Hanging out with a group of 20 teenagers at Canada Youth 2009, I learned a thing or two.
For starters, they loved the worship. I had thought the relational stuff would come first by far. I was wrong. At the beginning of our sessions together, each of us wrote down an experience of God we’d had that day. We put these slips of paper in a shoebox named “Amanda” (long story). Then someone would read them out, as a kind of prayer. I had hoped we could start to open our eyes to the sacred in ordinary life—you know, God in the scrambled eggs, the smell of fresh coffee, that kind of thing. And yet, it always seemed to come back to worship. Relationships too. But worship, above all.
On the way back to our residence one evening, Cameron enthused: “I thought it would be boring, but it’s great. I love the music. I actually want to be there for worship. I can’t wait until tomorrow.” Imagine that.
I thought we’d picked up on the vernacular principle 500 years ago during the Reformation when some innovative theologian-hipster in Germany had the bright idea: hey, let’s try worship in a language people understand, the language they speak everyday—i.e. not Latin. And yet, for quite a number of us at CY09, this was the first time we’d danced in worship, first time we’d felt free to clap or even sway, first time we’d been excited about going back for more the next day.
But maybe there’s a good reason for that. What if these good times inspired our youth to just gyrate right on out of our churches altogether? Shouldn’t we try to be realistic about this kind of enthusiasm? Why not continue to measure out the doses? Once every three years is enough, wouldn’t you say? Let’s be careful about raising expectations. We want people to stay in church after all.
How ironic and tragic, then, that leaving church is exactly what does happen next. Let’s follow the crowd into a future beyond Canada Youth. Fast-forward a few years and, all of a sudden, they’re gone. When our young people get to an age where they can choose church for themselves, they tend to disappear. And, unlike in the past, they’re no longer returning to fill the pews when they get older.
Sandra bucks the trend. She’s a delightful 25 year-old doctoral student—and she has commitment to spare. She was a group leader for the week as well. Sandra told me she’s the only person in her church between the age of 18 and 35. Naturally, she runs the youth group herself. But she’s still missing a community—friendships with Christian peers, companionship as she works through issues relevant to her life-situation. I’ve heard this story before.
Over dinner on Thursday, seven of us met to talk about the “post-CY” predicament. Where will these teenagers be in five years? Why are there so few young adults in our churches? Do we care?
We went around the table. In Winnipeg, someone is leading a church consisting mostly of people between 20 and 45. In Toronto, someone has initiated a small group for young adult “graduates” of the presbytery’s youth ministry. Someone else, from Nova Scotia, observed that this missing generation will show up for the retreats she leads but not on Sundays. Most compelling, someone in Barrie, the only one among us with a so-called “secular day job,” has started a series of art shows and coffee house events. He’s more creative than the professionals. Imagine that. And he’s doing it for the art, not the institution. He’s doing it in faith. And so the conversation goes on …
This is the church that’s emerging all around us. We are Holy Spirit chameleons, Presbyterian shape-changers, Reformed and reforming into a thousand faces. We too shall be released from our previous assumptions. We will be made new as we respond to God who gathers up what seems to separate us—language, generation, culture, to name a few—and brings us together in Christ.
We can’t wait another three years for Canada Youth to happen again.