Many ministers dream about church pews filled with 20-somethings. But why do we want them there: Institutional survival? Support of property, program staff and pension plans? Bigger numbers to influence public policy?
I walked the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, through Portugal and Spain last spring intending to listen to the spiritual conversations of young adults. They were all within spitting distance of 30, some unemployed, some prosperous professionals. Many worked multiple jobs.
My first surprise came from a young American disgusted with the church he knew at home. “It’s not like it used to be a long time ago. I wish there was still a church like that,” he said.
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like it was when there were saints who lived with nothing and didn’t hurt anyone.”
The longing for some mythical age of the saints was a theme I heard repeated, so I asked a leading question of one young Portuguese man denouncing the commercial enterprise at the shrine of Our Lady of Fátima, a centre of Portuguese pride and piety. “What bothers you the most?” I prompted him.
He answered, “Fátima is only for Catholics and for Portuguese, but the Way of St. James is for everyone. James is more ancient.” And then the penny dropped for me. I had stayed overnight in the town of Fátima myself and found a perplexing mixture of Catholicism and Portuguese folk religion. Shops hawked waxen effigies of body parts to burn in a giant grill for prayer.
“Is it like when you copy a key, and make a copy of a copy of a copy until it doesn’t open the door for you anymore?” I asked. “Is your problem with Fátima that it is a copy of a copy of a copy of the faith of Jesus, and it doesn’t open the door to God for you?” He agreed emphatically.
The man began to share a story with another theme that I heard often along the road. He was having spiritual experiences that sounded as if they were lifted from the writings of Christian mystics. He told me a grey mist came over his vision, like a fog, and for a time he lost himself in closeness to God.
I later met a young Dutchman who said he was walking earlier in the day and, filled with such joy, he began to sing for hours in words of a language he did not know. He felt unspeakably close to God — a phenomenon experienced by St. Francis of Assisi and modern Pentecostals.
I also overheard a young Canadian leaving mass at Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, the great Cathedral of Santiago that is the highlight of the pilgrimage route. He remarked, “All I feel is cold and hungry, just like the rest of my trip — and now I remember why I stopped going to church.”
If the United Church is serious about attracting more young people, we will release our controlling grip on the church we love and allow a new generation to rebuild a copy closer to Jesus. We will recognize that the spirit of God is surprising young people on their journeys while the institution of church is distracted by the lesser business of budgets, agendas and our interminable obsession with issues — and that youth who come to church seeking an experience of God sometimes leave deeply disappointed.
In secular Europe, there is a powerful spiritual itch — can Canada be so different? If the United Church is serious about attracting young people, we will recognize that the main attraction is a more ancient way.
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