May 27, 2014

Feeling Lonely in Your Lutheran Church? It Might Be Your Fault

By Hannah Heath

Dwindling congregations and loss of membership have been hot topics in the Lutheran church for ages. Although there are Lutheran communities around the nation where young, Lutheran singles and families thrive, this is certainly not the norm for our synod at this time. Since my husband and I are part of the small group of twenty-somethings still attending a Lutheran church, we often get asked, "How can we attract and retain our youth?" or, "How can we get young families to join?" When faced with people who care and wish to do something, it’s tempting to offer fallback solutions like changing worship structure, offering family-friendly programs, or just trying to soften the Lutheran culture that can seem so cold to people not raised Lutheran. But the reality is that I don't have any reassuring, quick-fix answers, because a large part of the fault lies with my own generation's refusal to have concern for the whole body of Christ. Lame as it sounds not to give more hope for relationships that are on the rocks, I have to tell the church members who are trying to build such relationships that it's not them, it's us.

To give you a better understanding of the culture I am talking about, here is an illustration of how genuine Christian care can be misconstrued by someone from my generation. It has been created from various true stories to represent a whole.


***

Ugh. Mom put you in the prayer list at church and now everyone knows you have a health problem; you haven't even made it facebook official yet. How inconsiderate of her to blab your private life to the whole church— just a bunch of strangers. It never occurs to you that your mom may have been needing prayers and support for herself, as well as for you, while the full impact of this diagnosis settled upon the entire family. Instead you strategically plan to exit right after communion so no one can stop and ask how you are doing.

Oh no! This church does that awkward passing of the peace thing. Before you make it out of the pew, heading for the safety of the bathrooms, a little old lady blocks your way. "Peace be with you" she says as she shakes your hand in what is clearly supposed to be a meaningful way. Quickly you plaster on a smile and reply "And also with you." She doesn't let go of your hand, and your heart sinks. "I'm Edith. I saw that you are listed in the prayers and I wanted you to know I'll be praying for you." "Great," you think, "what a standard, pious thing to say. As if your prayers could actually do anything" (you'd never say that aloud, you would verbally support the whole power of prayer stuff, but in your heart it's just fluff phrases). You try to ease your hand out of her frail gasp and mutter a quick "Thanks." Instead of letting go she pats your hand gently and asks the inevitable, unanswerable question, "So, how are you?" Your body language has gone from cool to iceburg but she is Just. Not. Getting. It. "Fine you know, it's fine," you say through that fake, fading smile, and give a mental sigh of relief as she returns to her pew when the service continues.


After leaving the communion rail, you quickly grab your coat and drive home fuming at that old lady's insensitivity. It's just like old people to use accessible topics to force conversations! She probably doesn't even know your name; you definitely don't remember hers.

When you get home you flop down on your bed, pull out your phone and do the usual texting, youtube, and quick twitter/facebook check. A fellow Christian camp counselor and friend raves in her status about the uplifting service she just attended and quotes Corinthians 12:12, ending with "so grateful to be part of this beautiful body of Christ."

You put down the phone and wonder why you don't feel any connections at church. No one seems very interesting there, everyone is a lot older, and they seem to only ever waste their time with meaningless small talk. It's probably just your congregation that is so boring, so you do a quick Google search for other Lutheran churches in the area. You check out your friend's church website and are surprised that it seems pretty bland; the web design is cumbersome and the quality of the pictures are awful. What makes her church special? What is wrong with your church?

Maybe the problem isn't the church. Maybe the problem is you.

Chances are, if you had read the prayer lists before The Embarrassing Sunday Morning, Edith's name might have rung a bell. Her family has been listed for the past year, requesting prayers for the health of her own adult child. When she saw your name in the prayers she stepped out of her comfort zone to talk to you because she knew you may feel alone, confused, and scared. She knew you could be dealing with all of those emotions because she had struggled emotionally, and spiritually, after life with a chronic illness entered her own family.

