Labels

What confuses me is how to label
myself. Although I was raised
and confirmed in the Reformed
Church in America, at twenty-two, I’m not
sure the label fits as well as it once did. In
high school, I went to parachurch summer
camps, and my best friends were Baptist
and Catholic. When it came time to choose
a college, I attended an Evangelical Covenant
university in Chicago, where I worshiped
in Ukranian Orthodox and Mennonite
congregations. I studied abroad in
France, and joined a Baptist Bible study
there. The summer after my freshman
year I lived with a missionary family of the
Evangelical Church in Niger, West Africa,
and I am currently a youth ministry intern
for the Lutheran Church in Esslingen, Germany.
Sometimes, people here ask me what
denomination I am. I normally stutter for a
while before spitting out, “I’m a Christian.
Does it matter what else?”

Increasingly, within my generation, I
have the impression that no, it doesn’t so
much. Raised on the border of postmodernism,
we are a generation comfortable with
contradictions and uncomfortable with labels
that sound exclusive to us.
I’d be telling you something you already
knew if I tried to illustrate how few
young people attend church “these days.”
The movement of young people away from
the church in America has been happening
at least since the 1960s, when rebellion
against authority and distaste for conventional
values led young people elsewhere in
the search for meaning and purpose. It’s
been forty years since Woodstock, though,
and there is still a gap in the pews where
young adults should be sitting. But this
isn’t baby boomer rebellion; today our absence
means something else.

Christians in my generation crave community,
but we are faced with the dilemmas
both of defining those communities and of
defining ourselves within them. We want to
partake in inclusive community–we desire
the intense experiences this entails. At the
same time, however, we want to explore the
world, to experience it before settling into a
particular location.

One of the churches I frequent when
I am in Chicago has a weekly attendance
of over 500 (almost exclusively twentysomethings).
Membership, however, stays
around 90, despite a passionate and visionary
pastoral staff, lively worship, vibrant
small groups, wonderful missions programs,
and lots of visitors. The number one
excuse for not joining? “I’m not sure how
long I’ll be in Chicago…I don’t want to
commit to a community I have to leave.” We
are a generation in motion, and we are hesitant
to settle down too quickly. Often this
translates to dropping in and out of church
anonymously, rather than dedicating ourselves
to one place.

Sometimes, what we see in traditional
churches discourages us. We see the impact
of contemporary American society on the
church, a culture that discourages authentic
community in favor of individualization.
The commuter lifestyle, which compartmentalizes
life into boxes of work, home, school,
and church, has made us fragmented, individualized
people who look at church as we look at the rest of life: as anonymous,
individual consumers. Going to church is
like going to Starbucks: I walk in, see a lot
of tall, skinny vanilla lattes like myself, say
something nice to the barista over a blueberry
muffin and walk out, perked up for
the day. Communities in which people are
truly dependent on one another seem to
have been lost in the championing of an exchange-
based society.

Meanwhile, religious surveys repeatedly
announce the decline of mainline Protestant
denominations. Churches with older
populations are dwindling and dying, and
young people are either going elsewhere or
leaving the church entirely.

The answer is clear, right? Young
Christians need to deal with their transient
and consumerist ways, and settle down to
engage in real Christian community where
they are. Agreed! Like many other twentysomething
Christians,
 
We want to partake in inclusive community–we desire the intense experiences this entails.
At the same time, however, we want to explore
the world, to experience it before settling into
a particular location.
 

it hurts me
that our face is so
inconsistent in the
church today. I feel
charged to change
the nature of this
consumer church,
to contribute to a
diverse community,
to save the denomination
from dying out with its founding
immigrants. A few of my good friends
are doing this, and it is both hard and good
work. Truly, ignited by this call and protective
of my home church, part of me is
pulled to join them, to change the status
quo and be present where so many young
people are not.

Enter the dilemma: at the same time
that I am being pulled to stay, I’m being
pushed to leave. As international travel
becomes easier, knowledge of foreign languages
no longer a luxury but a necessity,
and big cities boast job opportunities,
young adults are constantly hearing and
responding to the following call: “You’re
young, you’re unattached–it’s time to see
and serve the world–grab as many experiences
as you can!”

Leaving for Germany after college was
own my attempt to answer both calls: I’d
try to see another corner of the world, but
I’d do it by committing a year of my life to
youth work within a Christian community.
Faced with smaller surroundings, I figured,
I would be able to participate in intense relationships,
to depend on and be depended
upon by others. There was a fatal flaw in my
plan, however: namely, the relationships I
first formed in my German community
were with young people. And this fall, the
five friends I’ve grown closest with will be
leaving to study abroad or work elsewhere.
Ironic, I thought. I came here to be in community
with them, and now they’re leaving
home just as I did.

The fact is that young people are not going
to stay put, and they probably shouldn’t
entirely. It is important, especially in an
increasingly globalized society, for us to
see and experience the world, and to bring
back what we’ve learned in order to help
the church grow. Whether it’s because we’re
“unattached”–a label that can make one
feel as lonely as one does liberated–or for a
host of other reasons, this transition period
seems to be happening more often and lasting
longer in my generation than it did in
my parents’ generation.

