Young adults don’t need the church

Donita Wiebe-Neufeld, Canadian Mennonite correspondent
July 14, 2016
Mennonite Church Canada
Chris Brnjas
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

This seminar title was prompted in response to the young adult “problem.”

“It is not meant to be a defiance statement, but a statement of fact. The church is no longer a central force in the lives of young adults,” presenter, Chris Brnjas said.

Brnjas has the background to know what he is talking about. A co-founder of Pastors in Exile (PiE), he and others seek to be pastors “outside the church walls,” which involves meeting with many young adults. Brnjas also works in student services at Conrad Grebel College, is a member of the Gathering Church, and was a Mennonite Church Canada youth delegate to the 2015 Global Youth Summit of the Mennonite World Conference.

The workshop began with participants sharing reasons for interest in the topic. These included: living among young families who do not attend church, wanting to support the faith life of young adult believers who have chosen not to go to church, being concerned about the drop-off in youth engagement with church, and curiosity regarding alternatives to the way church is done.

Brnjas cautioned against painting all young adults with the same brush. At the same time, he pointed out commonalities shared by people in the same generation. Older generations sometimes characterize millennials as cynical, shallow, narcissistic, and selfish, but they also described them positively as creative, connected, confident, and interested in diversity in thought and practice.

Rapidly changing technologies adds a new twist to generational changes; every five years a unique generation results. A 25-year-old may have grown up very differently than a 20-year-old in the same geographic area. For young adults, awareness of issues such as sexual abuse scandals, exclusion related to race or sexual orientation, and the history of residential schools, tend to prompt negative connotations with the word “church.”

“I think we [the church] should be masters of apology! Yet we often seem more interested in protecting our institutions than to rectify past sins,” Brnjas said.

The highlight of the workshop was cross-generational dialogue. Brnjas paired participants with at least 15-20 years between them. The pairs discussed how they grew up, what was happening in the world when they were young, and what attracts—or doesn’t attract them—to church.

While it seemed clear that the church today is no longer the center of community as it was years ago, there were a remarkable number of similarities despite age differences. Discussion was lively. People claimed community, connection to good people, and social justice as draws to the church. One cross-cultural pair, Canadian and Sudanese, laughed to discover that they had both grown up in quiet, rural areas, following cattle on foot, and connecting with a small faith community. Another pair noted that rebelling and rebuilding was part of both of their stories. A pastor from a young adult-oriented church noted that they were having trouble holding on to their boomer and senior generations, who kept leaving in search of a “peer group.”

In conclusion, Brnjas encouraged participants to think of church as people, not as an institution, and he emphasized the mutual beneficial effects of cross-generational conversation.

To learn more about PiE go to