These days I am near-obsessed by two constants: (1) in church gatherings, young people make up the tiniest sliver of the whole group. I get invited a fair amount to preach here and there and the experience is always the same: a bare few young people in an ocean of gray hair and wrinkled faces. I mean no offense. I have plenty of gray hair and some sagging flesh myself. (2) Young people really do feel judged and rejected by church people. I’m genuinely puzzled, because I’m around church folk who truly are kind, gentle, friendly people. And then I hear another mind-boggling, gut-twisting account from a college student who was told not to come back to church until (s)he straightens out a drinking problem. I don’t know whether to cry or cuss. Sometimes I do both.
Did the student misunderstand? Maybe. We’d love to think so. But I’ve heard stories like this one too often to explain it away as youthful misunderstanding. Maybe it happens because we’re still “reading” young people through the tumults of the’60s. Many churches who should be joyfully interacting with young people let this memory dictate their vision and their attitude.
We mistakenly think of college students as 21st century versions of what we (Baby Boomers) were. We helped to institutionalize the generation gap. When we were college students, we felt deceived and angry. We had discovered the deep hypocrises of “the Establishment,” which included churches and denominations.
Today’s college students feel excluded and hurt, not deceived and angry. Church leaders, pay attention! Woundedness can certainly manifest in angry words. The attitudes of today’s college students can remind us of the ’60s, but let’s take care not to miss the critical difference.
As a number of studies have pointed out, young people today are knee-jerk individualists. It’s what they know. It’s the language they use. But we should not be fooled by the language and we most certainly should not mistake it for some kind of generation gap. Under the confident exterior (which is sincere), many college students are scared to death to mess up. They want to know if we’ll still love them if we discover they’re not perfect.
I’ve said in other posts that I have little interest in rescuing a denomination, although I love The United Methodist Church. But I have to say, there is something quite bizarre, even grotesque, about large gatherings of Christians that involve so few young people.
How do we take a collective look in the mirror and get concerned enough actually to do something more than talk?