Hey! I’m a millennial in my mid-thirties and a lifelong Lutheran. In my mid to late twenties, I was often asked in rooms full of older church leaders, both rostered and lay, why I came back to the church. They were looking for the secret sauce, the magical potion, the answers to the test questions on how to attract young adults. My response was always, “Other than a short hiatus my freshman year of college, I never left.”
The reality is this “short hiatus” was really just a pause in finding a new community in college. I was still deeply and regularly connected to my home church, but still hadn’t found my place in college. In lots of humbling and annoying ways, I’m a poster child for all the youth and young adult programs of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I grew up and participated in a vibrant congregational youth ministry and attended the ELCA Youth Gathering. Any other 30 somethings still rocking that Vaya Con Dios bracelet? I am! I worked at a Lutheran outdoor ministry every summer of college, held leadership positions in my campus ministry, and then graduated and served a year through the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) program. Once I returned home, I began to work in a local congregation while attending seminary. Is there anything I missed? I guess I could have attended an ELCA college or university. Regardless, if we were playing Youth and Young Adult ELCA BINGO, I feel like I would definitely be in the running to win.
I don’t share that as a list of accomplishments, but to say I’ve been involved, a bit, my whole life. I love this church. This church raised me. Each of those stages gave me a larger picture of what it means to be part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but can I confess something? I’ve been asking myself a lot recently, I guess really the past few years, “Why the hell am I still here?”
Whew! Feels good to get that off my chest.
Now for starters, I think my roots were planted in some very deep and realistic soil. When I was in middle school, my home congregation went through a change in pastoral leadership. A woman was called as the senior pastor. Scandalous. People were upset and left. I didn’t understand. This was my first memory of witnessing and experiencing church politics or church unrest or church drama, whatever you want to call it. I asked my mom why people were leaving, and I vividly remember her saying to me, “The church is full of people, and we are far from perfect.” That was it. Thanks for the pep talk, mom. But it seemed to work, it helped in that moment. I share that to say, I’ve never had this misconceived notion of the church being filled with perfect people, far from it, BUT how many times can a person take the disappointment and that middle school explanation carry them through?
I am going to pause here and recognize two things: one, I am part of this system too. I am not apart from it, but a member of it, for better or for worse. I am part of the disappointment as well. And two, yes, I am Lutheran and deeply rooted and connected to the ELCA, but this deeper question of still being here and this lament of the church is not unique to this denomination. I have friends who serve in and attend many different denominations and our experiences are similar. Now back to your regularly scheduled ramblings.
In conversations I am a part of about how many of my peers are leaving the church or haven’t come back – even AFTER they had babies – inconceivable. My response is always, “I’m not surprised.”
That sounds dim, I know, but remember, I’m still here, so keep reading.
I may not be surprised they aren’t here or that they haven’t come back, but I’ve been trying to put words to my why. Well, in a conversation with a colleague at Synod Assembly I found a way to articulate how I’ve been feeling, why I’m still here, and it has been so helpful. We were commiserating about another way in which the church was obviously not being the church and we both wondered, why are we still here?
I said, “It’s because I’ve seen the absolute best of what the church can be.”
It’s true. Oftentimes, it feels like the church disappoints me more than fills me with a sense of joy and, dare I say pride, to say “Yup! That is MY church!” But there are these glimmers, that I’ve experienced personally and heard about from others, where it is like this bright light breaks through. It’s not huge, but there’s a crack where these two opposing doors open just the slightest bit. You can see the beauty of God’s Kingdom come here on earth. It’s short. The doors shut pretty quickly, but that beauty, that potential, that lifegiving Gospel of good news and radical love and welcome is enough to hold you tight. I am still here because of those moments. I am here for those moments. And I’m here to share those moments with you. I’m here to help you see and hear about these moments from across our synod.
I’m a millennial. I’m a lifelong Lutheran. I get it, more often than not it seems the church disappoints us, but I want to tell you why I’m still here and maybe it will be a good reminder for you as well.
Deacon Sarah Bowers
*If you have a story from your experience or your congregation where you feel it was one of these light was breaking through moments, let me know! I’d love to be able to share it! Email me at email@example.com.