Pastors join young people in leaving the church. Are Christians becoming Dusty?

It’s easy to get discouraged in the midst of ecclesiological disarray and discussions. (Ecclesiology is essentially the study of church, or the theology of the structure of the Christian Church) It doesn’t take much digging to find that we are now not only talking about how young people are “leaving” the church, but how pastors are too. It seems as if more and more people find that the “traditional” church setting is not the place where they feel certain that ministry can happen/is happening. It could seem that the church might be collecting dust as a pre pandemic time capsule telling a story of what once was- of the “good ole days”. According to the Springtide Research’s study on The State of Religion and Young People, our teens and young adults do not trust the church to be able to meet their needs for curiosity and connection. If worded incorrectly, this could all seem like bad news for the church. But what if it’s actually all birthing pains indicating that the Holy Spirit might be up to something?

Conversations around church decline are not new, and will continue to be around in the future, but I wonder if we are at a point in time in which the Holy Spirit is desperate to create and is looking for willing partners? I once began listening to the book, Big Magic, but for the place I was in at that time, it seemed a little “woogie” for lack of a better word, and I decided it wasn’t quite my taste. You see, growing up deep East Texas I was always told to pray and then step away from those who had “gone off the deep end.” You know the type - (you might even be the type) the people who ask questions. Who lean more into the spiritual world rather than the concrete. Those who are drawn to the uncertainty rather than “The Good Lord’s” sturdy text. The thing that got me to turn off my audiobook those many years ago was when the author discussed the concept that our ideas have what I’ll call a spirit. That ideas will do whatever they can in order to be created, or to be brought to life. That an idea will choose the person they think will be most likely to help them to go from idea to creation. So if someone has the spark of an idea, and then sits with it for too long… well, the idea will vacate and move on to the next person who they feel will help them to come alive. I can’t help but wonder if this is what the Holy Spirit might be up to with Younger Millennials.

Currently I’m working as an Associate Pastor to Youth Ministry and I have been trying to leave ministry ever since I got into it. It is hard work. It demands your time, creativity, emotional capacity, spiritual well being, and all of your attention. I have heard from many that the past two years have been the most difficult years of ministry for those who are veterans and those who are new… well they’ve decided to try something new that’s a little less demanding. And maybe a little more healthy? Being in ministry and fresh out of Seminary, I am surrounded by new pastors and those who are jumping into ministry during a fresh post 2016 election and pandemic society. From my perspective — I left full time ministry in summer 2016 in order to begin Seminary and began full time ministry post graduation in June 2020, and I’m not positive the world could have changed more in those four years. In reflecting on so much change in so little time, I’ve also been thinking a lot about our need for love and connection in the midst of our pandemic lives. I’ve been thinking about the past, and the mystics, and the revivals. What if the Holy Spirit is stirring up old dust into a new expression? What if we’re missing it because we are also missing love and connection? What if we are so focused into the right now, we miss the trail markers that might have been left before us?

Being United Methodist I’ve grown to love John Wesley, and his life has left prominent trail markers for the journey that I find myself on. I admire his resistance, ministry failures, temper, and honesty. I love that the person who took the steps towards a new denomination didn’t actually want a new thing, but rather just wanted change within the denomination he was a part of. Who can relate? He saw the need for the church to literally go into the field to minister to those who couldn’t find a place/ were not welcome in the pew. Going to where the people were when the church building was not the place. I think about the stories of his questions. Of how when it came to his questions about faith, he leaned into a mentor’s wise words: “preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” I think about how passionate he was about community, and how he felt deeply about the importance of community, and how he took communion every time he gathered with his group of trusted friends. I think about the question, “How is it with your soul,” and how I long to be known and connected to my community at the hinge of this question. I think about my pastor, Rev. Mike Baughman, and how when his talking about remembering communion, he shares that the opposite of remember is not to forget, but to dis-member. How communion is a deep connection with one another, with the saints, and with God. To re-member in God’s love.

So should we expect a revival, an awakening, something different, or something at all? I can’t help but wonder if this is all the same thing we’ve been told our entire lives — the church is dying — or, rather, if the church is changing. When you read about Millennials, you will find that as a group they care about having a purpose, connection, and experiences. They want what they do to matter. Will we be adding “church” to the list of things that Millennials have killed- right next to Department stores, Chain Restaurants, and the top sheet? It seems as if the church continues to spin its wheels around budgets, bills, and attendance rosters, it might make it on the docket.

I don’t think that it is a coincidence that in the midst of ecclessial despair we are surrounded by an opioid epidemic and skyrocketing numbers of people with depleted mental health. We have become disconnected. We are disconnected in a time in which our virtual ties have never been stronger. We want to be seen when while we look at screen for 10+ hours a day, scrolling through photos and watching videos of strangers. And yet, do we see? We hear, but do we listen? We are there, but are we present? What if the church isn’t dying, but rather decaying in compost, ready to become a rich soil for something new?

I wish I had all the answers (and so do my student loans) but I wonder if we might be overthinking it. I wonder if we’re desperate for grace and love. I wonder how far a Wesleyan understanding of grace could lead us into a more holy ground. When I think about my own struggles with anxiety and feeling unworthy, I can’t help but wonder how to cloak myself in the reminders of prevenient grace. In the Methodist tradition, a few of my trail markers would be that of grace. Prevenient grace is how Wesley understood God’s love as a way that it goes before us. That the Spirit’s love for us is so mighty and nurturing, that it couldn’t help but overflow into the past, and that goes for all of God’s creation. I find that this understanding of grace and love is so incredibly weighty and relevant. In a society where we are told we have to earn everything — the metals, the rest, the friendships, and the likes, it is so important to be reminded that God just loves us. That we are worth something to the Creator, and not only are we worthy, but we are priceless in God’s unconditional love.

Justifying Grace is another facet of Wesley’s understanding towards God’s love for creation. Within justifying grace, we are reminded that God’s love not only just exists, but has action. Due to God’s love for creation, God became human and co-existed in a tangible way. Though I have complicated feelings around the language of the crucifixion, I do believe that Good Friday mattered. Christ’s death mattered. It changed the world, and the weight of the pain of the world was left on the cross. And yet, we can’t seem to let our pains go. If we can’t seem to let our own pains go, how can we possibly help others with theirs? (Also, please go to counseling. God gave us counselors as a way to unburden our traumas while earthside.)

The next realm of grace is one that gives most people pause when they hear about it. Sanctifying grace is God’s perfecting grace. Wesley believed that it is possible to become perfect in this lifetime. “Perfection” is not without flaw, but rather, to become complete within the love of the creator. Sanctification is like the line in the Lord’s prayer that calls for Earth to be like it is in Heaven. This love is one that moves us towards co-creating alongside the creator in order to make the world a more holy place for all of its inhabitants. That all who exists know they are loved, not due to anything rather, just because they are here.

How might the world change if we tried to implement these graces within our days? What if we treated our physical bodies as if God has blessed it simply for being? What might the church look like if we focused less on getting people in the doors, and rather left our pains in the pews and left to alleviate the burdens of our neighbors? What if we were honest about life, about struggles, and maybe even made space for celebration? What if the dust is a marker of construction and not that of absence? What if. Christians are the ones absent? God is already active in the world, and it’s up to us to put on the hardhat and grab a hammer.

Photo of Nassau Christian Center with the Holder Hall tower reflected in the stained glass in Princeton, New Jersey

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AshleyBrooke

Princeton Theological Seminary, MDiv/MACEF 2020 Aspiring advocate, learner, and United Methodist. she/her/hers