Yesterday evening, I found myself in conversation with about 15 other pastors from different denominations, and at some point, our conversation turned to the way the world perceives the church, how Christians are seen by other Christians, by nonbelievers, by questioners, by the curious, by the agnostic and atheistic. Into the din of our conversation, one of my friends piped up, “They don’t come to church because they don’t feel like they can be themselves there.” He kind of paused, and then shrugged his shoulders a bit and said, “That’s at least what a lot of young people claim is their reason for not going to church.” I just kind of sat there, my mind spinning and wondering. Part of me wanted to be aghast, to say, “No, that can’t be true!” But the louder, more sure part of me knew, deep down in my soul, that what Jake had just said was far too true, and the reality is, we’ve all probably experienced it.
How often have you heard people lament that after youth turn 18 and head to college, they seem to disappear from church? Probably pretty often. Yet, think about it, think about what happens when you’re 18 and you go of to college, out into the world, where you’re told day after day that now is the time to discover who you are, who you will be. Each of us can probably remember those moments, those “a-ha”moments when we were young and we got a glimpse of our true selves. Now, think about what happens when those kids, when those adults who we still see as “kids” return home, for breaks, for vacations, and they step into the church. On some level, their church family wants them to be who they remembered, who they thought they would be; they aren’t ready for this new, more authentic version of this child of the congregation. Think about if they’ve gone of to college and come back teeming with a passion for art and culture and suddenly they come home and they sound different, maybe they look different. Think about if they’ve gone of to college and come back having found the person they want to spend the rest of their lives with, but it’s not the person everyone expected them to come home with, to fall in love with. Think about if they’ve gone of to college and they come back teeming with questions about faith, because they’re thinking about it, and suddenly they’re wondering and questioning, but no one wants to hear those questions because they feel dangerous and unfaithful and unlike anything we might be used to. Think about it. If you were that person, would you want to come to church? Would you want to come to a place that says all are welcome here, we love you, as long as you stay exactly the same and stay within the finely drawn lines of our expectations?
“I don’t feel like I can be myself there.” I think sometimes we forget that Jesus called the quirky, the weird, the lost, the lonely. Think of the disciples. Think of Peter, a fisherman who probably smelled a little bit, who at various turns is surly and outspoken, who sometimes is short-tempered and frustrated. Think of Paul, someone who persecuted Christians and judged their beliefs, who has a bit of an ego, and a tendency to say things exactly how they are, even if they aren’t politically correct. Think of Martha and Mary, sisters who got under each other’s skin, who had the temerity to yell at Jesus when he didn’t arrive on time, who had the gumption to huff and bicker at each other when Jesus is at their table for dinner. Think of yourself. Maybe you’re quiet, maybe you’re outspoken. Maybe you have a love for rock ‘n’ roll and funny books. Maybe you find Jesus in odd places, like a Starbucks, or a fantasy novel, or on a TV show you watch. Maybe you’re a parent, maybe you’re a grandparent, maybe you’re just starting out. Maybe you think, me? I’m just me. No mater who you are, when you walk in the doors of your church home, do you feel like you can be yourself? Hopefully, your answer is yes, but there’s a harder question to be asked. When someone else walks in the doors of your church home, are you prepared to love them for who they are? Exactly who they are?Tattooed or clean cut, a farmer or a businessman, single, married, or divorced, whole or broken, put together or falling apart. Are you prepared to love them right where they are? Are you prepared to love them for the person God has created them to be? I hope so. I really,truly, deeply hope so. So maybe the next time you find that oh-so-tempting question dangling on your lips –“Why don’t more people come to church?” – swallow it down, fight against it, and ask the harder question: “How might the church have kept more people from coming to church?” The answer might be scary…but sometimes, sometimes the truth is terrifying, but it’s also freeing, if we’re willing to face it.
Peace it Together,