This is an article I wrote in response to Kate Baer’s article “Why We’re Not Going to Church,” published in the Mennonite World Review on March 12, 2013. Here it is again, with a few minor changes.
I’m 24 years old. I’m a seminary student who will graduate in May. I’m applying for pastoral positions in the Mennonite Church. And Kate Baer started a lot of discussions in the last 48 hours, so I want to try and respond.
I agree with Kate that “our generation is tired of culture wars.” Or, as bell hooks writes, “organized religion has failed to satisfy spiritual hunger because it has accommodated secular demands, interpreting spiritual life in ways that uphold the values of a production-centered commodity culture.” And if the way to avoid hypocrisy is to avoid church, to most of us, that seems like a healthy response. Church is exhausting. Defending church — especially to your non-Christian friends — is exhausting. Our generation wants a church that entertains, but we also want a church that is honest.
Right now, I’m church shopping on the flip side of most twentysomethings. I’m applying for jobs at Mennonite churches. And my greatest fear is that I’ll end up at a church that doesn’t have the guts to be honest about what it means to be a Christian, a church that wants an angel instead of a pastor, a church where I have to hide the beer when I host a committee meeting, where everyone is counting how many times I pray in a day. And I’m terrified to work in an institution that is deeply committed to denying the value of gay people; some of my gay friends are the most spiritual people I know. Like Kate, I’m not convinced sermons are necessary; I think windows in Sunday school doors are. I want to be 24 and single and not have the grandmothers down my throat to marry before I get too old. And if I fall in love with a Muslim, I want to fall in love without being judged incapable of loving God. I want a church that tries not to judge me, even though sometimes they can’t help it, because they care about me and want me to do well. I want a church that’s full of people who are trying to be honest, even if they don’t have all the tools to do it.
I want to work in the church because I believe in grace. I think, probably, Kate does, too. But I need to see that grace extended, every week, even if seeing that grace means risking not seeing it. Maybe this week, the congregation isn’t as good as they wanted to be. Maybe this week, I’m not either.
I believe in the church because I believe the church is still one of the best avenues of creating community. I believe people need community, that the millennial generation’s fear of church is much like our fear of falling in love — we’re afraid of finding something that matters — and then losing it. We talk about community all the time because we aren’t sure it exists, at least, not the way we want it.
But I guess when it comes to church, I’m of a mind that it’s better to fall in love than to never have loved at all.
I respect Kate’s decision. The summer I was accepted to seminary, I didn’t go to church at all. I can’t adequately explain why, and I don’t think Kate can adequately explain why she’s not going to church right now, either. But she’s not afraid to try, and she’s not afraid to be honest. Our generation don’t know what the future of the church is, and sometimes it’s exhausting to respond to the hopeful gaze of our parents with “I don’t know.”
When they ask us, like one commenter asked Kate, why they should send their kids to a Mennonite college, I have to admit: it’s true. We drank. Sometimes a lot. Sometimes we smoked. Some of my friends had sex. But we also grew up. We became better people. We never met a hard question we didn’t think about. The students who came out of my Mennonite college have exceptional moral awareness. Mennonite colleges produce thoughtfully ethical, theologically consistent, generous-spirited people — even if they don’t go to church. Perhaps instead of asking twentysomethings, “Why don’t you go to church?” we should ask them “What kind of church would you attend? What community do you need to speak into your spiritual longings?” Then let’s go. Make that church happen.