Belonging to a different church than my husband seemed hardly subversive in the beginning. After all, he worked fourteen-hour days on Sundays as a pastor in a neighboring town and took our one and only car to get there. I, on the other hand, rode my bike to a nearby congregation that I was starting to warm up to. Although at times it felt like a liability to appear single in this coupled community, I pushed through the awkwardness my first year there: those long, drawn out minutes before the service started, the request to scoot down the pew to make room for families, the part in the service where I signed my name – and my name only – on the pew pad. But none of these compared to the most stressful part of worship as a virtual singleton: the passing of the peace.
If you’ve been following the “Trust Me” series for the last four weeks, you know I’ve been offering micro-resolutions churches can make to create safe space for Millennials. It’s worth a pause here to say that there are just as many things Millennials can do to claim safe space for ourselves – a topic to which I’ve devoted a whole book. For starters, we can lose the cynicism and turn to wonder. We can stop traveling so much and start showing up. We can speak up about where the church is falling short and include ourselves as not just part of the solution but part of the problem too. The passing of Christ’s peace can be a countercultural move in a community rife with culture clash.
Much of the culture clash between Millennials and their elders centers on family. In her well-researched book Got Religion? How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back, Naomi Schaefer Riley cites “habits of family formation” as the most important reason for young people’s absence in organized religion. Most notable among these habits is the increasing number of young people who are not married. Between the ages of 18-29, around 80% of the United States population is single. Further, this age group is more likely to support different priorities than marriage and children (67%) than those over the age of 55 (45%). What does this mean for church leaders? Far from simply creating a more robust singles ministry – which can sometimes exacerbate culture clash – church leaders need to make all spaces of community life more inclusive of solo worshippers of all ages. Attention is especially required for moments in the worship service when the mood turns social.
Passing the peace was hands down the loneliest ritual I endured as a solo worshipper. Since attending church without my husband, I had become more sensitive to how much harder it was to show up for weekly worship or linger after the last hymn was sung without him. But waiting my turn for someone to turn toward me during the passing of the peace? Excruciating. (Okay, fine, uncomfortable.) After the pastor issued the invitation, most congregants turned first to their daughter or father or partner or friend with “Peace of Christ be with you” while I stood there waiting with elbow cocked and hand clammy. Only after the first string had been chosen was it my cue to join in.Maybe it wasn’t just my apparent singleness but my aggressive introvertism that made this part of the liturgy so hard. I knew it wasn’t about me. I knew it was about offering reconciliation to one another before receiving the reconciliation of Christ in communion. Jesus was emphatic about this when he said, “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt 5:23-24). Where I worshipped, the call for peace functioned less as an opportunity to reach beyond our comfort and more as a comforting exchange of hugs, hellos, and how’s it goings.
There’s a lot keeping Millennials away from the church these days. The disengagement gap between college ministry and family ministry is growing longer – and may never close for those of us who choose less traditional paths of belonging. We are more unstable – financially, relationally, vocationally – in our young adult years than generations before us. Add to that the experience of walking into a worship service and not seeing anyone with our same kind of unfettered energy and you can begin to understand the psychological hurdles we’re facing. Passing the peace is a balm for wandering minds.
Passing the peace invites us out of our heads and into true community.
Micro-Resolution #4: Teach me to reach. With intention, create space in your church in which singles are not singled out: Hire a single pastor. Lift up examples of singles thriving in sermon illustrations. Invite singles to cook something for small group (because, no, they don’t all live on takeout.) Teach me to reach, too, when passing the peace by asking me to first greet someone I didn’t come with.
For to be true to the image of Christ is to extend a hand across the aisle and lay down the comfort of belonging we’ve known, whether for only a year or an eternity.
Erin S. Lane is author of Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe and co-editor of Talking Taboo. Confirmed Catholic, raised Charismatic, and married to a Methodist, she facilitates retreats for clergy and congregational leaders through the Center for Courage & Renewal. To find more of her writing, visit www.holyhellions.com.