The following is part three in a series about Engaging Young Adults in Ministry. At the 2014 Susquehanna Annual Conference, we began a dialogue about the absence of young adults in the church and about how we can re-establish our relationships and ministry with them. This series is an edited transcript of that dialogue. The video of this presentation, and the full transcript, can be found at tinyurl.com/susumcAC2014.
Rev. Anna Layman Knox
My name is Anna Knox and I am a “Millennial.” I am also the pastor at Hawley United Methodist Church.
As a child in the Class of 2000, I consider myself the ultimate Millennial, and I say as a Millennial, don’t put me in a box! I have seen what happens to people who are put in boxes … they’re buried. I don’t know about you, but I want to be alive and free. My “Free to Be You and Me” recording when I was a child told me that, on repeat, I could be anything, anywhere, that I was unique, with imagination and insight, and I had the power with that to change the world.
Millennials have been taught since childhood that they could accomplish anything that they set their minds to, not by necessarily submitting to authority, but by using every resource available to us creatively to engage the world. We have been taught by you to love the world, to explore it, to serve it. “Be nice to others” we’ve been taught, “Accept everyone” you told us, “Have good self-esteem,” “Work in groups,” “Play on teams,” “Everyone gets a trophy; everyone is a winner.” And everyone in our generation from a very young age has had access to the Internet — Oh, the blessed Internet — that has made every opinion on this planet available to us at the tip of our fingers, so we have learned to consider all of the options and become open to a diverse global perspective. And somewhere along the way we got the impression that the church was not a space that was open to creativity and questioning. This generation has gotten the distinct impression that the church is a closed box.
So we must ask, “Have we shown people that the church is a place to go for authentic questioning?”
“How can the Christian community help this generation
Kinnaman tells us that young Christians, and former Christians too, see the church as not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that faith does not always make sense. And with such a broad world-view, Millennials don’t understand when the church says that their way and their traditions are the only way. When the church tells us that we can’t express doubts about a particular theology that seems incoherent, or a tradition that doesn’t carry meaning for us, we say, “Don’t put us in that box. Let us figure out how we feel about things and walk with us while we do that. Let us ask questions that may lead to new insights for everyone.”
face their doubts squarely and integrate their questions
into a robust, life of faith?”
We think deeply, and we love widely.
My sadness is that, in our quest to find a community that will engage our questions and our doubts — that are deeply interested in that — we don’t even think to open the doors of the church. Because we’ve seen God too often embodied as judgmental and rigid.
In college I got involved with a campus ministry, one that wasn’t interested in my doubts and my questions, one that was only interested in telling me what to believe and telling me who I needed to become to be saved. And if that had been my religious wilderness experience, if that had been what led me to launch out into the world, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have ended up here, and I am pretty sure that I wouldn’t be ordained tomorrow. But I was fortunate.
“Somewhere along the way [Millenials] got the impression that
the church was not a space that was open to creativity and questioning. This generation has been given the distinct impression that the church is a closed box.”
My mother got ill, and my questioning heart came home, came home to you. I found in many of you, in this community, in these communities in Pennsylvania, people who were eager and willing to listen to my questioning, doubting, angry, broken heart. You showed me that you were willing to walk with me and let me explore and question. And I am so sad that I seem to be the exception. I encounter young people every day that have not had the opportunity to have amazing mentors like I have had, to be encouraged, and also to be accountable to a community like that.
In conversations I will often ask them to tell me about the God that they hope for but can’t seem to find. And so often, the God that they describe is the one that I know, in Jesus Christ. And I so wish that they would see that God — that loving, open God — in us. A God that is full of questions, and that answers so many questions, who welcomes every single Doubting Thomas into his embracing arms.
I am becoming a pastor for life in the United Methodist Church tomorrow, not because someone told me I had to fit myself into a particular box as to what a pastor or Christian or Methodist looked like, but because people showed me that Jesus was alive in me, and that through the unique combination of my questioning, hope-filled heart, and the beloved community that you are, that we truly could come together to transform the world that I love for the good.
And so if we really want to engage with young people, we have to dialogue with the question that Kinnaman asks, “How can the Christian community help this generation face their doubts squarely and integrate their questions into a robust life of faith?”
Consistently I see that if we get out of our church box, if we don’t allow ourselves to be buried, if we struggle and question together with Millennials, everyone is a winner. And you know Millennials love that. And maybe we’ll find that we have more in common than we thought we did, and that together we really do have the power to change this world.