Last week we said we were on our way to a weekend with some Millennials … people who came of age around the turn of this century. We felt favoured and fortunate to get the chance to hear these honest, articulate women and men talk about their contemporary experience of God – and of church. I wished I could do a recording and share it with so many people who care about the future of the church.
This was a group of educated, young professionals from London – the lay leaders of the church now and for the future, we would hope. These are people who are concerned about the future of their church and thoughtful about how it can work. But they are puzzled – and struggling with discouragement. They have grown up in a church which has taught them to ‘think for themselves’ and ‘stand for the right’ – as they seek a life of discipleship which swims against the cultural stream. They have listened to sermons and Bible studies teaching them to ‘pursue truth’ at all costs. And they have genuinely tried.
The trouble is that while trying to follow this life of discipleship in a church, they have begun to recognise that when some people teach about ‘standing for the right’, what they mean is ‘stand for the right that I(and people like me) define for you’.
So we spent a large part of the weekend discussing some of their questions about the tensions between believing and belonging. How can I handle the mismatch between my beliefs and the church’s positions and behaviour? In my professional life, when I am learning to practise successful team-building in a diverse culture, how can I contribute that understanding in church? When I accept those church teachings which run contrary to the prevailing culture, how can I maintain and promote welcome and inclusiveness towards my friends, colleagues and others? How can I learn to deal lovingly with, the expectations of other church members – not to mention my own and God’s? How can we make the church a safe place where we can struggle with the questions about identity and integrity which follow from differing expectations? If I want to find my place in the church…the family…the world, do I need to re-invent myself? Is that what God wants? What sort of God would want this sort of change in me? How can I healthily unlearn what I’ve learned?
There was so much more. And we have continued all week to ask ourselves, ‘Is it possible for these young leaders of the future to build a Biblical, resourceful, welcoming church which will attract the hundreds of young people in London and other urban centres who drift on the margins of the church alienated by so much of what goes on from week to week. What can be done to make this hidden church live?
Can we make church a place where we discuss the everyday challenges faced by all working people? Can we talk together about those twin challenges which intensify with the arrival of partners and children: limited time and energy? What might we offer not only to millennial professionals but to the thoughtful people of all ages who begin to ask, ‘How much energy do I have to put into church?’ ‘Does church give me energy or take it from me?’ Dare we even discuss, let alone come to half-answer questions like, ‘What’s the point of the church in the 21st century?’ and ‘In a diverse society where religions of all kinds are being promoted, what is so special about Jesus?’
If the church doesn’t become a place where we can recognise and respond to some of these questions, maybe there won’t be one for much longer. If church people are not dreaming with millennials of a different sort of church, the future looks dire. Here’s what the American teacher-priest, Barbara Brown Taylor, says in her memoir of faith called: Leaving Church.
What if people were invited to come (to church) to tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe? What if they were blessed for what they are doing in the world instead of chastened for not doing more at church? What if church felt more like a way station than a destination?
To us, this sounds like a good place to start!