Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

In a Sea of Gray Hair

These days I am near-obsessed by two constants: (1) in church gatherings, young people make up the tiniest sliver of the whole group.  I get invited a fair amount to preach here and there and the experience is always the same: a bare few young people in an ocean of gray hair and wrinkled faces.  I mean no offense.  I have plenty of gray hair and some sagging flesh myself.   (2)  Young people really do feel judged and rejected by church people.  I’m genuinely puzzled, because I’m around church folk who truly are kind, gentle, friendly people.  And then I hear another mind-boggling, gut-twisting account from a college student who was told not to come back to church until (s)he straightens out a drinking problem.  I don’t know whether to cry or cuss.  Sometimes I do both.  

Did the student misunderstand?  Maybe.  We’d love to think so.  But I’ve heard stories like this one too often to explain it away as youthful misunderstanding.  Maybe it happens because we’re still “reading” young people through the tumults of the’60s.  Many churches who should be joyfully interacting with young people let this memory dictate their vision and their attitude.  

We mistakenly think of college students as 21st century versions of what we (Baby Boomers) were.  We helped to institutionalize the generation gap.  When we were college students, we felt deceived and angry.  We had discovered the deep hypocrises of “the Establishment,” which included churches and denominations.  

Today’s college students feel excluded and hurt, not deceived and angry. Church leaders, pay attention!   Woundedness can certainly manifest in angry words.  The attitudes of today’s college students can remind us of the ’60s, but let’s take care not to miss the critical difference.  

As a number of studies have pointed out, young people today are knee-jerk individualists.  It’s what they know.  It’s the language they use.  But we should not be fooled by the language and we most certainly should not mistake it for some kind of generation gap.  Under the confident exterior (which is sincere), many college students are scared to death to mess up.  They want to know if we’ll still love them if we discover they’re not perfect.    

I’ve said in other posts that I have little interest in rescuing a denomination, although I love The United Methodist Church.  But I have to say, there is something quite bizarre, even grotesque, about large gatherings of Christians that involve so few young people.

How do we take a collective look in the mirror and get concerned enough actually to do something more than talk?


April 6, 2009 - Posted by | Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , ,


  1. About 10 years ago my wife and I spent a year with a young couple trying to draw them into the church. After all that work, we finally got them to come to church one Sunday. That day they received stern looks and a lecture from church members about the way they didn’t sit with their children. They never came back.

    It’s experiences like that lead me to be a big fan of church planting.

    Comment by Richard H | April 8, 2009 | Reply

    • Aargh! Exactly this sort of situation I’ve heard many times. Why? It is staggering that long-time church members have such an attitude. How do we exercise church discipline in such a situation?

      Comment by steverankin | April 8, 2009 | Reply

  2. One of the things I do whenever I go to a new place is learn its history. That particular church had been started in the 1950s. When they applied to the Board of Mission in Nashville for fund to build their first building, they included a plan to build more than they needed at the time so they could have the space to reach their community. I found the letter they received from the Board. It said (paraphrased from old memory), “You’re too small, don’t hope for such a thing. Aim only at what you know you can afford now.” My read on the situation was that that knife to their heart had never been dislodged. Though they bore responsibility for doing church in a way that excluded most young newcomers – and ran off their own children and grandchildren – their attitude was not wholly of their own doing.

    They succeeded in running me off after three years, though. The complaint to the DS was that I was bringing in too many unruly neighborhood kids. They softened the blow by telling me I was made for “greater things” than their little place. I’d have preferred they had a higher view of their potential in God’s hands.

    Comment by Richard H | April 8, 2009 | Reply

    • I’ve been reading quite a bit on the epistemological influence of the emotions, with an interest in Wesley’s view of the religious affections. His view, which I think is incredibly fresh and relevant, points to what seems so lacking in our churches. Rather, we see far too many unholy affections. Whatever happened to concern about the fruit of the Spirit?

      Comment by steverankin | April 8, 2009 | Reply

      • I’ve just finished my first reading of Kevin Lowery’s Salvaging Wesley’s Agenda, a book dealing with that subject. My first thought was, Kant? Why seek to improve on Wesley with Kant? His case for rationalizing Christian affections isn’t as unlikely as I first expected, though I suspect that such rationalizing combined with a more naturalized account of grace will lead directly to Weber and the routinization of charisma. We already have that in our multi-generational commitment to a bureaucratic church and I don’t see it helping us any more.

        I find Billy Abraham’s treatment of the epistemological and affectational changes in conversion in his Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation much more congenial to my approach.

        Comment by Richard H | April 8, 2009

  3. Thank you for sharing, and for caring so deeply. The answer so many congregations seem to believe in is that if they finally have a “young pastor” that pastor will be able to bring the loads of young people they dream of having back in the pews.

    Comment by David | April 8, 2009 | Reply

    • Ah, yes, an excellent point. I used to be “the young pastor.” More than 20 years ago, in one appointment, during the four-year stay we had two babies. Our kids were the first children born to the parsonage family in 30 years. That was 20+years ago.

      Comment by steverankin | April 8, 2009 | Reply

  4. A friend recently shared with me advice she received in counseling. The counselor charged my friend to take every hurtful word her mother said to her and recognize it as her mother’s own hurt, which is regularly projected on her daughter. I propose that if we were to do the same in the church we would find many people who do not fully believe that God genuinely loves them unconditionally, so they respond based on their own understanding of God’s love.

    Comment by Wendy Mohler | April 8, 2009 | Reply

    • That reminds me of John Maxwell’s line, “Hurt people hurt people.” We could probably say, “Hurt churches hurt people” too.

      Comment by Richard H | April 8, 2009 | Reply

    • Yes. I guess I’m still stumped by the disconnect. Even if they don’t know of God’s unconditional love, they still hear a lot about God’s love. Surely there should be some sort of cross-over, but I don’t see much of it. I really wonder if we don’t need more of the accountability to God for our attitudes and behaviors.

      Comment by steverankin | April 8, 2009 | Reply

  5. I work primarily with 20somethings in a large, primarily Baby Boomer, UMC. I’m asked over and over how can we reach more young people? Usually this question is posed to get some sort of fix all- like do x in worship, or have x program. Usually I come back to a simply point: Listen. This is a different culture. We’re not baby boomers. We didn’t live through the 60’s. I graduated high school in 2000 and my world is so different than those who graduated in 1970. How can you come to know me and my needs? Listen.

    Comment by spencerss | April 8, 2009 | Reply

    • I’m curious: when you encourage people to listen, how do they respond back to you? Do they make any adjustment so that they can actually listen?

      Comment by steverankin | April 8, 2009 | Reply

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