Currently, my favorite thing about going to church is Reese. Reese is a nine-year-old boy. Like most boys his age, he prefers to run around in the back of the Fellowship Hall with his good friend Fletcher rather than chatting with uninteresting adults like myself. He doesn’t have much awareness of me, but I am very aware of him.
This is because he is a leader in our church.
Reese ushers regularly, making sure the offering plate gets passed from row to row, and helping to organize us as we filter out of our seats to go forward for Communion. More recently, he has begun serving Communion, holding the cup and saying, “This means God loves you” when I dip the bread into it. He has stood up in front of the congregation and read prayers he has written, sometimes joined by his friend Fletcher. And in the children’s moment, he is the first to answer questions our children’s minister asks about the day’s biblical or theological theme.
Although Reese might be a little more interested in liturgy and theology than some of the other children in our church, I don’t believe he is a theological child prodigy. He just happens to know that he is a full member of the Body of Christ, and that our church needs him.
And our church really does need him, and his friends. This year, our congregation, an in-town church whose building was built in the heyday of Christendom and before white flight, and whose membership has been declining ever since, finally closed its doors. Along with another in-town church a mile away—also built during a time in which having multiple churches of the same denomination within a few miles of each other made sense; also declining in membership ever since—we have dissolved our former two churches and are starting a new church together. It’s an exciting time, but we’re anxious. We’re facing exactly what every hand-wringing article about church decline posted in my Facebook newsfeed describes. The church is dying because young people are leaving church and not coming back. The church is dying because young people are growing up as “nones” and would never consider going to church in the first place. The church is dying because young people don’t like that it is filled with judgmental conservatives. The church is dying because young people don’t see the point in going to a separate place to espouse a liberal “niceness” that is indistinguishable from the larger culture.
The problem of church decline is complex, and I do not have the definitive answer. But I do wonder if part of our problem is that we don’t really believe—not deep down—that we need youth and children. Yes, we believe that “children are our future.” But this belies our assumption that they are full members of the Body of Christ only when they become adults. As children they are cute—particularly during children’s sermons when we set them up to say silly things so we can laugh at them—but if they are loud or restless, we prefer they leave for children’s church. As youth they are problems, so we keep them separate in the “youth wing,” except for the occasional “Youth Sunday.” We tolerate them or display them, and even occasionally enjoy them, but we don’t rely on them.
The institutional church is becoming small, and it feels like we’re dying. But what if we’re actually just paring down to the point where we realize we need each other—every single one of us, regardless of age—in order to worship God? What if giving up our separate children and youth services is a good thing, something that pushes us to become a truly intergenerational, interconnected Body of Christ, in which “the eye can’t say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you,’ or in turn, the head can’t say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you.’” (I Cor 12:21)? What if the death we are facing is an invitation to die to our hubris in thinking we can’t grow spiritually by walking alongside—and even following behind—children and youth?
Reese loves to serve Communion, and he loves to talk about God. That might mean he will become a pastor and lead a church in the future. That would be wonderful. What matters more, however, is that he is leading our church now, and that I am becoming more faithful in response.