I just finished reading Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation by Carol Howard Merritt, the book we’re supposed to be reading for our next monthly district clergy gathering.
The book’s points can be summed up fairly briefly:
- Young people are crunched from many directions today. They desperately need people to love them, accept them, and encourage them.
- Most young people reject traditional sexual morality, if not for themselves, then for their friends. If we want to void alienating them, we will have to find ways to accommodate this rejection.
- Most young people tend to be religious pluralists and soteriological universalists. We’ll need to respect and encourage diversity on all levels if we want to reach them. If we’re narrow-minded and preach/teach that Jesus is the only way, we won’t have younger people in our churches.
- The church tends not to be very friendly or accessible to younger generations. We need to find ways to not only include people from younger generations in what we do, but actually give them power within our churches.
As one who would, in many settings, be labeled conservative, I find the first and last points more congenial to my convictions and approach to ministry. As one who used to be young, I know what it is to feel economic distress. I’ve been unemployed. I’ve had to move every few years. I do not own my own home and even with declining real estate prices see them as beyond my reach. In that context I know the pressure to have my wife and me both work full time “real” jobs so we can provide for our children and our future, and yet make the sacrifice to not do so for the sake of our children (one of whom has autism and needs and will always need special care).
I know how difficult the church can be for younger people. I’ve served churches where I get stern lectures for not kowtowing to racist attitudes and where I have the district superintendent called in to complain about my bringing in too many neighborhood kids. My wife and I have worked intensively with young couples to bring them into the church only to have them run off on their first visit to worship.
I know what it is to have church leaders consider “traditional” worship the only real (“reverent” is the commonly used word) worship, while folks from younger generations (including my own children!) yearn for a newer, livelier style. My own children are still a captive audience, but for how long?
The first generations of Christians were considered odd balls. They stood out in their communities. One characteristic that differentiated them was that they loved each other. This love was not merely in terms of kinship or blood relation. Well, it was blood relation – not their blood, however, but participation in a common redemption by the blood of Jesus. That kind of love across social boundaries attracted outsiders.
Christians in the ancient world were also considered odd for their exclusivism. When persecution arose, the authorities would have been happy to release their Christian prisoners – if only they’d add Caesar to their pantheon. It wasn’t like they’d have to actively worship Caesar or the gods of the state. Just a pinch of incense, just enough to fit in as good citizens. Those wacky Christians would rather suffer than honor any god other than the One incarnate in Jesus.
I suppose a difference between my position and the authors is that I see a need for Christians to be distinct from the broader culture. We need to be distinct from the broader “conservative” elements of culture (notorious for an emphasis on wealth, prosperity and economic freedom) and from the broader “liberal” elements of culture (notorious for an emphasis on sexual expression and freedom). The Christianity pictured in the New Testament was extremely diverse – but not diverse in every way. It wasn’t the diversity of say, having a pitcher, a goalie, a quarterback, and a forward on each team. Rather it was more like the diversity of having a pitcher, a catcher, outfielders and infielders on a team, playing a common game. The diversity of the church was also a transformative diversity – more than “let’s be friends and each pursue our individual projects and feel good together.” All were invited to Jesus. All were challenged to – and needed to! – repent. Some needed to change in their economic practices. Some needed to change in their sexual practices. Some needed to change in their relational practices.
I read this book as one yearning to reach the younger generation. But my call is to reach them specifically for the sake of Jesus, so they might become his followers. I know not all will initially be attracted. I’ll have to lovingly pursue them. I’ll have to befriend even people I don’t agree with. I’ll have to pray like crazy. But they’re worth it.