Melissa Wiginton: Ministry in a lonely generation

Millennials are less devoted to the institutions of faith. They’re also lonely.

We all know the pattern: kids “graduate from church” after confirmation or when they get to high school. It used to be they’d come back when they had babies, but no more according to Robert Wuthnow in “After the Baby Boomers.” But what happens to the kids who don’t drop out after confirmation, who stick around either because their parents make them or because they really like doing church?

Some become pastors.

I talked to nearly 20 of them -- seminary students and young ministers -- in April. With their voices in my head, I read Will Willimon’s “10 Theses on Ministry.” His second was “The pastoral ministry in mainline Protestantism will need to lead the church in redefining itself in the light of the spiritual needs and aspirations of people under 35 or else will continue to decline because it has limited itself to the spiritual affairs of one generation.”

This struck me as a tad grandiose. We are expecting young people formed by institutions “limited to the spiritual affairs of one generation” (not their own) to lead in light of the spiritual affairs of their generation. Really? Are we preparing them for this? Did you see the USA Today headline: “Young Adults Less Devoted to Faith”? The young adults I talked with couldn’t be more devoted to faith. This looks to me like a major disconnect.

I really pushed the young pastors to tell me what the church has to offer other young adults. What do they need that the church has to offer? Their peers have jobs and good relationships with parents and families, and they give back to their communities through service. The pastors weren’t sure their peers would say they needed anything. As one put it, “I just don’t see a God-shaped vacuum.”

“So,” I asked, “Where do you connect?”

“It’s hard,” one quiet, thoughtful young man who works in a congregation-based campus ministry said. “This generation (his own) think they have no sin. They have been so affirmed and protected by their parents, no matter what, that they really don’t think anything is wrong with them. It makes it really hard.”

Another woman, feistier, said that the church offers an explanation for the injustice her friends get riled up about. “We can give them a frame: structural sin -- evil -- what it is and what it means.”

Finally, one guy (the only one not raised in the church and not seminary educated) said, “The other night I met my friend’s sister. We got to talking, and it dawned on me that she is lonely. She really wants to be part of a community where she is accepted for who she is and she doesn’t believe she’ll find it in the church.

“She wants something like my Milk Truck group at the baseball game. Every game, this one guy parks his old milk truck up the hill and a bunch of people stand around and talk all through the game. Some of them are lawyers from the Capitol. One guy’s a mechanic. When they find out I’m a youth minister, they apologize for cussing. We’re all the same for nine innings around the Milk Truck. That’s the kind of thing she’s looking for.”

Do we teach seminary students that people are lonely? Do the people who stick around after confirmation learn the human heart? Seems like a good place to start with the spiritual affairs and aspirations of every generation.

Melissa Wiginton is Vice President for Ministry Programs and Planning at the Fund for Theological Education.