In my bedroom, I have a Gabbeh rug, woven in deep browns and greens. Not the typical elegant Persian rug, this one has thick choppy wool, rough edges, and crooked lines. Made with vegetable dyes, each row changes colors, leaving a wonderful earthy richness. In a region known for its fine and intricate carpets, these rugs are bottom of the line because they are constructed and carried by nomadic tribes who pack them on animals until they set down a temporary home, then unfold them onto the ground, where their family can gather on that four by six-foot area.
While preparing to put our house on the market before our move from Rhode Island to Washington, D.C., I realized I needed a carpet to cover the shiny wood flooring my husband and I had recently installed. I also imagined it would be comforting to have a bit of familiar space to unpack upon reaching a strange land. So as I got ready to move for the seventh time in sixteen years, I bought the carpet and packed it into the trunk of my car. I needed a familiar space that I could take with me, something that was sturdy, warm, and not likely to wear out anytime soon.
I don’t travel with a caravan of extended family and friends, but like many in my generation of thirty-somethings, I move often with my spouse and daughter, increasingly away from my family of origin. When I unpacked my boxes in Arlington, Virginia, I rolled out the rug in my bedroom. My daughter and I sat down on the thick pile as we listened to books on tape and admired the brown and green diamond shapes. The soft itchiness tickled my hands, connecting me to my history in Rhode Island, as well as its own years of tradition tightly wound up into its threads.
The carpet reminds me that each place I find myself, I try to quickly set up a little area where I can meet friends and gather a makeshift family. Evidently, even though I feel dreadfully alone sometimes, I’m not alone. Ethan Watters wrote an article about meeting his young unmarried friends every Tuesday night at a particular restaurant and labeled them an “urban tribe.” From the outpouring of mail the little piece received, he realized that the sociological trend was widespread, so he wrote a book on this development.
The term “urban tribe” strikes a chord with me too, although I’m married and have a child. Away from my family of origin, I long for community. As a pastor, I see that the best work of our church springs up when these groups begin to form: small, cohesive parties who can depend on each other for interesting friendships, pet sitting, and meaningful holidays.
Forming Tribal Churches
When I began as a twenty-seven-year-old pastor of a small rural church, ministering to young adults seemed like an impossible task, especially when I looked at newspapers, philosophy, and church growth trends. Newspapers and magazines often dressed young adults up as greedy slackers, ever-sponging off our parents and never assuming responsible roles in society.
I often did not recognize the people our popular culture described. No matter what cause united moms, how much volunteering dads engaged in, or what trends twenty-year-olds began, they were inevitably compared disparagingly to Baby Boomers, the civil rights movements of the sixties, and were eternally dwarfed in that Boomer-looming shadow. How could the church understand young adults if it continually looked at them through the tinted spectacles of older adults?
Then I read church growth material, which thoughtfully categorized younger generations. I loved studying books like Soul Tsunami, but when I tried to put some ideas into practice in my elderly congregation (like the instructions to “get glocal”), I realized the great gulf between where we were as a church and where we needed to be to implement the suggested ideas. I began swimming and swirling, feeling hopeless, like I had to reinvent two thousand years of solid traditions and practice to reach out to my generation.
Visiting contemporary worship services particularly designed for young adults made me feel irritated and empty. I was a part of a large, growing segment of spiritual young adults who wanted nothing to do with contemporary worship. As soon as I saw that white screen slither down from the ceiling, I knew that I was going to have a difficult time stomaching the next twenty-five minutes. Someone was trying too hard to be hip. Like my high school English teacher’s attempts to be fashionable and cool, it just seemed wrong.
I was being unfair. Actually I think that I was just jealous. Obviously, there was a place in our society for slick worship, but I was like most pastors. I could never be hip, even when I tried really, really hard. I could buy a pair of designer jeans to wear on a Sunday morning and use the word “awesome” a lot, but I was still perfectly square.
My rural church was far from cool too. It was small, ancient, and full of people over sixty—and the perfect place to effectively care for young adults. Like those nomadic tribes, our church needed a rug—a comforting space for young adults, a place where years of tradition formed something beautiful. And they came, and they began to join. Over time, we began to weave a rich tapestry of diverse, intergenerational people. We did not discover the formula for a booming Gen X megachurch in just three years; instead, we reversed the trend of lost membership, kept the original members, and had a consistent ten percent growth made up of individuals of various ages. Our congregation became an intergenerational meeting ground, a place for supportive tribes to form, and I began to realize that our mainline denominational church has great assets for reaching out to young adults. When I moved to Rhode Island, I noticed the same thing happened in that bayside New England town of Barrington. Then I joined the staff of Western Presbyterian Church, an urban church in Washington, D.C., where the flow of young members seemed to rise every week.
Though young adults came, we realized how easy it was for them not to. It’s no longer important for someone in their twenties or thirties to go to church. Denominational affiliation has very little power in our politics or workplaces. The societal expectation to attend worship is gone, the blue laws faded a long time ago, and now children have plenty of sporting and scouting opportunities during those once-sacred hours.
When a young person walks into a church, it’s a significant moment, because no one expects her to go and nothing pressures her to attend; instead, she enters the church looking for something. She searches for connection in her displacement: connection with God through spiritual practices, connection with her neighbors through an intergenerational community, and connection with the world through social justice outreach.
The church has been making these vital connections for thousands of years, and we can easily respond to the young, weary travelers in our midst, letting them know that they can find a spiritual home within our worshiping communities and that we will provide a supportive space for them so that they can form their tribe.
Our churches can weave a source of connection. I have seen tribes gather in a variety of settings: in a college town, the rural countryside, a New England community, and an urban setting. Watching relations and groups develop in a church, creating and maintaining space for them, is a vital part of what I do as a pastor.
Envisioning what the church will look like in the next twenty years, I imagine a body that gathers together to worship God, strives for social justice, and cultivates tribes. Even the smallest churches—especially the smallest churches—have the resources to respond to young adults in meaningful ways when they understand their contexts and make a place for them.
These relationships take shape when our intergenerational groups of displaced families and single people begin to weave a rich tapestry of familiar space.
Carol Howard Merritt is a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. You can read her blog at www.tribalchurch.org. This article was adapted from her new book, Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation, copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation by Carol Howard Merritt
Carol Howard Merritt, a pastor in her mid-thirties, suggests a different way for churches to approach young adults on their own terms. Outlining the financial, social, and familial situations that affect many young adults today, she describes how churches can provide a safe, supportive place for young adults to nurture relationships and foster spiritual growth. There are few places left in society that allow for real intergenerational connections to be made, yet these connections are vital for any church that seeks to reflect the fullness of the body of Christ.
The Multigenerational Congregation: Meeting the Leadership Challenge by Gilbert R. Rendle
Congregations need to learn new cultural languages and practices in order to speak to and be heard by new generations of people. But how do congregations enter the wilderness of ministry with these new generations when many of those in the entourage do not appreciate the trip? Rendle shows us how to talk with and really understand one generational cohort while another cohort is present “looking over one’s shoulder.”
From Nomads to Pilgrims: Stories from Practicing Congregations edited by Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking
From Nomads to Pilgrims tells the stories of a dozen congregations that have been on a pilgrimage to vitality—retrieving and reworking Christian practice, tradition, and narrative. The book reads as a series of first-hand dispatches from pastors of congregations on the road to an emerging style of congregational vitality, one centered on the creative and intentional reappropriation of traditional Christian practices.