The Commission of the New GenerationEssays, Featured — By Dylan Lemert on September 17, 2012 at 11:15 am
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to visit a church on the north side of town. I was there because the campus ministry I’m a part of receives funding from this particular body of believers. We were there to give an update on how their support has been helping our ministry over the past year.
It’s a charming little building, just hidden from view of the main road, with a large, steel, warehouse-looking facility out back. I’m told this facility is going to be used as a type of fellowship place, a place where the congregation can come after service and eat one another’s food or complain about how long the sermon just was or pray together. There’s a kitchen in the back, small but feasible for its purpose. It’s a beautiful building, really, although the walls and the floor aren’t completely installed yet. It’s a skeleton of a building just waiting to be filled with furniture and Bibles, and the Hands and Feet of God.
However, the most significant purpose of this building is to draw in the younger crowd. To put it bluntly, the average age of the congregation here is probably about 70 years old. I’m not kidding. Of the 100 or so individuals who attend this church, I only saw one or two babies, a handful of elementary-age kids, and a couple of high school students. And they were all were vastly outnumbered by people five times their age. Even more disheartening was the fact that there were literally no college-age people. Not only that, but the congregation somehow skipped from about age 15 straight to age 30 give-or-take a few, with no one in between to fill the gap. I’m sure the church didn’t desire for this to happen, but it happened anyway, and it is what it is.
I don’t have a vendetta against old people, I promise. I loved the people there. I had some time to kill before the second service started, so I was able to chat with some folks lounging around in the lobby. I looked a bit stupid standing there by myself at a table aimed toward college kids. Every so often, an older person would walk up to our display and glance at the photos of our students and the pamphlets on the desk and pretend he was interested, while I just stood there not knowing what to say about college ministry to a person who graduated from college some 60 years ago. They would say “that’s nice,” or “keep up the good work,” and continue on toward the auditorium, probably to get a good seat toward the front.
One man in particular, I forget his name, attempted some genuine conversation with me. He was gentlemanly and walked with a cane. I saw him standing, looking intently at the information on our table so I approached him.
“You in college?” I asked with a smirk.
“Oh no,” he said, “I couldn’t even make it into kindergarten now.”
He smiled so I knew he got my joke. His eyes poured over the display. I wondered if he was just staring blankly in order to fill the awkward hole in our conversation, or if he was legitimately interested in our silly little ministry that didn’t directly apply to him in any way, shape, or form.
“It’s good work you guys are doing,” he said finally.
“Thanks, we’re trying.”
“I worry about your generation,” the man said, suddenly changing the tone of the conversation. “It seems as though every generation gets a little bit worse than the one before it. If one generation chooses to be bad, the next one chooses to be even worse, and so on.” He wore an honestly pathetic smile as he said this.
“You’re exactly right,” I said. I told him I went to a secular college.
“Well, that’s not a bad thing at all,” he replied. “They need you there.”
I asked him if there were any college students who attended his church.
“No, there aren’t any.” The gentleman’s voice got a little sad here. “But we’re trying to change that. That’s why we’re building that new place out back, so kids can come and play basketball. It’s a full-size junior high court. But we can also use it for our congregational potlucks and things like that. We’re hoping we can get a basketball player from one of the local Christian colleges to come teach the children. Excuse me,” he said with a nod as he puttered away down the hall.
There was also Josie, a perky little elderly woman with a British accent.
“What’s your name dear?”
“I’m Dylan,” I replied probably louder and slower than I needed to.
“Hello Dylan, it’s so good to have you here! Would you like some coffee?”
I declined twice before finally giving in to her accent and her concerned eyes. She took me by the arm and led me to the coffee room. It was very small; I had to awkwardly shuffle around some people I didn’t know to get to the pot.
The sanctuary of this place was ornately decorated with greenery and organ pipes. I think they were organ pipes. They weren’t attached to an organ, but they were metal and they were different sizes and there were many of them rising from the stage in parallel patterns. I had set myself down on the right side of the aisle toward the front, but Josie waved me over to come sit with her across the aisle, bless her. I found out she’s from London, and she came to the states in the 50′s. Never did shed that accent.
We used hymnals during the songs. I’m not used to that, but I thought it was endearingly ironic. I’ve been conditioned to look up while singing songs rather than down, but it was good because my neck usually gets tired looking up at a screen like most churches make us do nowadays. I was going to pull up the Bible app on my phone to accompany the sermon, but Josie had this huge leather-bound King James that she very shakily held in front of my face indicating she wanted to share her Bible with me. I didn’t want to flaunt, plus I really wasn’t in the mood to explain what an “app” was, anyway. She wouldn’t have understood.
The organ lady played out the sermon with another hymn. I didn’t know the words so I reached for the hymnal at my side. Josie caught my arm before I could grab it.
“Don’t you give up,” she said above the music. “Don’t you ever give up, the Lord’s coming soon.”
That’s all she said, and I still don’t know exactly what she meant by it. I thought I did at the time, but I’ve overanalyzed it so much that I’ve taken all the wonder and significance out of it. I really need to work on taking things at face value, but the cynic in me says face value is a lie. Yes, I see the irony.
I don’t like to think about what’s going to happen in 10 years. The congregation will literally be a fraction of its current size if this basketball thing doesn’t work. But I’m not sure basketball will be enough. It’s going to take planning and innovation, and muscular leadership. And prayer. But most of all, it’s going to take Jesus.
One of the great things about Jesus is that he’s impartial. He knows how to use the young people, and the old people, and the middle people. What I pass off as dentures and hip replacements, God sees as unadulterated life experiences. Models to teach the younger generation how to live, and how to live well.
Honestly, I’m not sure of the exact solution to the problem. I know we need 20-somethings to start taking church seriously, but I don’t know how to get them to do that. Being one myself, I can attest to the fact that we are stubborn, doubtful, easily annoyed, and hard to please. If I wasn’t raised in the church I sincerely believe there’s no way I’d be going now, and it’s a sobering reminder to me I’m lucky God placed me where he did many years ago.
Not to brag, but for all my generation’s vices, I truly believe we have more potential than any other generation before us. Not just technologically speaking either; I believe we have now come to a point in history where we’re just fed up. I think our cynicism is finally coming in handy. It’s causing us to look outside of tradition to find meaning, which I think is good because tradition hasn’t always proven itself a trustworthy companion. My heart always breaks for the continuous doubters, of course. So much to look for, but not much ever found. That’s why when I see people my age finally coming into contact with the One they’ve been looking for their whole lives, my existence seems justified. I know in that moment I’ve been created to see others redeemed.
I don’t care how old you are, I don’t care if you read your music out of a book, and I won’t judge you if you actually like the taste of those foam-flavored communion crackers. Be Jesus. Attract. Take your kids to church with you. Teach them of God’s infinite grace and love. Teach them to love their neighbors and their enemies, and teach them to love old people, especially. Don’t force relevance, but go with culture’s natural flow. Be a good example, and be brave. The church won’t die, no matter how old its body gets. That’s a promise.