I work a great deal with young people. Young college students are often an enigma to their older professors. I don’t claim to have any great insight into their way of life, but I have spent time listening to them about a number of topics. Additionally, I am a psychologist so I tend to listen with a different ear than other adults. Because it’s my passion to help people live healthy, flourishing, resilient, passionate, and balanced lives, I like to talk to people about the things research finds helpful in regards to being a healthy, happy person. One of those “things” I talk about is religion. Numerous studies show people participating in religious services and communities live much more meaningful and healthy lives than those who don’t. Yes, there are a great many ways to explain why that’s the case, but in the end, religious participation and a commitment to a religious community is good for you. That’s why it disturbs me when I read how many young people are straying away from church. When I see young people moving further from church I see the future move further from an institution that promotes pro-social and positive values. But maybe that’s the problem, I see church as an institution. The first images that come to my mind when I hear the word church are those of a building, place, and institution, in which people gather and learn a set of beliefs about how to live. I think I’m wrong. In fact, I’ve been well schooled in this area by a number of my young college students who get church better than I do.
A key insight I gleaned from discussing church with these students is that church is not a noun but rather it’s a verb. Younger people “do” church, they don’t necessarily “go to” church. They may gather together in their dorm room, meet at the quad, or go to a local coffee house, but when they get there they “do” church. If they can, they sing some worship songs together. One might play the guitar or they just sing the songs without instruments. They pray and lift their voices and hands together, thanking God for what they have. They read scripture and discuss it. Each brings their perspective to the Word and they may even disagree about how each person interprets what’s read. At some point they lift each other up in prayer and intercede for one another. They do these things and leave with the understanding they’ve “done” church regardless of where they are.
I really love this movement. I think it speaks volumes about what church could look like. Yes, I think some things are missing, but it’s a strong reminder that we “do” church because church is what we “are” not a place we go. If we met our young Christians in their church experience and provided the missing components, church could really look different. Here are a couple things I think missing in their experience that could really spiritually deepen what they’re doing.
First, church needs to be done from a multigenerational perspective. Older individuals can bring experience into the reflections they are discussing about scripture. Also, some training in the scriptures is important because some scripture can be confusing. I’m not suggesting older people “tell” them what’s absolutely right and wrong, merely that we can give structure and guidance to the reflections to help them discover what God really says in a passage. I’m all about allowing the Holy Spirit to speak to the whole gathered body, but sometimes it takes someone with experience and learning to keep the body focused on the essential aspects of the Christian experience. After all, that’s what the apostles did in the assemblies they were a part of.
Secondly, I think along with worship and scripture reading the breaking of bread is important. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, it seems the most basic elements of Christian worship include prayer, singing, confession, Scripture, and Eucharist. When we do these things we’re doing church like those who walked with Jesus. Lastly, I think it’s important to include The Lord’s Prayer in worship. It’s a uniting force in the assembled body and sanctifies our petitions to reflect what Christ prayed for to the Father.
We can indeed learn from our young people and we can provide some leaven and guidance to what they call “doing church.” I’m encouraged they find unique ways of being church and I welcome the movement. Yes, I would change some things as mentioned above, but church should be an action and not just a place we visit. In closing let me add this; I read a book many of you have probably heard of called “Unchristian – What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters” by David Kinnamen. In that book Kinnamen stresses that while young people may view the church differently, the church continues to have the same mandate since Christ proclaimed the Gospel for the very first time. This mandate consists of worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry, and evangelism. Notice these are not places to visit but rather action words; things that we do. Maybe our churches need to be less concerned about the place we “go” to church and focus more on how we “do” church. Maybe that’s how church continues to be a positive force which gives us healthy, flourishing, resilient, and a balanced perspective on living life well.