November 20, 2013

Ask Not What Your (Church) Can Do For You

Last year, about this time, I was walking around the downtown square of our County seat with Jason Evans, our diocese’s new young adult missioner. He was new to the diocese and had just come down to spend a few days in St. Mary’s County, to get to know the folks and, literally, the lay of the land. We wrapped up a productive lunch with some lay leaders from the local parishes and were taking advantage of a warm December afternoon to talk about that evening’s dinner meeting with 20 or so young adults.

“What do you want to talk about tonight?” Jason asked.

“I want to figure out their level of desire and what they’d like to be involved in,” I said, “but I feel like we keep asking the same questions, over and over, and getting the same results.”

He nodded in general understanding, said he’d give it some thought, and we talked for a bit more before I dropped him off at his hotel so he could have a few hours of downtime before dinner.

The question Jason asked surprised me. It’d been several years, for me, since God started tugging at my heart, nagging me to get outside of this institution called ‘church’ and meet my own peers, young adults and young families, where they are, where I would be if I were not the veritable definition of the inside-guy. But all I had was the institution’s language, the church’s vocabulary, and so I kept asking the same question, over and over again, and getting the same lack of results. I kept asking, “What do you want us to do for you?” And I assumed that if we did those things they would come.

That night, for the first time, a different question was on the table. Jason looked at a group of pretty energetic and relatively connected but very overworked, exhausted, and busy 20-somethings and 30-somethings and asked, “What do you want to do?”

And that question made all the difference.

It may sound counter-intuitive that young adults have time left over to even think about adding something else to their plate. So many of them, especially those born in the 1980s and 90s, the Millennials, are dealing with economic stagnation, unemployment, underemployment and the very real fact that they will not earn as much money as their parents. This, coupled with the fact that they are and will be saddled with significant educational and consumer and household debt. Costs have gone up across the board, education, housing, and healthcare being huge drivers, but incomes have stagnated and many of today’s young adults find themselves in an unprecedented and, frankly, perilous financial position. At the same time, however, many Millennials are incredibly, even ironically optimistic and hopeful about their future and the future of this planet and, for some, the future of Christ’s own body, the church. They’re the first generation, after all, in a long time that’s actively engaged in creating something new – a new economy, a new, vastly interconnected and wonderfully diverse world.

The question “What do you want to do?” touches the heart of that creativity and, when that’s on the table, there’s in fact an overabundance of passion and energy and vision and time. Asking that question – really and truly asking that question – also implies that there are things that we, the leaders of this institution reified by a few only a few generations ago, need to do to get out of the way or that we need to stop doing altogether.

Learning to ask, to really ask, this question and to get out of the way and wait to hear the response is going to feel, to many, like working out a whole new muscle group. There’ll be awkwardness and discomfort, there’ll be pain and the need for some soothing balm, there’ll be crankiness and confusion. But just wait, just a bit, and the Spirit will speak. She’s already at it.