Churches have spent millions attempting to cater to the needs of the young families in their communities.
"Come here! Bring your kids! We have a replica-sized Noah's Ark with real, live animals — a coffee shop that sells Pumpkin Spice lattes — cupholders in the chairs and state-of-the-art acoustics."
From a Millennial mom: this stuff is great. We like it, especially the lattes. But what we really want — what we really need — might not cost a thing.
When I started about a year ago as pastor of a small Lutheran church in the Chicago suburbs, one of my first priorities was to re-start the moms group that had been meeting at the church.
At one time it had served almost as a preschool drop-off. Later it had been held down by one mom and her friends, and as their children grew up no one came to fill the void.
I wanted to make it more than a drop-off, though — I wanted it to be Christian with a capital C. I made some tongue-in-cheek flyers with a black and white photo of a crying baby holding a Bible, and I called it Babies and Bibles.
Then, on a few Thursday mornings, I brought Jake to the church. A few curious moms emailed and showed up, but it never really took off.
Meanwhile, I missed the close-knit moms group I had in California, where Jake was born.
I was in the process of giving it all up for awhile, when one day as I drove to church God spoke to me:
"Why are you holding this at the church?" God asked. "It should be at your house."
As usual, God made a lot of sense. Our house had more places to sit right among toys for the kids. It had space for nursing and a kitchen where we could share goodies. We didn't have to work around the church schedule, and it made sense to open the group to my neighborhood — which just happened to be full of babies.
I thought back to my moms group in California. We'd all met at a weekly parenting class organized by the hospital, and now that the babies were 6 months old, we had to start paying each week. My friend, Alyssa, told her husband this — and he just shook his head.
"Why are you guys paying to get together? Just hang out at each other's houses."
The suggestion was so simple and yet it turned our group from a casual, occasional bunch of overprotective mothers into an intimately connected group of friends. At root — what we most needed as moms didn't cost a thing. We didn't need another class about baby dentistry or reading to your 2-week-old. What we most needed was each other, for no reason other than we lived in the same community and had children the same age.
We didn't have a whole lot in common. I was the outlier from the Midwest, which everyone else considered flyover country. Some women spoke Japanese in their homes, others balanced tech careers or real-estate or husbands who worked in the Middle East. We probably never would have otherwise met, yet we changed each other for the better.
So it was clear. Bibles and Babies would be held at my house. I even changed the name, to reflect the street that wrapped around our neighborhood, and to welcome moms of other faiths to the group. As a pastor who loves Jesus deeply, this was counter-intuitive. Everything we do has to be about Jesus, right?
But sometimes being about Jesus starts with His grace rather than His name.
Last week, we had our second moms group at my house. We haven't gotten out the Bible yet, but the Word was present nonetheless. See Jesus talked a lot about the Kingdom of God, about how all were included and all the normal rules about society and who eats with who and who is first and who is last get reversed in this special community of Jesus Christ. And every once in awhile — it usually doesn't cost a thing — we get to experience this community.
I experienced it last week. In the warmth of my next-door neighbors who brought their babies of all ages; in the Latino woman from across the street who lives in military housing and whose husband had gratefully returned from deployment unscathed.
In the grandmother who came from a nearby suburb and brought Hungarian nuts for all of us to try.
In the woman from the apartments across town, who came even though she got lost and had just a half hour to spend before children's doctor appointments.
In the clinician who came from the million-dollar neighborhood just a few blocks south.
In the Russian woman who shared an almond kringle with the group, and whose daughter wore perfectly coordinated fur boots.
We may never have met if we didn't live near each other and have children the same age. And we found out that some of the most athletic moms had babies who were late to walk. And that it's hard for all of us to entirely eliminate TV. And that balancing career and work and spouse and babies is worth more than anything in the world but it also makes us tired, and we were so glad we knew other moms for support.
As a pastor, looking out over too many empty pews on too many Sunday mornings, I'd often wondered: what do they want? The families who I meet at swimming lessons and brush elbows against during pick-up at daycare? What can we do as a church?
It's no mystery. Families today want what families — and human beings — have always wanted. We long for deep, real, genuine, simple community.
Today through Facebook and Google and Wikipedia and DVR, we have access to nearly limitless knowledge and information. If we want to converse with our interest group, we can fill out online comments or join an online community or Facebook group.
We can Skype our relatives and friends across the world, and we can watch documentaries at the tip of our fingers, about Genesis and Creation and Quantum Physics.
Ultimately, I think what families — and human beings — want today is not more learning, more groups, more programs, more how-to's. What they want — what I want — is real community in our real communities.
The Christian church started in believers' homes in Greece, in Rome, in Turkey. People of all backgrounds gathered together and shared a meal. It was radical then and it's radical now.
So what can the church do? We can get out of our venerated, beautiful buildings and into one another's homes. Invite people over and just spend time together. There will be opportunities for Bible Study and prayer, but first community must form again.
Rev. Angela Denker is a former sportswriter turned Lutheran pastor in Chicago. Denker covered the 2009 Super Bowl and was published in 2007 in Sports Illustrated. She blogs at Overwhelming Jesus.