Why? Why go through all the effort of writing a book?
When I started as the pastor of Faith Lutheran in Ronan, many people asked me about why people my age are not going to church anymore. These concerns are not surprising. It has become more and more common that people my age are generally absent from the pews of churches around the country, and this was especially true at Faith Lutheran around the time that I started. While we have drawn some new families into the worship and service life of our congregation since that time, there are still many people my age around the Mission Valley and around the country who do not darken the church door on Sundays. All things considered, it was not much of a surprise that people had questions about my generation’s absence from the church at the moment.
What was surprising to me when I was asked these questions is that I really did not have a good answer. For the life of me, I could not say why I have been drawn deeper into the life of the church and others have drifted away. I just had not thought about it that much. I could not explain why my peers who went to all the same Sunday School classes, attended confirmation, were in the same Christmas programs as me, went to Vacation Bible School, and went with me to Bible camp, have fallen away from the church while I have committed my life and career to serving it. The fact that I, as a Millennial, did not really understand what has been going on showed me that there was need to think through the subject more.
On top of that, when it came to thinking about the subject of different generational perspectives of the world and of the church, I feel that much has been written about my generation, but not enough has been said from my generation. That is, other generations love to rip on Millennials for all of our failings, without really taking the time to understand where we are coming from. Some of these concerns are warranted, but often not all that helpful for intergenerational understanding. As a Millennial Christian, I find the treatment (or mistreatment) of Millennials by other generations especially toxic for Christianity which is facing a bleak future at the moment. Instead of just complaining about the lack of voices from my generation, I thought I would buck up and throw mine into the mix.
What do I want readers to take away from The Church Unknown?
I hope that readers of The Church Unknown will be able to look at the struggles that the church is facing today and see something different than its impending death. After reading the book, I hope that people can see a brighter future for the church in the years to come. I do my best to lead readers to understand what people my age see when they view the church and then attempt to move the reader to think about how young adults might be granted a place in the church’s future. All too often, when discussing the state of the church, I hear people say things like, “The church is not like it used to be”, or “Back when I was growing up, everybody went to church. But now!” All of these statements are true and supported by the history of the church.
However, the same history tells the story that now is not the only time when church attendance numbers have been low. In the years before World War II, the years before members of older generations of church goers were growing up, there were similar numbers of Americans going to church as there are now. What seems like decline in church attendance today may actually be a re-settling to normal levels after a church bubble in the '50's and '60's. Judging young adults today by these standards is not really helpful as it usually leaves everybody feeling bad about the present and even worse about the future.
But, there is reason to hope and believe that the challenges we are facing in the present may mean that brighter days are around the corner. Where there is struggle there is also opportunity. Just as challenges in the history of the church have often made us stronger and more viable in days gone by, I believe that the challenges the church is facing in our present day and age will make it stronger and more viable in the days to come. I hope that readers will be able to share in this vision.
Who is my intended audience?
I hope that this book will appeal to Christians (and non-Christians, too!) in their twenties on up to those in retirement. I have not found a single church in the U.S. that is immune to generational shifts among Christians in the world these days. Many churches, especially established churches, are left scratching their heads about where all the young people and families have gone. Even worse, many of these same congregations are left pointing their fingers. Other churches, especially church plants and new ministry ventures, have benefited from generational shifts in the church by drawing crowds of younger Christians away from older congregations to join their burgeoning, hip ministry starts. Yet, in their process of forming age segregated communities, I believe that we all lose. The church can and should be a place where the people of God of all ages come together before the cross in worship, engage the world through service inspired by Christ’s love, and come to find meaning and purpose through our faith, believing that our lives have significance through the God who made us and works to save us.
For that reason, I believe that adults of any age will find my book helpful for discussing the future of the church. It is not up to just the young or the old to find a way to do things differently. The world of the church has changed and we are called to change with one another.
What do I think is important for older generations of Christians to hear?
The future of the church depends on all of us. I frequently hear people say that churches (in general) need to attract more young people because they are the future and a church without young people will not last. There is some truth to this, if for no other reason than younger generations will live for more years than older generations (at least probably). Yet, there are many churches filled with young adults that do well for a couple of years but are like a flash in the pan which burns out quickly. Though these churches have youth, they end up without having much of a future. Other congregations have many older members - and seemingly only older members - but are able to grow in their membership and their faith anyway. All this is to say that there may be more ways forward than might initially seem obvious.
Recognizing that the future of the church does not depend on one age group or another, I hope that we all can recognize that the strongest and healthiest congregations are ones in which Christians of all ages are able to come together and share in the Gospel of Christ. The church needs members of all ages not to be stronger for some distant tomorrow down the road, but to be healthier in the present.
In order to help welcome younger people into our churches, I would say to older members that you must listen to younger adults and give them a place in the church. I have spoken with many groups of older church goers who complain that young adults are not coming to church like they used to, don’t help teach Sunday school, don’t join the women’s group, etc. Yet, when I ask about what these long-time church goers have heard young people say they are looking for in their church experience, the answer has always been that they have never asked. They have not taken the time to listen to the reasons why young people in their communities are staying away from church. This should change. If you want younger generations in your church, you must be willing to listen and hear what their cares and concerns are. We all need to be heard and we all need to listen.
What do I think is important for younger Christians to hear?
Go to church and don’t give up on it. The church will never be perfect, the most exciting place, or give us everything we want, but the church will always be good in surprising ways, and supportive when we least expect it. The church is far deeper and more profound than we can see from the outside, so to really understand what the church has to offer one must attend and stick around for a while. I have to echo the advice that Eugene Peterson gave to parishioners when they would leave his congregation to move to a new place. When they asked him what they should look for in a new church he would tell them, “Go to the nearest, smallest church, and stay there for six months.” I think my generation of Christians would do well to heed this advice, at least as a starting place for thinking about how to live faithfully into the future.
To younger generations of Christians, I say that we must commit to churches and be patient and persistent when we do. Whether we want to admit it or not, the church is a very valuable, spiritual center where we can live beyond ourselves. The church is the place where we encounter God and God encounters us – there is no way around it. Sure, we do find God on the mountain, or can be moved by a great sermon podcast, but there is something priceless to the Christian life that only happens in church and we cannot give up on it. Many of us have concerns that the church is not all that it can and should be, and understand how congregations which are overly-focused on “the way things used to be” keeps the church from being what it should. I get that, and, at least to some extent, I agree. The church is not all that it can and should be. But, if we want the church to be more than it is all ready, we need to step up and let God use us as instruments of change. God does not sit idly by, and we shouldn’t either. We are called to be part of the fold, allowing the flock of God to reflect who we are and the Shepherd respond to what we need.
I hope that you enjoy the book and share it with friends and family. It is meant to be a conversation starter and draw us all into deeper connection over challenges that have divided some communities.
I would love to hear what you think about it! you can email your thoughts and questions about The Church Unknown to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org . I also encourage you review my book on Amazon to let other readers know what you think. God bless!
Rev. Seth Nelson