'Young people' who stay with the church are different from those who leave and come back

by Mariam Williams

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How do we get young adults back into the church? A question similar to this came up at the NCR anniversary conference on October 24, and although I might be considered the perfect person to answer such a question, I found myself shying away from the microphone being passed along the panel I was sitting on.

I interpret young adults as people ages 18-34. At 35, I'm out of the demographic, but I've realized that my spiritual sensibilities are much more like the Millennials' than those of the Generation X-ers. I know the characteristics I'd like church -- the singular congregation or parish I belong to, the body of Christ as a group of people, and the institutional church -- to have: It should be open, affirming, radical in thought and fiercely committed to eradicating injustice and inequality. But I can't tell anyone how to draw back into church people who want the institutional church to reflect those same values, because I'm not entirely convinced that, for their own sake, they need to return.

My ambivalence comes from an unusual experience. During their late teens and very early adult years, most people wrestle with challenging questions about identity, belief and purpose. Those questions can be further complicated by leaving home for college and discovering, through interactions with people of different religious, ethnic and geographical backgrounds, that the way they knew growing up is not the only way to live. That should come as less of a shock as the U.S. shifts to a "majority minority" nation -- but housing in most of the country is still segregated based on race and wealth, meaning too many college-going young adults come from communities that are just as homogenous as they were 50 years ago.

When I was 18, I left a homogenous community. Over the next four years I encountered people at a private university with religious, ethnic and geographical backgrounds more diverse than what I had been exposed to at my magnet high school that attracted some of the city's most talented students in science and the arts. I wrestled with questions about the accuracy of the Bible, sexism in the text, Christianity’s role in slavery and racial terrorism and its current place in African American life. And I shrugged off the questions in favor of community and security.

I belonged to a black campus ministry that filled most of my Wednesday and Friday nights with gospel music, prayer, hugs and laughter. Though their meetings took place in dorms and buildings with no religious affiliation, this subset of the body of Christ was a sanctuary for black students -- and especially black women -- seeking shelter from the racism, sexism and anti-religious sentiment almost intrinsic to academia. Off campus, membership to a historically black congregation gave me the same comforts -- plus occasional home-cooked meals and people outside of the university who consistently expressed that they cared about me and wanted me to succeed. Bible studies and sermons taught me God’s perspective on my role in the world and my purpose in life, something I believe every young person struggles to figure out. They gave me assurance that God had a plan for my life (I recited Jer. 29:11 often), and that nothing could get in God's way.

Unlike people who follow the pattern of leaving church in their young or emerging adult years and returning in their 30s, when they have children and decide they want to raise them as "something," real challenges to my personal beliefs and questions about whether I wanted to be associated with the institutional church came much later for me. I'm like much of NCR's readership: I've decided there's enough benefit to me to stay, and I'm stubborn enough to try to urge the changes I know are necessary for the institution's survival.

But I’m also okay with large blocks of the 18- to 34-year-old demographic not making the same choice, if they are still doing God's work. Despite how often I've heard otherwise from pulpits and in conversations with other Christians, I know you don't have to be a Catholic or a Protestant to love your neighbor, to extend mercy to others, or to work for peace, justice and equality in the world. I know you can feel a sense of God's presence by spending Sunday mornings enjoying the amber and gold leaves of trees along a running trail, instead of spending it inside a church. I know great freedom can come from learning how to define yourself apart from the labels associated with an institution you’re affiliated with, and I know tremendous spiritual growth comes from being able to lean in to your questions, interrogate every place you see contradictions and seek not the certainty and security I was looking for in college, but rather, the truth.

Since I find myself in my mid-30s and as yet unsettled, building community is a challenge. That is where I find churches, the body of Christ and the institutional church most useful. I needed community in my early adult years, too, and though I don't regret staying attached to my faith then, I think the community I chose also stifled my growth in some ways. I want church to be one of the places young adults can seek truth. You're not always encouraged to do that in an institution that leans on white, cis, male and heteronormative interpretations of Scripture. If truth-seeking in the church is discouraged, and young adults leave but do God’s work outside of church institutions, then I would rather have them outside doing God’s work and looking for the truth, because I believe seeking the truth will lead to freedom for all of us.

[Mariam Williams is a Kentucky writer living in Philadelphia and pursuing MFA in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden. She is a contributor to the anthology Faithfully Feminist and blogs at RedboneAfropuff.com. Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

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