A Church in Decline: Balancing the Need to Teach with the Need to Listen

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I just read a blogpost by Carol Howard Merritt entitled “Generational Roadblocks: What sort of obstacles keeps a new generation of people away?” Carol is an amazingly prolific and prophetic writer about contemporary themes of church and young people (she mostly blogs for the Christian Century and Huffington Post). In this latest she outlines a number of fairly well known statistics about the declining membership of mainline protestant denominations—like my own, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She goes on to list a number of very real issues with the current state of things, focusing primarily on the PC(USA). I can’t argue with any of her arguments—she’s right-on with everything she says.

I also recently read Landon Whittsitt’s book, Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All, in which he contrasts the current predicament of churches and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. He argues that the church should be a place where people, particularly young people, should be able to come and engage right away, similar to the way anyone can contribute information to the entries of Wikipedia. Landon blogs here and here, and is currently the vice-moderator of the General Assembly of the PC(USA). I’ve previously commented on his book here, here, and here.

There are numerous other writings about why young people are either disengaging from church or simply disregard the church altogether. And in everything I’ve read there seems to be a serious disconnect in my mind. I liken it to two people with significantly diverse views having a conversation. Maybe you’ve had a conversation like this before?

Person 1: I believe X.
Person 2: I believe Y.
Person 1: I can’t believe you’d believe Y, when X is clearly right.
Person 2: How can you say X is right, when Y is the only real choice.

And the dialogue can go on and on, and usually ends up with both people getting pretty upset that the other can’t see the “truth”. One very important question seems to be missing: “Why?” How often do we set aside our assumptions and sincerely ask why someone believes or trusts what they do? How often do we cast out our righteousness and really care about what is behind another’s beliefs or opinions before we respond? And how often do we think about why we believe something or have a certain opinion and critique our own assumptions?

In regard to the church/young adult issue (and it really is only an issue for the church, as young adults have been pretty darn clear that the church isn’t an issue for them because they simply don’t participate), I can’t help but feel like something is amiss and the question of “why” is not really being asked. I get the reasons why so many young people do not want to engage the church, but have they ever asked people in the church why they believe what they believe, and sought to truly understand before they automatically disregard it altogether? And, as Carol points out, has the church really ever asked young people why they believe or feel what they do, and then sought to truly understand?

I see two issues here: 1) both the church and young people seem to share a sense of entitlement (church folk feel entitled to the young people’s attention, and the young people feel entitled to share in the leadership and shaping of the church when and if they do engage); and 2) neither is listening and both are simply choosing to go their separate ways. The problem here as I see it is that both have so much to learn from one another.

In high school I was given a book (actually it’s a photocopied version of the book because it was out of print when I received it) entitled, Bruchko, by Bruce R. Olson. It’s a true story about the author as a young man who believed he was being led by God to reach out to the tribes in the jungles of South America in order to “save” them by converting them to good, God-fearing Christians. While I do not subscribe to the author’s understanding of “call” or “salvation” as shared in the book, there is a great subplot as this young man, called Bruchko by the natives because they do not have the sounds in their language to pronounce “Bruce”, lets go of his own preconceived notions about the tribal people being unGodly savages, and begins to take the time to learn about them—their langauge and their culture—seeking to understand them, and, most importantly, to take notice of how God had already been working in their lives long before he arrived, though not necessarily in ways he and his American-Christian culture would recognize.

Is it too late for all of us to let go of our preconceived notions about one another in order to learn about what the “other” has experienced of God before we move forward with trying to share in shaping one anothers’ lives? Can young people learn to let go of their sense of entitlement and learn what a church community is really about before they start criticizing and making suggestions (which too often come across as demands with ultimatums)? And, likewise, can the church folk learn to let go of their arrogant “we know better” ways in order to learn what God is really doing in the hearts and lives of young people, to understand that God is doing these things with or without the church, and, in the process, maybe even experience some awesome new revelations of God?

As I sit in this middle-time in my own life—between ending one call and moving forward to another—I am asking some of these questions of myself: Can I let go of my own “know-it-all-ness”, and simply give thanks for the ways I have been shaped by the congregations and communities I have served, and hope that I have shared in shaping those communities even in small ways? Can I be open to listen for what exciting things God has already been doing where I am going, and, like Bruchko, learn how to engage in God’s work there in Tempe, Arizona, rather than in my own sense of self-importance? I wonder if there are things we need to learn, namely, that a congregation is only as healthy as the people in it, and we need diversity in order to fully live into God’s vision for the world, which includes the exuberance of young people balanced by the wisdom and cautiousness of less-young people. In other words, for us to live into the vision of a community of the beloved as is shared throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, we need diversity of thought coupled with the spiritual practice of actively listening and communally discerning. And, I know it’s a lot harder than it sounds.

But, then again, I’m 40 as of last month, so I guess I’m just speaking as an “old” person now.

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