Carol Howard Merritt: Meeting at the Level of the Ashtray

Often when churches are reaching out to people in their twenties and thirties, there is a tendency to expect them to become someone they are not before they walk into the door. For instance, eighteen percent of college students have never attended church before in their lives, but we too easily expect they will know exactly what to do when they step over the threshold of our sanctuary. They are supposed to know the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles' Creed. They need to know what words like the "narthex" mean. They have to know exactly how they are supposed to take communion, or if they are welcome to the table at all. And then they are supposed to know and interpret the many unwritten social cues to which our churches adhere. For instance, in many congregations, if you're moved by a musical piece, you are not supposed to clap.

There are good reasons for many of these practices of worship, and I don't wish to downplay or dismiss them. But, as we sat around a table at the recent FTE Calling Congregations Conference, talking about how to minister to and with adults in their 20s and 30s, I realized once again how we cannot simply expect people to change who they are in order for them to fit in with us. It's important to meet people where they are.

"It's like what Howard Thurman said, you have to meet people at the level of the ashtray," one of the participants explained.

I smiled at the image and asked what he meant. He told me how Howard Thurman wrote about his relationship with his landlady. There was tension between them and Thurman wasn't sure what to do about it. Then he noticed how his landlady dumped out the lobby ashtrays each time there was a butt in it. She was fastidious about it, and so Thurman began to pay attention to those ashtrays. When he walked through the apartment lobby, each time a wayward butt was left in a tray, he took a moment to dump the ashes. Because he took the time to notice something that the landlady cared about, because he began to work with her, their relationship mended and strengthened.

After hearing that story, it reminded me that so often we want people to enter our churches and begin caring about all of the traditions and cultural norms that concern us, but we don't always take the time to meet them at the level of the ashtray. We neglect to find out what concerns them, what is important to them, and how we can work together.

What concerns the younger men and women in our congregations? There are a lot of things that we can point to-the environment, the economy, AIDS, human trafficking, homelessness, poverty, or food issues. Big corporations have figured out that a new generation has deep care for so many things, and so they have developed cause marketing in order to link their products to a greater good. They realize that people are so worried about how they can change the world that it will influence what sort of products they will buy.

There are general trends, but I don't know what the concerns are in each of our churches. Each context is different, and those who walk into our sanctuaries often have different burdens that they carry around. Yet, it's vitally important that we find out what those concerns are. Listen to what weighs heavily upon them. Learn to meet people at the level of the ashtray and engage in work with them.

[Taken with permission from the Rev. Carol Howard Merritt's blog, , originally posted Nov. 20, 2010. This was cross-posted from the  FTE blog.]