Let me start by telling you something: I am one of you. My birth year puts me on the earliest edge of our generation. I am not an old person from a different era, I don’t “not understand” the things that are important to most of us, the culture that we have grown up in, and now live in. I get the desire for authenticity and community. I know that we live in a vastly different environment than our parents. (Mine are still vaguely offended that they have to pay more than 10¢ for a hamburger at McDonalds.) I know that the things that were taken for granted 50 or 100 years ago are now all up for grabs, and we get to (have to?) navigate our lives in a world where every choice is up to us.
But let me tell you something else: I am the Church. Yeah, you read that right. An ordained pastor, called to the ministry of God’s Word and Sacraments. I got this gig because God dragged me into it, kicking and screaming at times. And there are days and nights, hours and minutes, weeks and months when I hate it.
I hate when there are mean people at my church, people who stare too long at crying children, or who criticize volunteers for “doing it wrong.” I hate that I often have to choose between vapid, shallow 7/11 Jesus-is-my-boyfriend music and Biblically, theologically rich hymns full of words that no one understands. I hate that many people would rather complain in the parking lot than give 2 hours/month to helping our community function better. I hate that meetings that should take 45 minutes often take 3 hours. I hate that sometimes outreach into the community gets questioned because “those people will never come back to church”, and I hate that sometimes we do community outreach that doesn’t seem to bring anyone closer to God. I hate that sometimes I have to tell people that things they’re doing are wrong, and that at times I have to fundraise for my own salary. I hate that my congregants are rockstars at saying hi to visitors in worship, but terrible at inviting them to stay for coffee. I hate that I can’t always see God working. I hate that I have to work weekends, and that I never ever get to go to church, only to work. I hate the sheer amount of sin and brokenness and death and destruction in this world, that lands on my doorstep every day.
And I hate that I hate these things. I hate that I hate these things, because they are all a part of my job, and a part of the call that God has placed on me in this moment, in this time and place.
Because really, I love my job. I love that it’s my job to say, “At the command of Christ, I forgive you all your sins.” I love that it is my job to literally put Jesus into people’s hands. I love that it’s my job to encourage people in their crazy outside-the-box ideas for how to bring the Word of God to others, and for how to care for the people in our community who are most in need. I love splashing babies and adults with water, and reading the Christmas proclamation, and being in my office when the quilters come over to drop off more fabric and they stop to chat and catch me up on their grandkids’ lives. I love being with the kids in confirmation class when they tell me about a break up, or why they are on the track team even though they hate running or they suddenly get that the Holy Spirit’s job is to bring them to Jesus. I love anointing a sick baby and seeing God work powerfully to heal that little one and to strengthen the faith of her parents. I love draping a funeral pall over a casket and beseeching God to accept this sheep of his own flock, this sinner of his own redeeming.
So despite all of the things that I hate about the Church – the fact that the people don’t always do what I think they should, the Bible doesn’t always say what I wish it would, the words don’t always come out of my mouth the way I intended, our worship services aren’t always as awesome as I want them to be, it’s so easy to get hung up on “how to live” and “what to believe” that we sometimes forget that Jesus is bigger than that, and conversely, it’s so easy to talk about God’s love and grace that we sometimes forget that the only reason we need God’s love and grace is because we are, in fact, sinners – despite all of that, I hang in there with the Church, the body of believers across time and space, and my church, the unique little outpost of the Church that God has called me to at this moment.
I hang in there because I genuinely believe that Jesus has the power to save. He has the power to forgive my sins, and the sins of everyone I know, and everyone I don’t know. He died, and was made alive again, and because he connected me to that when I was baptized, someday I will see him face to face, and all the sadness and junk and imperfection and awfulness of this world will fade away in the light of his glory. I hang in there because I believe it, even though I emphatically do not understand it, even though sometimes belief feels more like “really flipping hope so” than “staid unshakeable confidence.” I hang in there because if I don’t, I’m totally out of options. Nothing else even pretends to offer what Jesus actually does.
And so I hope that you’ll hang in there too, Millennial. But I want you to hang in there for the right reasons.
See, it’s fashionable these days for all the “church people” to freak out about no one coming to church anymore and we’re all dying and no one is in Sunday School and oh no what are we going to do? And it’s become equally fashionable for us Millennials to assert our specialness and write articles and publish them on the internet about what the Church should do to get us to “come back.” Pew Research recently released some survey showing that “more people than ever” aren’t Christian and aren’t going to church. Apparently I’m supposed to be very worked up about this.
