By Brett Younger
Seminary professors spend a lot of time around 24-year-olds. As a result, we spend a lot of time feeling old. Our church experience is different from theirs.
My parents took me to church three times a week. Their mothers took them to church when they did not have soccer practice.
I competed in Bible drills. My students walk labyrinths.
My Bible is on the nightstand, next to my glasses. Their Bible is on their phone.
We had a water fountain in the hall. They have coffee bars in the sanctuary.
They were taught that the church exists to care for God’s children. My church’s goal was to be bigger than the Methodist church.
I was baptized during a Sunday night service with 10 other 8-year-olds. Some of my students were baptized on Saturday night in a swimming pool. They have the selfies to prove it.
Some of my students are in churches that have established Twitter hashtags to encourage people to share sermon quotes. I do not know what that means.
Most Baptist churches have lots of people my age. My students tell me that when they visit some churches they receive the kind of welcome a unicorn or some other mythical creature might receive.
According to the Barna Research Group, 59 percent of young Christians disconnect from church life after the age of 15 for at least a year. Churches work best for those whose career paths are conventional — leave home, get an education, find a job, get married, and have kids — all before the age of 30. Churches are not as good at the new normal — putting that stuff off as long as you can.
These young adults do not wander away from church for any one reason. They have a list of complaints. They complain that churches focus more on the institution than on God. They think that churches are not diverse. They believe churches are anti-science and do not want to choose between their pastor and biology professor. They struggle with what chastity means when they are getting married much later. They feel like churches are hostile to LGBTQs. They want to be accepting, and say they do not find that in the church. They want to know why the church is not what it should be, why the church is such a bureaucracy, and why the church is not more like Jesus. Some twentysomethings lower their expectations, some stay irritated, and many walk away, but the best do not give up or give in. They help us become a better church.
Martin Luther was 33 when he posted his famous list of complaints. Luther was angry about the immorality of the priests and their irreverence for holy things. He was so disillusioned with the church that he became a theology professor. Teaching the Bible led him away from his experience in the church to the grace of God. He came to love the God he used to fear. He discovered that God accepts sinful people. Luther complained because that acceptance was not what the church taught him.
On All Hallows’ Eve, October 31, 1517, Luther nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Others agreed that the church should be given to faith rather than fear. The church changed because Martin Luther believed it could be better and complained.
The church can still be better. The comfortable approach to faith is as popular now as when Luther challenged it. Churches are less likely to declare like Luther, “Here I stand!” than ask like a marketer, “What do people want?”
Serving each other is simpler than serving those who most need help. Talking about prayer is less difficult than giving up security and comfort. Studying the Bible is easier than hearing Christ’s challenge.
And yet, God is still at work. God is making the church more open, compassionate and bold. The Spirit draws us to give ourselves in worship, care for one another, and grow in grace. The Spirit pushes us to minister with those with the greatest needs. The Spirit helps us hear scripture calling us to become more like Jesus.
Many who have been in church all their lives are amazed at the new ways congregations are living as God’s people. Churches have discovered that Christianity is not something you study, but something you do. Churches are tutoring underprivileged children, caring for senior citizens and sharing meals with the hungry. Some of the ways churches are acting like Christ were not happening 20 years ago. God is teaching us that the primary issue is not whether the church is getting bigger, but whether the church is living like Jesus. Every day is Reformation Day.