It’s a strange feeling that ten years ago I was an 18 year old about to start university. Student life was great, the safety net of the Christian Union, living in a community of Christian friends, having the time to ‘be’ and enjoy God. Plus the church regularly fed me! After turning 20, things got a bit messy, nicely chaotic at best. Church life got harder, community dispersed, and at times faith felt like it was hanging by a thread. I now know it is not just me finding the twenties hard. In fact, there is a trend of twenty-somethings leaving the church (by this I mean the wider church in general - not Portswood), some walking away from their faith altogether. A quick internet search will tell you about it, the twenty-somethings leaving out of hurt or confusion, we are more secular, struggle to commit, or perhaps we are just lazy!
The nature of the twenties life-stage can be a journey of uncertainty, feeling unsettled and facing big life decisions. Conversations may now be about mortgages, unaffordable houses, relationships, jobs, as well as our faith. These will often gravitate to how difficult it can be to walk through those doors on a Sunday or be part of a church. If this is happening with the twenty-somethings, it may be good to honestly consider why, and how we can learn from it.
We may have grown up with a plan, the milestones on how life was going to turn out. For many in their twenties, it is no longer a linear process and can feel overwhelmingly blank. After final year of university, or whatever it is, there may be a void of unknown up ahead looming like a thick fog. In times of economic uncertainty, the jobs may not be there. It can be the first time we are not led by a pathway; there may not be a next obvious step we should take. When it does not go according to our plans, what then? Maybe we cannot afford to live near friends, or we did not get married straight after university. Life can get quite lonely, and it’s easy to make comparisons with others. Whether it is those who got married, got that amazing job, went travelling, or could have children easily, or care-free singles with no commitments. The realities and challenges of this life-stage impact them too, that might be hard to see if their path is different. Whatever happens in this short space of time, there can be feelings of joy and happiness, but also insecurities, or difficulties in our mental wellbeing such as anxiety or depression. It’s easy to feel doubtful or confused in our faith. When it comes to church attendance, it’s easy to go off the radar.
Loss and Letting Go
In our twenties we may also have to do a lot of letting go of stuff, such as how we imagined things would turn out. We can prayerfully make decisions in uncertain times and sometimes they turn out great, but they can also go badly. We can feel like we got it wrong or we failed. That career move, that internship or gap year, that relationship, may not have turned out as great as we’d hoped. We let go of our control, and there are risks and vulnerabilities that come with that. There may be rejection, from the responses for that job we went for, after countless applications. It is hard not to take this personally. Making decisions becomes more about how we approach it, rather than the outcome. We may be letting go of the guilt, or the feeling we have failed.
Loss or grieving may also be part of this from hurt caused by others. For me, this was the sudden break-up of an engagement, left with the wedding plans to undo, guests to be uninvited, and plans and expectations of a future to let go of. I am not the only one this has happened to. At a time of feeling either emotionally numb or overwhelmingly sad, where is God then?
We may have to let go of things that we cannot explain or have no closure from. Grieving a loved one. Letting go of the idea that we can easily have children. The idea we will have healthy children. That married life will be easy. How do we let go of this stuff and get through a situation we thought we would never have to face, remembering God is sovereign, He is good, He has plans. Where is the church then? What if the pain that has a hold on us was caused by people in the church, as research says this is why young adults have left. How many times, I wonder, have people had to let go of hurt or pain where there is no apology, no acknowledgement, yet desperately need the strength to forgive.
But it’s not all bad. The twenty-somethings are not a sorrowful bunch! Anything can happen in our twenties. Not one life-stage encompasses all of us and that could be why the church finds it hard to reach us. Never are there going to be a group of twenty-somethings going through exactly the same thing at exactly the same time. It’s exciting that anything can happen, we still have energy and time to explore. Some may not have experienced anything bad, life is alright actually. Going to church is still hard though. We may feel like we’re drifting or our faith starts to fizzle. The nature of the twenties lifestyle can make the practicality of church hard.
Life can be fun and flexible. Maybe we got that job, although it is exhausting with the amount of overtime we are expected to do and not be paid for. The friends who lived around the corner and shared community with are now scattered. Maintaining friendships, or family relationships, may mean weekends away that go too quickly. We may need to move to where the jobs are, where the family are, and going to a church consistently is hard when the fluid feeling of being here, there and everywhere, influences our faith too.
Since turning 20 I’ve lived in 4 different counties, 15 ‘temporary’ lodgings, with 38 different housemates, had 12 different jobs (and spells of unemployment), and have tried out at least 12 churches. There are great things about this - I have met some incredible people. On several occasions though, it has been easier not to go to church. Being intentional about it can be difficult, impractical, and take enormous amount of willpower and confidence, and until the friendships form can be quite lonely and daunting. This can also be difficult for new parents, young adults mistaken for students, single people, married people. There may always be reasons that church is difficult and we talk ourselves out of it.
A Little Help from Our Friends
So? Many twenty-somethings may not go to church but they still have a faith. Does church matter? Well, actually, yes. Community can be a real spiritual lifeline for the twenty-somethings. Not the superficial community we turn up to on a Sunday and leave again - but genuine authentic friendships. Friendships that give us space to be honest, walk alongside one another whatever we are going through, openly wrestle with joys and doubts together, remind each other of what we need to hear. It’s having these friendships at Portswood Church that make it difficult for me to walk away - and help me in my scepticism.
In a decade where things are messy around us, we need a hopeful community that helps us to look up. We may doubt or question, our ideas and beliefs are challenged - that’s okay. We live in a rapidly changing culture and are figuring out how we share God’s love in completely new situations. Friendships we make within church community help us do this, and we need to actively build these friendships.
The bible encourages us not to give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25), this implies we need to be intentional about it. If we find church hard, there are other creative ways to approach community and church life, to meet together and engage with God and His word. Book groups, debates, meeting in the week, channelling energy into positive change, writing a blog, reading online, or my favourite - meeting up with someone before a service for coffee and going to church with them. For the twenty-somethings out there silently seeing this to be true, I hope this encourages you. This is not an exhaustive list, and of course these experiences are not just exclusive to those in their twenties, but for them there is rapid change in a short space of time.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, do not depend on your own understanding. Seek His will in all you do, and He will show you which path to take.
And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
Don’t feel like you’ve got life all figured out yet? Who does? Anything can happen. Seek Him. Walking ‘humbly’ does not mean we have it sorted. That job interview, that relationship, that house, that pregnancy, that scary health appointment, His word tells us to walk humbly with Him, acknowledge Him, and trust Him. We follow a God who cares, is personal, and walks with us. God does not call for us to be in our situations alone, we need His community and the blessings that come with that. The outcome may not be plain-sailing and we may never understand it, but He will help us through the fog - even if it is just to put one foot in front of the other one.
I want to end this with something I found helpful. After my engagement broke up I was signed off work for 6 months. For a while, life was dark, but joy came again. I came across this Thomas Merton quote:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”