For a class I am currently taking about young adult ministry, we were given the simple prompt, “Why church?” Below is my response to this simple yet profound question of whether or not the Church truly has anything to offer young adults (or anyone, for that matter).
Why church? This question can be asked with a certain amount of cynicism dripping from it. Many people, especially young adults, find themselves asking it in this way, holding it out like a piece of litter they found stuck to their shoe. For these people, this question is uttered as a challenge. They want to know why they should bother with something that seems outmoded, irrelevant, exclusionary, and, in many instances and to many people, downright harmful. The criticisms these people bring are valid and ought to be taken seriously. But the question can also be asked in other ways. Many people are asking “why church” with a tone of quiet desperation because they long for the church to become the life-giving, supportive, and challenging community they know it ought to be, but fear it might never truly become. For those of us involved in ministry, we must be ready to give an answer to the challengers, the cynics, the exasperated, the exhausted, and the desperately hopeful, even when those voices come from within ourselves.
There are any number of different ways to approach this question, but what I would like to propose is that the church can, in fact, be a place where young adult faith is nurtured if it takes seriously the role it has in helping all people explore life’s deep questions. To do this effectively, however, I further argue that churches must abandon a consumer mentality if they are to add anything meaningful to the lives of young adults.
In a recent documentary called Generation Like, Douglas Rushkoff explores what happens when young people’s identity formation begins to occur largely online. What he finds is that this process is being co-opted and manipulated by businesses and corporations, which turn young people into both consumers and, unbeknownst to many, living advertisements. Users of social media create online identities that are largely defined by the products they willingly “like” and their incessant quest for social approval. Especially telling was a portion of the documentary that revealed how none of the interview subjects had any concept of what it meant to “sell out.” For these young people, there seemed to be no sense in which abandoning one’s values for personal gain is seen as a negative reality.
When identity formation occurs mainly within this consumer mentality, the hardest question most people are forced to answer is “Would you like fries with that?” As consumers, young people know that there will always be someone ready to sell them something to meet their needs or answer their questions. In many ways, the church has become complicit in this very process. Churches “sell” young people hip music, cool pastors, and coffee house atmospheres while quietly asking “Would you like Jesus with that?” Or, when they are being more up-front about things, the faith churches offer often comes mass-produced and neatly packaged.
These techniques may “work” for a time, but buying into the consumer mentality leads churches down an unsustainable path of always trying to offer something newer, bigger, and flashier to hold the attention of fickle religious consumers. More than the reality of this unsustainable direction, however, is the reality that people are not meant to be mere consumers. In order for churches to become places where young adult faith can be nurtured, they must be willing to make the transition from consumption to creation.
Instead of selling neatly packaged answers to life’s deep questions, churches can provide the “raw material” that young people need to begin creating answers that give meaning to their lives. There will always be a tension between tradition and innovation, and I am not implying that churches should promote the creation of completely individualized spiritual experiences. To do so would be to succumb to the made-to-order notion of consumerism. Instead, the church further distances itself from a consumer mentality by dwelling in the space where diverse groups of people with different ideas collide and the process of creation becomes a communal act.
The church can be the answer to young adult spiritual formation when it becomes a place where all people are invited to move from consumption to creation in the messy process of forming something far more beautiful than any one person could make on their own. Young people do not need to be entertained and pacified; what they need is to feel welcomed and supported by a community that invites them into the divinely chaotic work of creating a better world together.
Photo source: Nicholas A. Tonelli (Attribution via Wikimedia Commons).