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Dude, Do Young Adults Really Want a Relevant Church?

We take communion from an ordained priest who holds a chalice of blood-red wine and lays a hand of blessing on our children. We sing the Lord’s Prayer and recite from the Book of Common Prayer—in which not once in 1,001 pages does the word “dude” ever appear.

In my 20s, liturgy seemed rote, but now in my 30s, it reminds me that I’m part of an institution much larger and older than myself. As the poet Czeslaw Milosz said, “The sacred exists and is stronger than all our rebellions.”

Both my doubt and my faith, and even my ongoing frustrations with the church itself, are part of a tradition that started before I was born and will continue after I die. I rest in the assurance that I have something to lean against, something to resist and, more importantly, something that resists me.

Critics might say I’m an anomaly. My story, they would say, isn’t typical of most young people.

But that’s not the point. I can’t alter statistics or trends. I can’t tell congregations or their pastors what they need to change, if anything. I can’t speak to church marketing or survival strategy, nor can I enter the fraught (and important) theological debate between liberalism and conservatism, which drives some of the attrition of young people.

What I offer instead is a word of encouragement that reminds the church to take the long view.

For more traditional congregations that struggle to keep youth in the pews, take heart. The old model isn’t necessarily lost.

Praxis and churches like it have a place—they draw people who would otherwise never set foot in church, people who have a legitimate contemporary aesthetic that appreciates informality and mainstream music. But your church has a place, too.

Consider the changes that people go through between age 22 and 32. Consider that some of us, in time, renew our appreciation for the strengths of a traditional church: historically informed hierarchy that claims accountability at multiple levels, historically informed teaching that leans on theological complexity, and liturgically informed worship that takes a high view of the sacraments and draws on hymns from centuries past.

Some of us want to walk into a cathedral space that reminds us of the small place we inhabit in the great arc of salvation history. We want to meet the Unmoved Mover in an unmoved sanctuary.

So as you change—or as change is imposed upon you—keep your historic identity and your ecclesial soul. Fight the urge for perpetual reinvention, and don’t watch the roll book for young adults.

We’re sometimes fickle. When we come, if we come, meet us where we are.

Be present to our doubts and fears and frustrations.

Walk with us in the perplexing challenge of postmodern faith.

Even so, your church (and your denomination) might die. My generation and those following might take it apart, brick by brick, absence by absence.

But the next generation might rebuild it. They might unearth the altar, the chalice and the vestments and find them not medieval, but enduring. They might uncover the Book of Common Prayer and find it anything but common.  

This article was first published here in Faith & Leadership.