Growing Up as a Church When Our Young Adults Leave
Toward the end of Coffee Hour on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend—a light day, as they go—I felt a tap on my shoulder.
It was our usually unflappable church Music Director, looking, well, flapped.
“Got a minute?” he said in the “up tone” that in church staff speak means, “Houston, we have a problem.” We stepped into the church kitchen.
We had a problem.
Our star soprano had just remembered to mention that she was going to be away, starting in a couple of weeks. Until Labor Day Weekend.
It took me a minute to catch on.
“Wow … so I guess we’ll … really miss her?” I said tentatively.
“Yes. Yes we will,” said the Music Director gravely. “You’re forgetting that we don’t have a choir in the summer.”
“Right,” I said, “I remember that. So what we usually do is …”
And that’s when the light bulb went on.
What we usually did was ask our soprano to be our song leader and soloist. Except now, apparently, we wouldn’t be doing that.
We also didn’t have a budget to replace a talented, dedicated volunteer with a pro. Or time to convince the musicians we knew to convince their friends to come help us out.
Houston, we had a problem.
But before tackling it, I decided to go get another brownie.
That’s when Jasmine’s mother came over. Jasmine was the break-out star of our Youth Choir, circa 2009-2012. She’d grown up in the church, where she started singing with the Cherubs and then progressed through the Novices and the Youth Choir before making it all the way up to Christmas Eve with the adult choir. She had blessed the church with her musical gifts until she moved away for college, where she had been an active singer in an a cappella group.
Apparently, Jasmine had landed a plum internship in the city for the summer, and Jasmine’s mother was delighted.
“But the best part for us is just that she’ll be back home with us!” she said brightly.
“Oh really?” I said, as the wheels in my mind began turning rapidly. “Can you send me her email?”
That’s how our church’s Summer Artist series began.
Jasmine wasn’t the only musical talent among our absent college contingent. It turned out that several other recent graduates were going to be close to home this summer, too. And it turned out that most of them had at least one Sunday that wasn’t already spoken for.
I began developing a calendar, which filled within the week. To my surprise, most of the alums of our Youth Choir were not only willing, but delighted to be asked back.
“I don’t have to wear a red robe, do I?” asked one, skeptically. I assured him the dress code was pretty much “come as you are,” and he was in.
Another asked if she could play her guitar. “Certainly,” I agreed.
Jasmine said that the young man who had played Captain Von Trapp to her Fraulein Maria in the school musical from Junior year was also going to be around. Could they do a duet if it was “you know … churchy”? Of course.
Others didn’t want to do “churchy” music, but the Music Director and I decided that was okay, too.
“It’s more about getting a chance to hear you,” I explained.
We realized how important that was on the second Sunday of the Summer Artist series.
Eleanor was another beloved child of the church who had been a staple of all our programs, especially the Youth Choir. Two years prior—just a few weeks before she left for college—her father had taken his life. It had been a devastating moment in the life of the church, and the loss had continued to be a great challenge for Eleanor and the rest of her family.
So on that second Sunday, when she sat at the piano and sang, “Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone …”—the familiar opening to James Taylor’s ballad “Fire and Rain”—we knew that something very important was happening.
Then to our surprise, it kept happening, in ways large and small, throughout the summer. It happened when Sarah, a budding composer who had written a song after last year’s Paris attacks, sang it for us on the Sunday after the airport bombing in Istanbul. And when three of our alums reprised a song about being pilgrims that they had last performed together as high school seniors, three years ago. Each week brought something new.
Our returning alums were eager to be back, but more to the point, they were eager to be back and to be real. To sing the songs that describe where they find themselves these days, and where they find God.
The opportunity to express themselves musically in church was not something they took casually. They wanted to be seen for who they actually are—not as kids, cute-as-a-button as ever in their red cassocks, but as the women and men they are becoming: souls with joys and pains to name.
And so it was that the Summer Artist program ended up being a profound gift for all of us: the choir alums who offered their voices to the community, the adults who had watched them mature under our care, and the younger kids who were making their own way to adulthood.
Those of us who had witnessed our Summer Artists grow up into adults encountered new recognition of them as fellow pilgrims seeking God through fire and rain, as we all do. And we were heartened by the fact that they were still willing to receive our blessing for their seeking—especially now that they understood both the blessing and the seeking more fully.
Meanwhile, the Summer Artist program gave the young people currently in our music program opportunities to encounter different, deeper kinds of faithful expression that were, on the surface, less traditional and more personal than typical Sunday offerings. They learned that it is possible to be cool and reverent at the same time, and that it is possible to lift up new songs in worship.
More broadly, we all realized how much we still care about one another, whether we are regularly worshiping together these days or not.
Thinking about it now, it occurs to me that we local church folk and the diaspora of our adult children may believe that such care is more obvious than it actually is.
With people growing more mobile than ever, the likelihood of a church having a “cradle-to-grave” relationship with a congregant or family is exceedingly rare. Yet we often nurse real disappointment that the next generation isn’t coming back to take its rightful place among us. The thinking goes: oh sure, they may do a fly-by for the wedding or the baptism back at Grandma’s old church, but that’s about the best we can expect.
It’s so easy—and mistaken—to attribute the next generation’s absence to the fact that they don’t care … about us, about their hometown, about God.
And our young adults may have their own misunderstandings, as well. Some of them may believe that the well-meaning codger speaks for us all when he tries to pinch their cheek on the Sunday after their graduation from med school, or when they’ve just returned from their most recent deployment in Afghanistan.
As they dodge the pinch, they wonder if we can see them as adults who face real life in all the familiar human ways, rather than as grownup kids who, frankly, used to be a lot cuter. They church’s love for them may be obvious on their wedding days. But what will happen, they wonder, if a marriage goes sour? What will happen if their success comes slowly or not at all? Will they still be able to count on the church’s love and understanding?
It is so powerful for them when they realize that they can, and it’s powerful for us when we realize that their love and gratitude and connection to spiritual matters (and to us) are still intact.
Ultimately, our church’s Summer Artist series didn’t just ensure we had Sunday music in the summertime. It also reminded us of what it is to be the Body of Christ.
Now, of course, Labor Day has come and gone. Our artists are back at school or are on to their next chapters, whatever those may be. Our Chancel Choir is back in rehearsal, and the soprano is happy to be home. We just signed the contract for the brass quintet on Christmas Eve.
But even as things return to normal, I know that our world got a little bigger in church this summer, both musically and spiritually.
To paraphrase Psalm 133: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people dwell together in unity!” This summer, our church learned that while we may dwell in many different places, and stand at very different stages of life, our senses of unity and togetherness are very much intact.