Summer is for visiting relatives. So this summer my family and I spent two months visiting different churches. After all, Scripture says that it is the community of believers together who make up the body of Christ – not just those who worship under the same roof or denominational title.
“All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it,” the Apostle Paul wrote in I Corinthians 12:27 (NLT). When those words were written, denominations didn’t even exist. Basically, if you are a follower of Christ you are related to every other follower of Christ. While we may have different strengths and weaknesses, we all have a place and a purpose in the family.
It was a truly eye-opening experience. One reason for our little adventure was that – after four decades of regular church participation – I wanted to remember what it is like to be the stranger. In some churches, we couldn’t figure out what time the service was held as information was hard to come by. In others, we couldn’t figure out which door to go in, what to do with our children or where to find the bathrooms. All important details.
But one of the most surprising discoveries was how many young people are missing from our rural Maine pews. Millennials – people currently between the ages of 22 to 37 – were nearly nonexistent in many churches we visited, which explains the near absence of children (as they are typically the generation having them). According to the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life, 56% of Millennials identify as Christian, yet only 28% say that they regularly attend church.
The non-denominational churches we visited had the greatest share of Millennials and children, but when it came to the six churches in our town, I counted an average of four people who looked 20 or younger, with one surprising exception: the Russian Orthodox Church, which had ten times that many. Having never visited an Orthodox church, I expected to find a handful of elders and a dark-robed priest. Instead what we discovered, was a vibrant, beautiful pageant of worship that included so many young people, they could hardly fit inside. The candles, incense, costumes, liturgy and music were unlike anything I’d ever experienced and left me with a profound sense of reverence.
After, our family enjoyed lunch on the lawn of the nearby parish hall, where we were warmly welcomed while our children played on the swings. And this is what else I discovered, that as awkward as it may feel to walk through the doors of a church where the people and program are unfamiliar – even if you show up three minutes before the end of the service, as we once accidentally did – most of the people inside will be delighted to meet you.
So this year, as summer winds to a close, and families consider which activities to embrace for the coming year, consider your local church. And if you are a church wondering where all the young people have gone, make it easier for them to come inside and give them a reason to stay.
Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the award-winning memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of midcoast Maine. Her Lantern Hill Farm picture-book series releases this fall with The Christmas Cradle.