I recently read a Washington Post article by Rachel Held Evans called, “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’” I think Evans successfully captures what a lot of young people who grew up in Protestant churches are feeling. She writes, “what finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments…they don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.” I also thoroughly believe that the beauty of the church lies in the liturgy. I reclaimed my love of Christianity through reading medieval theology as a Medieval Studies major. But after reading this article and beginning to think about this summer, I have questions about how we should keep young people engaged and interested if it isn’t cool bands and free iPads. I’m thinking the answer is in summer camps, which can be a powerful way to create the loving, authentic, and inclusive relationships needed to form strong communities.
The creativity, independence, and playfulness encouraged in summer camps fosters unique, but strong, communities. I think it is incredibly important to show children that there are multiple ways to access the divine outside of reading the bible. Using scripture as a form of meditation is a concrete way of engaging with the liturgy of the church and the divine. But, I also believe that daily rituals, like reading, playing, and engaging in conversation, can all be spiritual outlets. Camp is an exciting place to begin one’s own unique spiritual journey. I think that encouraging youth to engage with these many forms of spiritual practice is valuable. To let children know that there are many ways to access God is incredibly important.
I find myself inspired by the progressive nature of the Episcopal Church in terms of working for social justice and in carrying out the gospel message. This core radical goal is what will keep people coming back to the greater church community. I believe that it is important to build a church that calls on its members to think critically about the institution of the church, and all institutional structures, which should begin as young as possible. I don’t think that always reducing the Christian message to concrete statements and certainties is something that will attract most members of my generation. It is in the mystery of the church and the divine, of not always knowing the answers, or being able to reduce complicated issues to yes or no stances that will attract my generation. More and more young people are leaving the church because of their doubt and disillusionment. We must respond to this phenomenon and engage with youth in ways that encourage this doubt. We need to let them know this doubt is healthy.
Encouraging critical thinking at a young age in the church will foster stronger relationships with Christianity in the future. This encouragement of critical thinking is good both for the children and those leading them. Children have a remarkable way of viewing religion without the jaded complexity of some adults. We must encourage this playfulness in studying religion, while also seriously responding to, the often complicated, questions these children ask. Christianity can be complicated. But, the complication of theology is fun. Theologians have been grappling with some of the same questions children ask for 2,000 years, while still coming up short. What do we actually mean when we talk about the trinity? What do we actually mean when we throw around words like “incarnation,” “grace,” “soul,” and “free will”? The beauty is in the mystery of the faith. We must enjoy the process of tackling these complicated questions of Christianity together, while stressing the very simple, but very important, core value that God is love.