Photo courtesy of Dan R. Dick
I sat with a table of clergy and laity leaders talking about reaching "young people." In frustration, I asked them to define for me who these "young people" are and what they are like. It became apparent that the "young people" we want to reach are a generic, bland hash of upper-middle-class, calm, well-behaved "newer" versions of ourselves.
The expectation is that “young people” will either share, or quickly adopt, our values, that they will enjoy what we enjoy, think what we think, and not question or challenge the way things are. Oh, and they will all nicely and cleanly fit simple categories — easy to label and control. This conversation is a glimpse into a huge problem we face — trying to reach and relate to people we don’t know or understand at all.
A recent experience illustrates my point. I stop most mornings at a local coffee shop — a gathering place for locals of every stripe and form. Each day a core group of town regulars collect and others stop by to visit and chat for a few minutes, then move on. One morning, a cute, perky, deeply dimpled blond woman — maybe 21 or 22 — dressed in shorts, a tank top, and carrying a pink Hello Kitty backpack bounced in and joined the group. See chatted for a while and departed, and awhile later the whole group broke up and left. When I prepared to leave, I noticed that the young woman had left her backpack. I took it to the cashier and asked if he knew the woman, he said he did not, so I looked in the backpack for identification so we could contact her. Here is a list of the contents of the backpack:
- an iPhone
- a wallet, with an “Icthus” fish emblem
- a set of headphones
- two tampons
- a strip of seven condoms (five opened and empty, two fully intact)
- a well-used Bible — heavily annotated and underlined, with about two dozen bookmarks with yarn tassels marking favorite places. The Bible was held in a protective cover, and the cover had the following four stickers on it: “Abortion is murder” “We stand with Scott Walker” “All means all — Support Lesbian and Gay Rights” “Capital Punishment is a Hate Crime”
- a pint of Raspberry vodka, two-thirds empty
- a .22 caliber handgun
Okay, quick now — liberal or conservative? Republican or Democrat? Would this young woman be comfortable in your church? Would she be welcome? Does she “fit”? Is she the kind of young adult we have in mind when we say we want more young people? Is she “normal” in today’s world? Trying to categorize or label this young woman is a fool’s errand — a total waste of time. And if we think she is someone who needs fixing or we want to judge her based on one or two items from her backpack, we just need to understand we will never see her in any of our churches. One woman responded to this story by saying, “Just what we need in the church, drunken sluts with guns!” Jesus wept.