The Common Good
February 2013

'Relevance' Is Not Enough

by Anne Marie Roderick, Joshua Witchger | February 2013

Many young adults are leaving the church these days. Two 20-somethings reflect on what keeps them in the pews.

LAST FALL, I (Anne Marie) decided to take a break from the church I had been attending to check out a nearby Episcopal service with one of my housemates, Joshua. I had no idea at the time that this might turn into a permanent switch. My Baptist, Anabaptist, and evangelical roots don’t quite explain what drew me to St. Stephen’s Church that Sunday, but I remember the thought that kept going through my head: I need to take Communion.

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For a number of reasons, I had been feeling apathetic toward Christian faith. I needed something official and visceral to cleanse me of the growing indifference I felt. The thought entered my mind: I need some bread and wine, because if my own prayers can’t kindle the spirit of Jesus within me, then I’ll get him in there by force. I hoped that partaking in the real-deal-flesh-and-blood would allow me to return to my own church in peace.

I can’t say that the Episcopal service that day cured me of all my doubts and frustrations about Christianity, but I did find meaning in the liturgy, rituals, and traditions that continued to sustain me in my first year in a new city. As Joshua and I continued to attend St. Stephen’s, we each reflected on what we, as young adults, are looking for in church and Christian community.

Church advertisements often focus on how to keep young people “engaged,” and there are countless new books about why young people are leaving the church. Statistics show decreased church attendance among those in our generation, and while this may be cause for concern, I’m not too worried about it. I’m glad that churches and denominations are interested in engaging young people, but so often this well-meaning desire is rooted in fear and anxiety about the future of the church. Is Christianity becoming obsolete? Will the church die away?

News flash: Christianity isn’t going anywhere. But churches and denominations may have to adapt—and not necessarily the way they’re doing so now—if they are to survive.

As 20-somethings who’ve left the cocoons of family and college for our first forays into the “real world,” we have two basic conclusions about what we are looking for in church communities.

1) I want to be part of something larger than myself.

Joshua: During my early teens, the Lutheran church in which I was raised set apart one of its three services for “contemporary” worship. Out with the formal liturgy, because it becomes stale and limits the expression of faith—that was the reasoning. Trade in the hymnals for a projector screen, clerical vestments for a shirt and tie, and the creeds for a few extra songs or an extended sermon. It soon became the most-attended service.

Until my senior year of high school, I loved it. I could connect with God, unhindered by formal recitations and structures. But transcendence—the quality of stretching beyond ourselves to connect with a greater history and meaning—was missing.

During my college years, this concept of transcendence became real to me as I interacted with the Book of Common Prayer. Together with my community, I would recite the ancient affirmations of faith and engage in timeless rites and rituals that remind the church of its shared vision, the hope to which we aspire.

The wonderful thing about transcendence is that it scoops us up locally and globally, backward and forward. As I participate in a liturgical service, I am investing in the local community, making peace with those I see on a regular basis, lifting up prayers of joy and concern week after week, and communing around ancient symbols of nourishment and sustenance. This practice of gathering around a common structure has historically guided the global church and continues to direct us today, giving these words and rituals enduring meaning.

I don’t believe that transcendence can only be found in high-church traditions, but there is great value in holding on to practices that have sustained large portions of the church for so long. When we try to create something new, we often think we must discard the old. Right now, nothing in this phase of my life is stable. Everything is in transition. I find comfort in church communities with strong, deep roots. There is always room for picking and pruning, but the ancient rituals of liturgy, common prayer, and Communion remind me that I, too, have roots. I am not just a stumbling 20-something trying to find my place in the world. I am part of something greater.

Anne Marie: While many congregations modify their music, order of worship, and sermon topics in an attempt to make church “relevant” for newer generations, I am more interested in figuring out how I fit into the rich and complicated tradition of Christianity than in asking how Christianity can be molded to meet my needs. My desire to receive Communion at St. Stephen’s that day wasn’t about the individual act of taking bread and wine. It was about a deep need to connect with God and others beyond myself.

Young adulthood is all about finding and establishing identity. As we transition from the support and constraints of childhood, young people are enmeshed in the age-old questions: Who am I? What is my purpose in life? Today young adult culture is “aided” by external mechanisms that craft and reinforce personal identity. We are bombarded with opportunities to establish our individual personalities, believing the false notion that what we buy and how we appear defines us. We can tell our online social network what we like, but the tough work of understanding who we are—as individuals and in relation to God and others—has been replaced by the ability to maintain a one-dimensional identity via Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a Facebook account and I use it. But when I go to church, I turn off my phone. I let go of my individual or virtual claim on identity. Christian tradition teaches us that we exist not only as individuals, but as members of a body much larger than our own. When I participate in Communion, I experience a visceral connection to the centuries of history behind me and the future of the church before me. My faith and identity in Christ is bound to others.