Even though you brushed her off and she was painfully aware of your coldness, she kept her word and prayed for you. Yes, she prayed for your health, but she also prayed for your soul. She prayed that you would grow old with grandchildren filling your final days with laughter. She prayed that when your last hour came you would leave this veil of tears in peace. She prayed that God would use this illness to open your eyes to the loving community around you and soften your proud young heart. She prayed with the wisdom of a faithful woman of God.

If you had stayed to listen to her a little longer you may have learned all this. Instead you rolled your eyes, resented her for wasting your time, and never entertained the idea that she may be reaching out to you with genuine Christian love.

***

This scenario of longing for community, but resisting human contact, may sound ugly and extreme, but I know that I am guilty of similar actions; of ducking out a side door when I see that particularly longwinded lady winding her way towards me, or of despising the elderly man who stopped a minute to inform me of the week's forecast when I could be doing something much better with my time, something like Pinterest.

We resent people who appear to waste our time, people who utter lame phrases more than 140 characters long. We are more comfortable presenting an edited and revised media version of ourselves to equally self-aware peers than presenting our fully flawed human selves to a bunch of equally flawed people. Of course it is nice to have fellow peers from your own generation in your congregation, but we as a generation tend to regard our peers as the only people worth our time (if you are a twenty-something reading this and feel that you cannot relate at all, I believe you are an exception to the rule).

It would be well for us to continue on from Corinthians 12:12 to verses 24-28: "But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it." Thank God there are still faithful members who continue to pray, even without our knowledge, that God may continue to build up the church.

When we as a generation seek to protect our autonomy and distain the well-intentioned prayers and support from elders of our own congregations, we are causing the whole body of Christ to suffer from our pride. We expect to be served hand and foot by a congregation that is trying to meet our "needs" without ever stopping to consider that perhaps we are part of that body, that the world does not revolve around us, and that we have God-given gifts meant to be used to serve others. The older men and women in my congregation want an active church as much as I do, yet many of the most dedicated have reached an age where they need the next generation to step up to serve the food, wash the dishes, and mow the lawns. After wishing my own church offered "more," I realized that I could help build the momentum to make this happen. Instead of complaining that I am lonely, I myself could invest the time required to build relationships with fellow members of all ages. Instead of complaining that my church is not serving the community, I myself can volunteer to help organize our food bank. I can be part of my church’s congregation.

The Body of Christ will continue in the world, regardless of my generation's lack of involvement, but there is no promise that it will continue to thrive here in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church or in America at large. As members of the body of Christ, please pray for my generation, pray as Edith prayed, that God would soften our hard hearts and lead us to repentance and humility.


***

Hannah became a member of the LCMS during her junior year of high school while her father was attending Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft Wayne, Indiana.  She graduated from Concordia University Wisconsin with a master’s degree in occupational therapy, and enjoyed helping adults rehabilitate from injuries until this past year when she resigned to fulfill a new vocation as stay-at-home mom.  Her days are now spent supporting her husband in his calling as a pastor, hosting endless tea parties with her daughter, and planning a vegetable garden beyond her wildest dreams.  She sporadically blogs over at Heath and Home

Title Image: "White House at Night" by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

3 comments:

  1. I agree. I struggle with this too. I attend 8 am service where there are only a couple other families with young children. Mine always seem to be the loudest and this has been a big stress for me - even though people always make a special effort to come up and tell me they love hearing the sounds of young children in Church & it is wonderful to see the kids every Sunday. I have to remind myself the expectations I'm imposing are mine and not necessarily the congregation's. And the wisdom from some of the older women who have been in the trenches of motherhood and survived has really helped me - If I just remember to listen :)

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    Replies
    1. Yes, that's a good point that often it's our own insecurity that adds to the barriers between congregational members. I can relate to that!

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    2. I have 3 kids, ages 2, 4, and 6, and in our current congregation, there are lots of other youngsters. I've realized that I really never notice anyone else's kids being loud, just mine. So I'm pretty sure as long as my kids aren't screaming or talking aloud (much), no one else is bothered by the occasional thud of a sippy cup hitting the pew, the scuffle over who gets to sit on Daddy's lap next, or the little voice stage-whispering a question.

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