It’s a myth. Young adults do not come back to church because they have kids. They do not come back just so their children can be taught the same values they received. Oh, that is what they will tell you. Young parents will say it. Experts will swear to it, but don’t believe them. In reality, they don’t have words for the deep longing that draws them back. If they are honest, they return out of a hunger to know and be known. They long for authenticity rather than excuses and compromises. They long for a life where dreams are not forgotten and hope abounds. Some respond to the hunger on their own. Others need to see the way their children play, dream, believe and build relationships to remind them of all that was lost along the way.
In various venues, Mark Yaconelli has shared a definition of “adult” written by youth. “Adults have no friends. Adults have no passions. Adults are stressed out.” This is truer than we want it to be. Somehow on the path to adulthood we make more sacrifices and compromises than we realize. There are compromises in relationships, with God, and even with ourselves that we are not aware of. Over time, we long for what has been lost but we struggle to define what is missing. So, we take our children to church and hope they can find the stale bread-crumbs we left behind. We hope they will lead us back to the faith that once defined us. We hope they will lead us back to a relationship with God that once fulfilled us.
Our polarized culture tries to narrow faith down to a set of beliefs or doctrines that are easy to measure, define, and articulate. Many young adults have taken those very beliefs and doctrines home with them and decided to try “home-churching” for a while. As long as we believe the right things and don’t say the wrong things, what is the point of church? Right?!? Wrong! Soon, a grumbling in the gut starts to echo. It grows till an inward groan swells up inside us.
I’ve spoken with tons of young adults, 20 and 30 some-things, and I regularly get the line about their children and values and blah, blah, blah. As we talk longer, I can hear the groan echoing. I can hear a longing for more. Like dehydrated travelers in the desert, they show up to our church and say, “please, give my children something to drink.” And are too ashamed, too proud or too lost to say, “and some for me too, because my well has run dry!”
Not surprisingly, it is our children who most easily find their place in the church. They sit at the feet of storytellers and wonder at the Gospel message. They see other people for who they really are and develop mutually vulnerable relationships. Meanwhile, mom and dad (too often just mom by herself) are putting their big toe in the water to make sure it won’t cost them too much or challenge too much of the well manicured life they have constructed. Thank God, many young families have children when they come back to church or they would never open up enough to experience the faith they so desperately want.
For those of us who fit into the 20-30 something (yes, I’m still there!) crowd, let’s try being honest, at least with ourselves. Let’s not just drop our kids off for Sunday School. Let’s ask the questions we never finished answering. Let’s explore the mysteries that still enthrall us. Let’s share the feelings that we have buried so deep inside. Let’s quit looking for the dried up bread crumbs of our childhood faith or dusting off the old warm fuzzy stack from camp in hopes that Jesus will pop out of them. Let’s dare to make faith a verb again and trust that whatever it changes in our lives will be worth the risk. Maybe our children will see faith alive in us and not be so quick to pawn their own faith along the way.