Rejuvenate. Verb [trans]. To make young again, to breath new life into.
Following the decolonization of its empire, political commentators have often, tongue-in-cheek, described Britain’s foreign policy as one of ‘managed decline.’ The UK doesn’t want to drop precipitously off the global scene, but recognizes its days as a global superpower are over and it must move slowly to the fringes.
A similar attitude seems to have taken hold among mainline and liberal Christians in the US, particularly in my denomination, the Community of Christ. Mainline Christianity is graying, slowly dying off and keeping out of the way of the growing evangelical and Pentecostal churches.
Visiting many Community of Christ congregations I am often struck by how they seem to be in this process of ‘managed decline.’ They are too afraid to just shut up shop, but they also don’t have the confidence to radically shift direction and rejuvenate themselves by reaching out to their community or grappling seriously with the social issues of our time.
Over the last couple of months I have had a series of conversations with Community of Christ young adults in the US and UK who over and over again echoed each others’ painful stories of growing alienation with the church.
Without wishing to rely on crude stereotypes, let me sketch a caricature of this group of people, of which I consider myself a member.
They are generally white, middle class and in their 20s and 30s. Many went to Graceland University, the church college, and during that time began to question and critically analyze their faith. They realized many of the treasured myths, which rooted their grandparents’ and parents’ faith, were historically inaccurate or even completely false. By and large, they have little or no interest in using the Book of Mormon and are embarrassed by the church’s early shared history with the Mormons. Compared with previous generations they have a more forgiving/lax/open attitudes toward the use of alcohol, sex before marriage and homosexuality.
Many of them are involved in vocations of social service or politics. They believe strongly that their spirituality and involvement in calling for social justice are mutually enforcing. But they have not found many outlets for this passion in their church, either at the congregational or HQ level. So they have taken their practical spirituality into their hands, working as journalists, medical professionals, social workers, campaigners, political aides and international aid workers. They give little money to the church, as a result of their frustration with it, but are actually very generous with time, money and talent, giving to organizations and causes in which they strongly believe.
Almost all have had a bad experience of being ignored, shut down, underutilized and underappreciated at the congregational level. As a result, many of them, including myself, no longer regularly attend a Community of Christ congregation. The depth of pain and alienation is very real, for they often want to leave the church, but actually feel they cannot, because it is part of who they are. They feel an ‘ethnic affiliation’ with the church, having grown up in families with generations of history in the church. They share humor, family connections and experience. While they are suspicious of much of the church’s traditional doctrine, they often, in reflective moments acknowledge an appreciation for the fellowship, community, camping experiences and values they learned as kids.
So what to do? Often I hear church leaders talking about ‘winning young adults back to the church.’ However, I think this is the wrong formulation. Rather the question should be ‘How can we transform the church so that it is relevant to young adults?’ or ‘How can we as young adults form a movement to rejuvenate the church?’
Firstly, rejuvenation cannot just be about using contemporary music, PowerPoint presentations and fancy technologies that increase the temptation to prioritize style over substance. When I went to the church’s International Youth Forum in 1997, I felt vaguely patronized by the flashing lights, loud music and demonstrative expressions of worship. Such efforts to ‘reach the youth’ feel like we are saying ‘since we fail to give them the bread of real spiritual transformation we will give them the circus.’
Secondly, rejuvenation will not result from uttering inane platitudes about peace, justice and reconciliation without really engaging with, and not being afraid of, political contestation. Too often I hear church people talk about building peace as if it was something warm and fuzzy. Establishing peace, for me, is a heart-wrenchingly difficult process of dealing with vastly divergent interests and values that so often clash in ugly ways. Peacebuilding is not simply about hugs and colorful pictures of doves. It requires rolling up our sleeves and jumping into the messy arena of politics. It is about negotiating the redistribution of power in human relationships. Rather, rejuvenation will only come when there is a significant constituency in the church that is filled with heart, soul and passion and is willing to engage in dialogue with each other about contentious issues. Rejuvenation will only come when the church takes seriously its mission as a prophetic witness against poverty, oppression, and conflict. This means being bold – speaking out about the horrific conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that affects so many Community of Christ members. It means speaking the truth about war in the ‘Holy Land’ and supporting ecumenical efforts to monitor human rights in the region. It means preaching with fervor about the injustice of an American economy that rewards Wall Street and leaves behind Main Street. It means taking seriously the global nature of our church; church history conferences must include papers on the history of the church in French Polynesia, Kenya, Honduras – not just the American Midwest in the 1840s. Unfortunately, it means upsetting many people who are comfortable with the slow slide of managed decline.
A common excuse given for the exodus of young people from the Community of Christ is that, unlike previous generations, young adults show less loyalty to bureaucracies and more to causes. But this is simply a case for changing the structure and nature of the church. The Obama campaign clearly demonstrated that young people are willing to dedicate enormous energy, time and resources to a message and organization that resonates with them. Similarly, Graceland students raised tens of thousands of dollars for Outreach International last year.
Indeed, I think the church could learn a lot from Outreach International’s ability to communicate and excite young people in the US while also doing important work addressing chronic poverty in the developing world.
The trouble is not with a lack of loyalty and commitment among young people. The trouble is with a church that is failing to be a prophetic witness against poverty, injustice, oppression, conflict and alienation. We young adults will have to band together to halt a managed decline and midwife the church’s rebirth, renewal and rejuvenation.