Being Ambassadors Outside the Church Walls: Conversation with a Millenial ‘Done’

When I first met Shaina, a deep-thinking twenty-something, she had been absent from a traditional church for seven years—but she would not, actually call herself a ‘Done.’ “I’m a long-term investor—this is more of a purposeful hiatus,” she told me. Shaina grew up in a Free Methodist church and was very involved in her youth group as a volunteer and leader. She graduated with a degree from a reputable Bible College and seemed destined for church leadership and yet here she was, working a retail job behind a counter full of handcrafted jewelery and fairly-traded goods and not attending any church at all.

We sat down for coffee and the whole story. “I always relate to people like John the Baptist—people who are between the church and the world,” Shaina says. During her years at Bible College she began to suffer from crippling pain in her abdomen that seriously limited her energy and capacity. Where she had once said ‘yes’ to every opportunity that came her way, now some days she couldn’t make it from the academic building to her dorm room without needing to lie down beside the path in case she passed out from pain. She had to reconsider her whole sense of herself as being a doer for God, and radically rethink where she would spend her now-limited energy and gifts.

In retrospect, if she had been well in her early twenties she realizes she would have dived deep into the traditional church and invested her considerable energies into things happening inside the church building. Instead, she began finding her identity outside of the formal gathering of the church, in the informal places that people from all walks of life gather. She discovered that people outside the church have their guard up when we just “come at them out the church doors.” Simply living in the neighbourhood and spending her days in an off-beat clothing store above a local coffee shop opened up opportunities for conversations and relationships to develop that might not have been possible inside the church walls. I knew more than one young person who would visit Shaina in her shop because they needed a listening ear and a wise perspective. Every day was a new opportunity to translate her faith into real actions and words that communicated God’s trustworthiness and value to ordinary Canadians who had no theological vocabulary. For many, her life was the only Scriptural exegesis they had ever experienced.

True to her word, Shaina has ended the hiatus and has been re-engaging with traditional church, exploring with a vibrant Anglican community in our city. As a church insider who spent significant time on the ‘outside,’ Shaina offers a helpful perspective to traditional churches like the ones many of us serve and pastor in. Her challenge to people who might be wondering why young people are leaving the church is: it’s not what we do in the building on a Sunday morning, it’s how we are the rest of the week. “That dismissive conversation about politics you had in the restaurant after church, the impatient way you interacted with the teenage grocery store clerk, the defensive disinterest you expressed in the ‘non-Christian’ community event a co-worker mentioned—people are listening whether we know it or not.” Our behaviour six days a week is playing out in front of a watching world. If we are small minded and unkind, they will conclude our God is also small-minded and unkind. I was personally struck by her challenge: “Take responsibility for your mouth, your heart and your hands in the world, because that’s the main thing showing people what you’re about, and could be the main thing keeping them away from your church.”

When I asked what she dreams the church could be, she says she would love to see the church become a place where people find peace and restfulness. “Literally everyone under the age of 30 that I know seems to be struggling with some type of anxiety or depression… that’s another thing that keeps people away, the church seems like such a busy ‘run-around-let’s-get-you-involved-in-something’ kind of a place,” instead of being a haven for a generation that is exhausted and confused. Shaina dreams of a church that is an ambassador of peace in a harried world, calm waters for tired souls to dock in and find rest.

Looking for more conversations with and about ‘Dones’? Check out The New Leaf Network blog series: ‘Who Are the Dones?’