When I was starting out as a twenty-seven-year-old pastor, all I could think of was how much our congregation needed to grow, change, revitalize, and transform. Then I attended a small-church seminar, thinking that this would teach me how to do all of those things. It gave me a much greater gift.
The facilitator began with the words: “You are enough.” Then she repeated them, “You are enough.” She spoke to my church, that handful of elderly people who were so afraid of death. She spoke to me, a young, short pastor who looked like she had barely graduated from high school. She spoke to my perfectionism and my drive to succeed, and she spoke to my deep longing and desire to reach out to young adults. And she was right. The mainline denominational church has everything that it needs to minister to younger generations.
At this time, young adults are at a crucial point. Their life paths have crossed with increasing hardship. It’s as if younger generations were born on a relational fault line that started shifting slightly before they came into the world, and continued to rumble under their feet, making everything quiver and roll.
In the United States, women began working more and became less economically dependent on their spouses. Without that dependence, couples began to renegotiate the basis of marriage and relationships. Making those initial modifications was not easy. As a result, when the personalities and characters of young adults were forming, the term “dysfunctional family” became a popular and an apt description for most families. Divorce rates soared in the seventies, to the highest they have ever been in modern times. As these marriages sadly fell apart, the children in the houses were left broken as well. In the years that they were nurtured and formed, they were also going through custody and property battles. As one woman described it, some became, to a greater or lesser extent, victims of “marital carnage.”
Now, in our homes, educational institutions, corporations, economy, environment, churches, and government, we have cut costs to the detriment of younger generations. We have not maintained the foresight to adequately invest in their lives. As a result, many people in their twenties and thirties do not trust religious, civic, or political institutions. They are alienated and broken. Instead of putting hope into communities, younger generations (by necessity) spend more of their time looking for signs that they will be fired. They watch for their next job opportunity and scroll the realtor pages on the Internet so that they can be prepared for their upcoming move. They expend incredible energy packing and unpacking boxes, and putting together furniture from Ikea.
Their general context of unrest, resulting from terrorist attacks, war, instability, and environmental destruction, produces grave personal consequences: a feeling of alienation, a fear of failure, and the incapacity to form loving relationships.
In this space, a profound thirst grows, as the seed of something significant searches for the nourishment it needs. There is an increasing feeling of absolute dependence that makes many young adults long to live with intention and meaning. Meanwhile, they long for caring bonds in a place in which they can share their loss and abundance, where their whole selves can be nourished. They yearn for a grounding environment in which they can rest by still waters, where they can attend to their bodies, souls, and spirits. They long for spiritual communities, where they are formed through preaching, testimony, and prayer, and where they are fed.
In the midst of their financial frustrations, unstable employment, and confusing love lives, they want to know that their existence has a deeper purpose. Many people in their twenties and thirties are not only concerned with discerning God’s purpose in large decisions, but they become mindful of every step and have a desire to be drawn ever closer to God.
As I think about the urban tribes that surround me in Washington, D.C., I’m reminded of the spiritual practice of a Native American tribe that gives great hope. Its image can become our challenge as we create community in our churches.
The Sioux nation of Nebraska uses a circle in their walking meditation. It’s big, a bit like a labyrinth, but this one has only two simple paths intersecting in the middle of it. One runs from west to east, symbolizing our lives, the other from south to north, representing our hardships. And in the center, where the path of being and adversity meet, a tree of life grows up, strong and beautiful.
It often happens that our spiritual lives can deepen with tragedy. A divorce, a miscarriage, a death, infertility, the loss of a job—these things can shatter us. Living with the pain of abuse, remembering something tightly packed down, or finding out some horrible secret—everyone has walked through suffering. When we don’t feel like ourselves and we begin to cry into an exhausted sleep each night, a seed forms within our gut and we are often drawn to the church and to prayer.
In times of misfortune, our wounded self cries out for the presence of God. We begin to ask larger questions and we can almost feel our roots growing deeper as we reach up higher and higher. Our commonplace earth overturns, as we suddenly notice that we need more and a dry thirst begins to evolve. And as we stand in that important place, something swells within us, and like the psalmist proclaims, we become as “trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither” (Psalm 1).
As worshiping communities identify that sacred ground where our lives intersect with adversity, we are called to form nurturing bonds with God, each other, and the world. As we cultivate deeper and richer spiritual lives, we can seek guidance through preaching and prayer. We are well placed to form supportive, tribal communities through listening, talking, and caring, through baptism and communion.
I imagine a wonderful and rich time of growth in the years to come as denominational churches increase in generational understanding. As our congregations begin to share in the right practice of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, we will grow in tolerance and hospitality. As we develop bonds with God, each other and the world, we will begin to observe the vital traditions that ground us. As we trust and nurture the strengths of our young leaders, our bodies will begin to reflect the rich diversity of young adults. And as we cultivate that ground where our lives intersect with hardship, something miraculous will occur. God will allow that seed to grow up into a rich, nourishing tree. Our congregations stand at that intersection; we are well placed to provide justice, hope, and community.
1 Ethan Watters, Urban Tribes: Are Friends the New Family? (New York: Bloomsbury, 2003).
Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation, copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute. Read Carol Howard Merritt's blog at
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Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation by Carol Howard Merritt
Outlining the financial, social, and familial situations that affect many young adults today, Carol Howard Merritt describes how churches can provide a safe, supportive place for young adults that both nurtures relationships and fosters spiritual growth. There are few places left in society that allow for real intergenerational connections to be made, yet these connections are vital for any church that seeks to reflect the fullness of the body of Christ.
Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose, Presence, and Power by N. Graham Standish
Standish shares the story of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, and its journey to become a spiritually deep congregation. Becoming a Blessed Church will help you discern God's purpose and the path God is calling your congregation to walk as you find Christ in your midst and become aware of the many ways the blessings of God's Spirit flow through your congregation.