2) I want to find my own meaning in Christian faith and practice.

Joshua: I have been taking Communion at church ever since I was confirmed in sixth grade. And for nearly as long, I’ve been baking my own bread, too. I learned from my mom how to prepare the yeast just right so that the bread will rise and produce the loaf. I remember watching her in the kitchen, mixing the flour, finding the right temperature for the water, kneading the dough, waiting, kneading again, and waiting some more. After it baked and cooled, my family would share bread together over dinner.

It wasn’t until college, though, that I made the connection between Communion and my family’s bread-making. I was living in a house off-campus with some of my friends and another tenant, an older guy we called J.C. One day J.C. showed up at the front door, beaten and bloody. “Can you call the police?” he asked. “Some guys just beat me up.” We were scared at first. We called the police and got ice packs to soothe his swollen face. But then all we could do was wait.

With all the commotion I almost forgot that I had bread baking upstairs. When I took it out of the oven, I didn’t even wait for it to cool. I took the loaf in one hand, some homemade jam in the other, and brought it to J.C. We broke bread together, and somehow our fear, J.C.’s battered face, and all the frustrations we had endured with each other as neighbors came into perspective.

Since that night, making bread and sharing it with others has become a holy time for me. The process of bread-making, of intentionally preparing and slowly waiting for it to ferment and grow, is the most accessible way I have learned to practice church in my own life. If I happen to not attend church, I know that I can still participate in holy Communion.

This is the greater meaning of church, isn’t it? We are blessed when we receive the body and blood of Jesus—through Communion, sermons, songs, liturgy, the prayers of our neighbors—and it is our job to continually share that spirit in our daily lives. But there are also other ways to become more-whole spiritual beings.

No person’s experience holds precedence over any other. The beauty of the communion of saints is that we all bring holiness to the table. Whether through experiences in nature, the arts, or sports—no one has a hold on that authenticity. And the church is better for it.

Anne Marie: During college I attended my first Maundy Thursday “love feast.” All I knew about the service was what someone at church had told me: It’s a celebration of the Last Supper. Oh, yeah, and there’s foot-washing.

As I prepared to attend this Communion service, several thoughts raced through my head: What if I mess up? What if my feet smell? Should I wash them ahead of time?

When the foot-washing began, my fears and questions subsided. We sat in a circle and passed around a large bowl, singing hymns and kneeling on the floor to wash and dry each other’s feet. When it was my turn, the elderly woman next to me moved slowly from her seat to the tile floor. She wrapped the large white towel around her waist and leaned forward to lift my feet into the tin basin. Tears streamed down my face as I watched her wrinkled hands cup water to cleanse my feet, which suddenly looked dirtier and heavier than before. For a moment I felt guilty, sinful even for letting this elder kneel before me. But in that moment, the gospel made more sense to me than it ever had. This is the good news, even though it doesn’t make any sense.

As I continued to attend this church, Christian theology and practice became illuminated in new and exciting ways. I remember one Easter morning when I experienced the fullness of forgiveness and hope in the resurrection for the first time. I’ll never forget that day.

These spiritual revelations were not planned or crafted by church committees. They probably wouldn’t have meant much to me if that had been so, but they were made possible because of strong relationships and communal support. I began attending this church because a woman offered to pick me up on campus and drive me to worship on Sunday mornings. And I continued to attend because other members welcomed me into the community.

Churches can focus on making their services accessible and welcoming to young adults by showing sincere interest in our lives and faith journeys. I don’t need faster music or pop culture references to feel connected. In fact, congregations waste a lot of time trying to figure out how to make Christianity “meaningful” for younger folks. This is ultimately something we each need to figure out on our own. All I really want is to feel safe and cared for in my church community. Then I’ll engage in the more difficult work of finding lasting meaning in Christian faith and practice.

Here is my hope and prayer: Help young adults like me to stay rooted; give us space to find meaning; listen to our stories. Offer us a supportive, nourishing environment and we—along with the church—will thrive.

Anne Marie Roderick is former editorial assistant and Joshua Witchger is former online editorial assistant at Sojourners.

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