[This article was published in the April/May 2011 edition of Macon Magazine]
The proverbial cat is out of the bag in many of our churches. The collective hair of the people in our pews is well on its way to being gray and everyone has noticed. Some would like to begin to sing the swan song of the Church as we know it.
I’m a pastor in the United Methodist Church and various stats place the median age of our membership at around 58 years old. Folks are living longer these days and quite often 58 is the new 48. But what do you do when most of the folks who make up our churches are 55 and older?
There have been a lot of trees killed to consume the paper needed to pen various words on how to reach out to what is being labeled by some as the Emerging or Millennial Generation. Some may think of us as Generation-Y. For those wondering at this point, this generation would include those transient and complex beings in their 20s and early 30s who might wander in and out of your congregations on any given Sunday. It’s my generation. We’re here one week and gone the next.
But despite all of our complexities, we may not be as alien as we may appear at time. To help with this, I would like to offer just a couple of statements, clues if you will, on where to begin understanding our generation and how we might view faith.
[For some of my categorical language I lean on a great article written by Scott McKnight for Christianity Today found here]
We are Postmodern (The “New World”)
You don’t need a Ph.D. to know that the world has changed dramatically over the last 20 years or so. We whimsically muse about the “simpler days” when folks went to church and no one dared to push back on the institution that upholds our society and way of life. However, these days have long left us.
We live in a reality where people question everything. Many of us in this generation can’t help it. We’ve been raised to be skeptical of everything we come into contact with. Things can actually be both right and wrong. We don’t always have to pick sides. And Christianity, at least as it’s been historically practiced in America, frankly deserves a little questioning lest we lose the edgy qualities of what life with God actually requires.
We Long to be Prophetic (or at least Provocative)
Church as an institution of the status quo will no longer suffice. Language of self-help and self-gratification cannot carry the freight of the problems of our world. Thus, Christians in my generation are seeking to not only worship and observe faith, but also to live the faith they speak of. Issues of justice, righteousness, radical care for creation and mission take center stage in this understanding of faith. And living such a faith requires a language that dares to ask questions, doubt authority, and ultimately transform the world we live in.
Praxis-Oriented (“Walk the walk”)
Speaking of living the faith, the Emerging Generation is much more interested in practicing faith than adhering to doctrine. In other words, faith cannot simply be a set of principles or doctrines one adheres to in order to gain membership. It has to be a process, a journey of sorts. And this journey is experienced together in a community that knows one truly becomes a Christian after they act like one.
Inclusive (All must be welcome)
Much of what has historically made up the Church has been ways to define “in versus out.” We work to put up barriers to separate those who are in our churches from those who are not in. You can see the obvious disconnect here. Too many of our churches say that we’re not exclusive but we don’t dare advertise ourselves as inclusive. Emerging Christians have lived in a world where public schools and colleges have long been diversified. We are among the first generations to truly have friends of different races, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds. It’s no wonder we disengage from churches where exclusivity is a normal practice.
I guess you could say that my generation, the Emerging Generation, is searching for a church as courageous as we long to be, one more interested in following Jesus than upholding institutional standards or finding new ways to establish our moral superiority through the politics of exclusion. We’re looking for a church where the community is more important than the individual because, after all, it is.
In the end, I suppose we might seem like an impossible generation to reach out to considering our diversity along the spectrum of lifestyles, beliefs, and practices. But, I can testify to the fact that we are all on a journey, searching for a place to belong, to practice faith, to grow spiritually, and to make the world a better place. That’s why I truly believe that if churches can open up to the perspective of this Emerging Generation and their ways of practicing faith, well, the impossible might just become possible.