Listen: Young people may drift from church, but not God

Listen: Young people may drift from church, but not God

William Wilder finishes his workday with dinner and a conversation about church and faith.

Part 3 of a series: Listen That You May Live

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (March 28, 2017) -- William Wilder, age 27, came to talk at a Mexican restaurant after working a full day at his landscaping job.

He came by invitation, because he’s been known to ask good questions about faith and spirituality.

As he orders tacos and beer, Wilder says he has a “loose affiliation with the church.” He spent his childhood years at Church Street United Methodist and once attended Holston’s Divine Rhythm retreat for young adults.

His family stopped attending church when he was eight. (“We had a lot going on in our lives.”) But at his parents' invitation, Wilder recently began attending a new place once or twice a month. He recites a statement from the church bulletin:

“'Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,’” he says. “I love that.” A Google search connects the words with the United Church of Christ.

Wilder says he “loves the feeling there, loves the pastor.” He likes the way the church focuses on service and “splits the pot” (the offering) with a community organization.

The conversation takes a deeper turn when Wilder talks about life struggles and his hope in God. “When times are darkest, God is always there,” he says. The church seems to be detached from his faith journey.

For him, attending church as a youngster “wasn’t so much a spiritual quest but a family connection,” Wilder explains. “It wasn’t necessarily what we were doing. It was that we were doing it together at the same time each week.”

Among his friends, Wilder says he’s atypical by attending church at all: “Most of my friends invest their efforts and emotions and energy into their partners instead of God. Out of 200 or 300 guys, maybe two or three go to church every week.”

He doesn’t buy the argument that bars and nightclubs have become the preferred community for the growing percentage of adults who do not identify with a religious group (the “nones”).

“That’s a false cognitive, an excuse, a justification,” Wilder says. “There’s no reason to hang out in a bar to have that … Everybody’s got a hole to fill, so how you going to fill it? I haven’t known anything good to come out of being in a bar past 10 p.m.”

He does understand why many of his friends don’t hang out in church, though: “They ask you to be perfect, and they pretend to have all the answers.”

It might have been easier for him if his parents stayed United Methodist, he admits, because sometimes he feels young people have too many choices and decisions to make: “It sounds ridiculous, but Xbox reaches a lot more kids than Jesus.”

What’s clear, Wilder says before driving off in his truck, is the best way to reach people who are doubtful about church and church members is through ... relationships.

“They’ve got to get past that whole ‘You’ll be cool if you’re with Jesus’ message and leaving it at that,” he says. “It can’t be that broad. It doesn’t work like that. You can’t do it over a microphone. It’s an individual thing.”

In the same way he accepted today’s invitation to chat over a Mexican dinner, Wilder says he’s more likely to accept an invitation to church when it’s from a friend who cares about him.

“Even if you only go one time and never go back, I guarantee you'll take something away from it.”



See also:

Part 1 - Listen: Addiction bears down on Kingsport and beyond

Part 2 - Listen: Mountain City relationship has lesson for today


To reach 'nones,' try experimental churches (UMNS, 4/25/16)

Divine Rhythm: Reasons for young adults to stay in church? (The Call, 2/8/16)


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Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.