But the thing is, I kind of don’t care if you come back to church. I kind of don’t care if you’re a Christian. I’ve belonged to a congregation that had over 12,000 people in worship each weekend. For realz. And I have belonged to a congregation that had 12 people in worship on Easter Sunday. Literally. I’m really not concerned about the survival of the Church – Jesus has promised to protect it – and so I’m really not concerned about the survival of any one congregation. Whether you come to church or not has very little impact on my ego, or that of my parishioners. What I care about – what they care about – is that you hear the Word of Jesus, that you join his family in the Sacrament of Baptism, and you come to his dinner table at Holy Communion. I care that you know God loves you, and forgives you, and is preparing a place for you. I care that the Holy Spirit opens up a sliver of faith in your soul, faith that changes the way you see yourself, and other people, and the whole world. I care that you have a place to express joy in the greatest, most amazing moments, and a Person – and people – who will carry your burdens in the saddest, toughest, hardest times. I care that you know that while you will have troubles in this world, Jesus has overcome the world, and when you’re connected to him, you also overcome the world.
But if you don’t, it’s no skin off my nose. If Jesus isn’t really what you want or need right now, then church isn’t for you. If you’re looking for a place where you can help people or feel connected or get a little dose of inspiration for your week, then you should definitely join the Kiwanis Club or volunteer at Habitat for Humanity or watch more TED talks online. In that case, church probably is not what you’re looking for, and you shouldn’t feel any obligation to go. You’re free to stop obsessing about what the Church needs to do to get you to come back, and you don’t need to tell us all what we’re doing wrong. You do your thing, and we’ll do ours. This pastor said so, and when my congregation wonders why you’re not here, I’ll tell them the same thing. We’re Millennials, so let’s be genuine and authentic about what we really want, right?
But if you are intrigued by the person of Jesus, if you need a place to hear that the stuff you screw up day in and day out is forgiven and done away with, if you’d like to be able to believe that there’s more to life than just what you can see, if you want to touch the veil between heaven and earth, then come to church.
It won’t be perfect. The people there are going to mess up and say the wrong things and do the wrong things and sing dumb songs and use words you don’t understand. The pastor might say too much about who he or she thinks you should vote for, or might not be as gentle in tackling tough issues as you’d like, or might shy away from saying some hard things. Someone might look at you like you’re not sure why you’re there, or they might kneel too much or wave their hands in the air too much or the coffee might (probably will) be gross. The people might ignore you, or they might smother you. The pastor might have 4 other people tugging on his or her sleeve, and can’t welcome you in quite the way you’d like, or you might have to sit closer to the front than you’d like, or you might feel like you’re dressed wrong.
And maybe it’s not the right church for you. Maybe you really can’t handle feeling pushed into politics, or Elizabethan English, or like Jesus is supposed to be your boyfriend. Maybe you are the only person under the age of 50, or the only one who’s not married, or 8:00 am really is too early for you. Maybe the pastor honestly is kind of weird, or there are some totally unhealthy dynamics going on that just make that particular congregation not a good place right now. That’s okay. Those things happen. So it's a good thing that there's more than one church in most neighborhoods.
But remember that you’re not perfect either. You’ve messed up and said and done the wrong things and used words other people didn’t understand to make yourself look good. You’ve said rotten crap online to perfect strangers, and been too quick to judge somebody else’s situation, and not said something when you probably should have. You’ve danced weirdly in the rain and expected that people just naturally did certain things and then mocked them when they didn’t. You’ve ignored people who made you uncomfortable and made a fool of yourself with someone who you were sure was going to be your new BFF. You’ve struggled to manage the expectations of everyone in your life, and other people have had to feel awkward and uncomfortable so you wouldn’t be inconvenienced.
Being human is hard. The strange social dances we do as we get to know new people and new situations are always awkward. When have you ever been in any group setting where everything was 100% exactly what you wanted? School? Family? Parties? Work? Sports teams? Of course not. The fact that we’re in church doesn’t make us less human. But it does mean that God is with us, holding our hands, forgiving us and encouraging us to forgive others, slowly smoothing out the rough edges that each of us has.
So as you church-shop, if you decide that church is important to you, remember what you’re looking for: Jesus. Find a place that connects you to Jesus, and where you can be…okay, even if it’s not perfect. Don’t define yourself by broad generational characteristics, let Jesus define you as a unique person who He loves. Come hang out with the rest of us sinners, gathered around the Lamb who was slain for the forgiveness of our sins. When you’re ready, we’ll be here. Until then –
Peace, Love, and Jesus,
A Millennial Pastor