtrays. When he walked through the apartment lobby, each time a wayward butt was left in a tray, he took a moment to dump the ashes. Because he took the time to notice something that the landlady cared about, because he began to work with her, their relationship mended and strengthened.
Churches today rack their brains on how to “attract” people my age (20s and 30s). We attempt to program our way into their lives through all sorts of cliche methods of trying to coax them into our buildings. “It’s Free Keychain Sunday this week! All persons between the ages of 20-35 get a free keychain when they turn in their worship bulletins at the door.” “Maybe we should sing songs that sound like stuff they listen to on the radio,” we wonder. “Maybe that will get them here?” Meanwhile our churches grow more and more gray each and every Sunday. At the same time, we’re told that our generation (20-35) is now the largest generation in the American population. So where’s the disconnect?
Maybe, we could take a nod from Dr. Thurman and just seek to meet people at whatever “ashtray” they find themselves caring about these days? It could be issues of justice. Maybe young people around your church want to see a community that’s more mission-minded; one that is visible where the community’s heartbeat can be found? Maybe young people around your church long for a community that’s representative of the amazing tapestry of human life found in the diversity of the community that worships together-one that is both skin and soul-deep? Maybe young people around your church long to have a place to bring their deep questions of faith-a place that won’t judge them for having legitimate questions and won’t belittle them with simplistic answers?
You see, maybe young folks are looking for more than just a church they can join as a club similar to the Rotary or Kiwanis. Maybe, just maybe, they’re looking for a beloved community where all of God’s children find a place to exist and thrive while sharing the load of caring for the many “ashtrays” of life.