In short, a traditional community is not
going to work for those of us in transition,
either because we will not be present long
enough or because the people we connect
with “abroad” will not. The question confronting
our generation, then, is how a person
in transition chooses to define her or
his Christian community: Is my community
the church that I was confirmed in, even
though I haven’t acquired all my spiritual
formation there? Or is it the place where
I happen to be right now? And what am I
to make of my virtual community, those
people I have contact with regularly with
via e-mail, video chat, or social networking
sites? According to Facebook, I am currently
“friends” with 718 people, from the girls
I grew up playing dolls with to my parents peers and co-workers. And though my desire
for real, authentic community makes
me want to shrug off the idea that virtual
connection could have any lasting effect
on one’s life, it is undeniable that sites like
Facebook and Twitter enable globetrotters
like myself to retain lasting relationships
with people we would have otherwise lost
touch with because of distance and time.

This dilemma is vexing not only because
defining community is so difficult with so
many to choose from, but because defining
one’s own community offers the tools that
define one’s self. When I shared this opinion
with a friend of mine, she agreed. “How we
choose to define community, and what our
communities actually look like,” she said,
“matters. It matters because, even as we define
our communities, our communities are
defining us.”

As I work at my own definition of community,
I’ve constructed a piecemeal group
of people all over the world with whom I regularly
maintain contact. These individuals
know where I am and how I am doing. But
because I can’t “go deep” with all of them
all the time, I have to know and accept that
the face of Christ’s body is most strongly
represented by the Christians I live with in
the present.

During my college church search, I remember
asking my parents how they had
found a church when they first lived away
from home. Both of them replied, “Well, I
grew up Presbyterian, so I looked for the
closest thing to a Presbyterian church in
the area.” For my parents, who became West
Michiganders when they were married, that
meant joining the RCA. Compare what my
parents said to the answer a friend gave me
when I posed the same question to him: “I
don’t care if the church has infant baptism
or not. What’s important to me is not the
church’s name, it’s what they do.
 
As young people move and create relationships
with different sorts of people and places, we
naturally find it difficult to identify with one
tradition exclusively. Unlike my parents, it’s not
easy for me to say I’m Reformed.
 

Are they caring for the poor? Are they looking after
the underprivileged, or are they spending
their money on a new gym facility?” Eric
isn’t the first person I’ve heard complain
about churches promoting renovation while
poverty exists in their own back yards. Social
engagement, validation of experience,
and a commitment to diversity are higher
on young peoples’ lists today than doctrine
or denominational tradition. Doctrine and
denomination are usually perceived as old
rules and regulations that can prevent real
ministry and authentic community from
happening. It’s not that we are flippantly
disregarding heritage and theology, or that
we want to rebel against rules. It is that experience
and living out biblical values are of
primary importance to us. We want to see
the fruit of this doctrine before we explore it
more deeply. Labels, and the schisms that
surround them,
are unattractive
to us in their propensity
to divide.
Young Christians
find it difficult
to label ourselves,
much less
our churches. The
wealth of experiences
we have collected
as people in transition add weight to
our cultural feeling: we do not need to be
exclusive in church, nor do we want to be.

Postmodernism has no doubt played
a role in shaping this perspective on faith.
A philosophical phenomenon that is now a
cultural construction, the underlying assumption
of postmodernism is that absolute
truth does not exist. Rather, personal experience
dictates truth for each individual,
and a wealth of exposure to different experiences
is therefore naturally desirable. For
my generation, right and wrong and black
and white have been taught as “that’s his
opinion,” and “it’s not wrong, it’s just different,”
and “that’s a gray area.” In terms of
faith, this philosophy translates to a mainstream
youth culture that is more likely to
voice its desire for each expression of faith
to be equally heard than its desire to prove
one right or wrong.

Though most postmodern Christians
would not go so far as to deny the existence
of absolute truth–indeed, we would stress our experience with the living Christ as the
source of ultimate truth–postmodern culture
as manifested in the church leads many
young adults to shy away from traditional
denominations. Denominational labels, by
virtue of their schismatic history and rootedness
in “black and white” doctrine, are
founded on exclusion and inclusion–what
(or who) is in and what (or who) is out. As
young people move and create relationships
with different sorts of people and places, we
naturally find it difficult to identify with one
tradition exclusively. Unlike my parents, it’s
not easy for me to say I’m Reformed–I’ve
taken part in too many manifestations of
church to honestly say that. And in contrast
to the founding immigrants of American
denominations, our generation doesn’t look
to church as a place that distinguishes us
from other ethnic groups. Because we are
searching for a place where many different
voices are acknowledged, we are hesitant to
decide on or even desire a “set of rules” for
church. We prefer to pull from the multitude
of our experiences in worship–indeed, we
are looking for places that stress welcome
over exclusivity.

My aim here is not to disparage denominational
doctrine or to chastise Christian
congregations as unwelcoming perpetrators
of dogmatic exclusion. If that were true,
I would have turned away from the church
a long time ago, and it would have been impossible
for me to see and taste the many
rich expressions of God’s Kingdom that I
have been a part of in Christian congregations
all over the world. Instead, what I
hope I have offered is an explanation for my
age group’s marked absence from, or only
short-term presence in, the church’s pews.
In a culture that preaches consumerism
and artificiality, I believe that Christ
speaks truth and that the community of
faith is real. Faith is not something I take
lightly; it is my anchor, my stability in the
midst of transition. But I am not looking to
church as a shelter from the cultural storm.
Rather, I’m looking for a place that actively
engages the many voices I am hearing.
We, the ones in transition, do desire to be
in church, not only to consume but also
to participate. The thrilling unknown is
what church will look like once we bring
our experiences to the table and attempt
to find our place.

Amanda Munroe recently
graduated from North Park
University in Chicago, Illinois,
with a degree in French and
Global Studies. She is currently
a youth ministry intern
in Esslingen, Germany, and
plans to pursue graduate
studies next year.