Monday, April 16, 2012

Emerging Churches And The Younger Generations

This is a Thomas Kinkade painting entitled "The Mountains Declare His Glory".  I thought I'd post this as memorial.  Thomas Kinkade died April 6th.

Huffington Post has a very well written article by Christian Piatt concerning young adults finding their Christianity outside of denominational churches.  Here are some of the reasons he finds for this trend:

The teachings of the church are seen as devalued. This doesn't have so much to do with the inherent importance or validity of what is being said, but rather it's a reflection of the value of information overall. It's really a matter of supply and demand. Abraham Lincoln probably wouldn't have walked so far to get a book from the only area library, after all, if he had Wikipedia and Google Books at his fingertips. Most anything being said, taught or preached about in a church on Sunday can be found somewhere else, wherever and whenever we want it. Why wait? (This point is one mainstream churches are going to have a hard time fighting.  The Internet site Catholic Answers probably has more interaction with young Catholic youth than any other Catholic endeavor. Why put up with the hassles of going to Church for answers when you can google for it.)

The institutions have outlasted their original purpose. Most of our churches were built when populations were static. People didn't divorce, change jobs and move around like they do now. This mobility, combined with the diversification of networking opportunities, on-line and through other means, puts bricks-and-mortar institutions in an awkward spot of hoping people find them where they are. And much of the outreach efforts of church is still an attempt to get people "in the doors." But the fact is that most young adults don't particularly care. (I also think this plays into the lack of participation of older generations.  Plus the doors are purposely closing on segments of the population.)

Our understanding of community has changed. This builds on the previous point, actually. Community used to imply a specific geographic focus, like a church, country club or lodge. All of these kinds of institutions, incidentally, are not what they used to be. Our understanding of relationship is different, and what we come to expect out of being connected to one another has evolved (or mutated, depending on your point of view) in both size and content. For example, I am still in contact with hundreds of folks from my past who are all around the world. A few years ago, we would never have heard from each other again. But I also don't have many close friends. Everyone's too "busy." People are increasingly wary of investing their limited time and resources into anything new, including other people. (At least in real time and space.)
 The above are basically practical considerations and have nothing to do with theology, dogma, or spirituality.  Mr Piatt ends his piece with a very insightful spiritual observation:

There's a question I ask nearly every congregation I get asked to come speak to. Before we get into any other real substance about congregational transformation, I ask them: "If you could realize your vision for the community today, right now, but it meant closing the doors of your church forever, would you do it?"
If the answer is "no," then the mission has taken a back seat to something more nefarious. If the answer is "yes," and if they are truly committed to doing WHATEVER it takes with their personal and material resources to live out the Gospel, then we have something to work with.

I'm not saying every church has to -- and will -- shut down forever in order to meet their new mission field's needs. But if we're not even willing to consider the possibility, it's we who have a distorted value system; and those young adults wary of our motives are actually right in their skepticism about us.


What Piatt is describing is the attitude of the Emerging Church phenomenon.  It's been happening more and more in Catholicism as parishes are closed and disgruntled Vatican II Catholics feel moved to form their own small communities.  It seems reasonable to predict Catholicism will continue to move in this direction.  One of the benefits of belonging to an emerging church is one doesn't have to sit through sermons demanding pew potatoes march in civil disobedience against the very birth control they have consciously chosen to use.  Emerging churches tend to stay away from politics and concentrate on shared spirituality.

I got to thinking about this morning wandering around the yard.  I think the purist form of this kind of thing I have personally participated in was also highly seductive to young adults of many different Christian persuasions.  That was building and participating in a sweat lodge.  Three years ago I had an Assiniboine medicine man staying with me and he agreed to lead a sweat for a group of interested people.  About half the group were twenty something spiritual seekers.  What made this endeavor so attractive to them was the idea of actually constructing the sweat lodge as part of the ceremony.  It was like building their own church.  It took us about six hours to cut the willow, form the shell, cover the shell, tend the rock fire, and finish the various tasks needed to properly build a sweat lodge.  All the while we were doing this, Harry explained each and every step in great detail, and always stopped construction at the appropriate point for the necessary prayers.  By the time we actually began the sweat everyone was fully engaged.  It was a good experience and powerful ceremony, capped off by the ritually prescribed communal meal.  As an aside, it's amazing to me how communal meals seem to be part of virtually every spiritual system.  The participants returned every month until Harry had to go back to his Rez.  At the final sweat, the lodge was taken apart with the same care it was put up.  The willow, thoroughly dry by then, was burned in the last sweat fire and the area cleaned up so as to look as much like it did before we built the sweat.  As Harry taught, this completed another circle of life.

For the young adults this experience brought home to them the idea that spirituality is not dependent on a particular structure, so much as it is on the people who are part of the community.  What the community builds, the community can unbuild.  They will still stay connected in a different dimensional space---and yes, sometimes that different dimensional space is Facebook.

It's experiences like this that have taught me Catholicism will continue in some form or another because Catholics will eventually understand internalizing their faith is the real issue, not it's external forms of expression. 


  1. Interesting article Coleen. With the expansion of the Web and electronic media I think people are exposed to many differwent ways of life that were inaccessible in previous eras. As a trad blog I used to frequent once wrote, the ironic thing about our time is that we are in a position to choose the spiritual tradition we will belong to. This inverts the relationship from previous eras. One was born into your community for life just 100 years ago. Jump forward to today and not only is Catholicism accessible but so is all of the other world religions and traditions.As a priest once told us at a Christian history seminar, the early Church was mainly debating the mystery of Christ, while later in the High Middle Ages, the Reformation and into the 20th century the Christianity was mainly debating the mystery of the Church. He said that he thought the main debate of the coming era will be the mystery of the Human being in light of the cultural exposure and scientific study of the human psyche. I think that the Emerging Church trend is Christians attempting to find those answers and to live according to them. I agree with you that the deposit of Faith will continue but the institutions will take different forms. While I respect and admire tradition I don't see it as an end in itself. Our age will have unique spiritual potentials that we will grow.

    John fremont

  2. You know John, I think and have experienced the truth of what your professor thought. We are in the age of finding out what the mystery of the human 'being' means. I think Jesus was trying to teach that but the Gospels and their subsequent interpretations lost that perspective.

  3. I think so too. Pope John Paul II and Benedict contemplated these things but too many Catholics seem to recieve their ruminations as conclusions.In the case of JP II and women priests I can see that as he was unequivocal in pronouncements on that subject . (Not that I agree with it mind you.). When it comes to Theology of the Body for instance no , I don't see how it was to be final say on human sexuality. JPII said it was only a working title to some of his exegesis on Genesis. From the Catholic single conferences I've you'd think nothing was left to be debated about human sexuality. I guess that's why I don't find them interesting anymore. Right now I'm finding this blog and websites likeA,TED much more stimulating. Mystics like Dame Julian of Norwich and works like the Philokalia are scratching where I'm itching.

    John Fremont

  4. People who (*gasp*) actually go to Mass, are called "pew potatoes" now?

    Is this really the contempt you hold for people who attend Mass? And you still call this a Catholic blog?

    Seriously, just have a look at yourself here!

    1. Invictus, 'pew potatoes' is old self deprecating slang American laity have used about themselves for quite awhile. I believe you've written you're from across the pond so I can see where you might have taken some offense.

    2. Ah, ok then. It looked like a personal invention and a bitter one. If I've misunderstood, apologies!