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April 15, 2011
Bored to Tears: An Act of Contrition for Young Adult Believers
It wasn’t what my student said that so startled me, but rather the tone of his answer to my question about why “church” hadn’t come up in a discussion of where we “feel most spiritual.” As though he were supplying the obvious and uncomplicated result of a simple math equation or the name of an element from the periodic table, Scott, a student in my undergraduate Ignatian Spirituality course, answered matter-of-factly, “Church is boring, but spirituality isn’t.”
Of course, I’d heard versions of this before (indeed, if you Google “church is boring,” some 20+ million results appear, much of it, well, very, very boring…). But this time was different. There was no complaint or impatience in Scott’s response, no teenaged whining. Just a blunt acceptance of what everyone surely knows to be true: Church is boring. Water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Two and two are four. It is what it is, and what it is, is boring. Class dismissed.
“Church is boring, but spirituality isn’t.”
My heart ached at the honesty of the pronouncement and the utter hopelessness it expressed about the spiritual vitality of the institution called across the centuries to gather the followers of Christ into the communities of worship, compassion, witness, and service that embody Christian faith in each new age. It ached, too, because my own experience of church for the past several years rarely contradicts Scott’s unvarnished assessment. Unlike my students, who mostly report feeling something like spiritual connectedness and fulfillment when they are by themselves—walking in the woods, meditating, doing yoga—I am most aware of myself as alive in the Spirit of God when I am with others. In the classroom. With friends and family. In community activities. But, if I’m honest, it’s been a very long time since church has felt particularly spiritual for me, either.
I note the spiritual bareness of my own church experience—me, an academically trained religionist with, arguably, no slight understanding of the historical and theological roots of the traditions practiced in churches today—because of the responses I received when I posted the following lament on my Facebook wall:
Heartbreaking take-away from today’s class: Brainstorming undergrads’ understanding of “spirituality,” as usual, nothing about church or traditional practice comes up. As usual, I note this, asking why “church” is not in the mix. Student: “Because church is boring, but spirituality isn’t” What to do?
Over the next day or two, a dozen or so of my churchy (and spiritual) friends offered comments, the bulk of them highlighting what church should be: More intentionally communitarian, more actively engaged in service, more imbued with mystery, more digitally integrated through the week, more “alive” with the Spirit. Not one of these friends cares any less than I do about the spiritual experience of my students and that of other young people. All of them are engaged in church communities that I like to hope and enrich their own deeply held spiritual convictions. They all, like me, know what church can be and what it should be for those who are coming into it as young adults today—young adults who are, let’s be honest, quite possibly among the last generation or two of denominationally-identified Christians.
In that light, and maybe because I write this now heavy into the Lenten season, I want to suggest that reminding ourselves of what church should be is no longer adequate to the challenge of engaging believers and seekers who are turning away from communities that have failed them spiritually. Congratulating ourselves on the many, but hardly representative, church communities that have managed to practice and invite the spiritually disaffected into a renewed Christian vitality is not sufficient to the task at hand.
Our churches, we all understand, are not mere buildings, mere social institutions, mere gatherings of stalwart believers. They are the center and circumference of God’s kingdom on earth—the local and universal locale of hope and transformation in world of need. This is what gives them their sacramental quality and their prophetic value. And it is because of this that we must recognize as nothing other than sin our failure to preserve our churches from a banal domestication, ethical fractiousness, and ecclesiastical antiquarianism that has rendered them spiritually irrelevant in the lives of most believers today. I suppose some primal recognition of my own participation in what is perhaps a generational sin was at the root of my stunned heartbreak when Scott spoke his particular truth in my class.
Though the church is a historical reality shaped by cultural tradition and theological understanding, as the great Roman Catholic ecclesiological troublemaker Hans Kung has reminded us. “God does not present us with the nature of the Church as an objective fact, nor does [God] overwhelm us with its mystic inevitability, nor work in it by organic development. . . . It is impossible to preserve the Church for all times in the original form it enjoyed as the primitive Church. Changing times demand changing forms.” (1967; repr. 1976, 341)
Certainly, those “changing forms” are coming forth. Just in time for Holy Week, a Lutheran church in Washington opened a pub, Luther's Table, as a center for day-to-day conversational ministry. Dorit Brauer, a spiritual eclecticist with Christian roots, has taken up leading labyrinth walks that gather the religiously disidentified and denominationally committed alike into community. Jon Anderson, an Episcopal priest in New Mexico, has been leading liturgically grounded worship hikes each month for the past two years through a Worship in the Wilderness program that has garnered the attention of the newly installed bishop. There are, that is, many signs of hope.
But, at least for Scott and the rest of my students, I think it’s also important to confess that we have failed. We have clung too hard and too long to practices that have little resonance for those to whom we entrust the future of the faith. We have not listened with our whole hearts to their stifled yawns at our tedious sermons nor attended to their polite fidgeting as the organist thumps out another nineteenth-century arrangement of a soulful ancient hymn till it pulses with the manufactured joy of a traveling carnival. We have given over our ample space to dull book groups and travelogues of the vicar’s latest trip to the Holy Land while those in need hold out their empty hands on the corner. We have honored the lives behind us more than we have celebrated those before us. We have, perhaps worst of all, held in our souls the sure understanding of what church can be and what it should be without inviting young people into that knowledge or encouraging them to challenge it.
Oh, surely, we are Augustine’s and Luther’s church of saints and sinners , but until we stand up as both, until we name both our vices and our virtues, we have little chance of opening our doors to the spiritual vitality the next generations of believers crave, deserve, and will find elsewhere if we don’t fess up and amend our ways.
Elizabeth Drescher, PhD, is a religion writer and scholar of Christian spiritualities who teaches at Santa Clara University. She is a regular contributor to the online magazine Religion Dispatches and the author of Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse, 2011). Her Web site is elizabethdrescher.net.
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