Tuesday, May 06, 2014

That's so...awkward.

The Rev. Becky Zartman
Last Monday, I walked into a yoga studio for the first time in seven years. I had done yoga in undergrad, but after leaving college, classes were either too expensive or too out of the way, and, honestly, I just never got around to going back. But when I got it in my head this spring that maybe it was time to take on a physical discipline, I remembered that yoga mat under my bed, and thought, well, maybe it’s time to give yoga another try.

I was astounded at how easy it was for me to go back to yoga. A quick Google search led me to a nearby non-profit studio. Their clear messaging told me that this studio was on a mission, and that my participation would fund health and wholeness initiatives in less affluent parts of the city. This appealed to me, as did the studio’s flexible and abundant schedule. Within one click of the front page, I was able to read about what class what right for me, what to expect, and tips for my first visit. I was told what I needed to bring, what to wear, what to do when I got there, and how to prepare for class. Convinced, I downloaded their app, and signed up.

Still a little nervous about whether or not I would fit in, I headed to the studio. But once there, signs clued me in on social norms. “Please whisper 15 minutes before the start of class” one read. Another gently reminded, “No shoes past this point.” It was easy for me to follow the cues. The instructor greeted me at the door, recognized that I was new, and oriented me to the space. During class, I was not singled out by the instructor, nor felt judged by the others in the room. Everyone was encouraged to do what they were able to do, and to work on something called “their practice.” Class ended with a quiet meditation. The whole experience left me wanting to come back again the very next day.

Thinking about the ease with which I found myself attending yoga again, what struck me about my experience was the absolute lack of the most dreaded of millennial experiences: awkwardness. Millennials abhor the awkward, even as we laugh at it in shows like Girls, Parks and Rec or It’s Always Sunny. (Tip: Don’t watch It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Trust me.) Millennials gravitate toward the least awkward of digital communication, the text message, and if we didn’t outright invent it, the term “cringeworthy” is prominent in our vocabularies. Whether adults of other generations think that this underlying angst should or should not exist doesn’t really matter; an intense awareness of the awkward, for better or worse, is our zeitgeist. And the awkward is to be avoided at all costs. The yoga studio got it spot on — everything about the experience was curated to eliminate the awkward. And I walked right into it. And went back twice that week.

Now, I’m not recommending that Episcopalians should all start toting yoga mats and chanting “omm” at the dismissal. Far from that. Christ is and always should be the center of “our practice,” and our worship is a beautiful and ancient way to encounter God. Our worship can speak to millennials, just as it has spoken and moved countless generations before us. But it can’t reach millennials if they are afraid to walk in the door, or are inadvertently made to feel socially uncomfortable if they do cross the threshold. 

If you don’t have a young adult presence at your church, try finding a few that you trust — borrow or bribe them, whatever you need to do to get them there — and have them attend a service and tell you what’s awkward about coming to your church for the first, second, or tenth times. And then do something to change those problem spots. It takes a very brave and dedicated millennial to overcome the hurdles of a complex institution and to actively work to find their way to the center of the community, especially if they were not raised in the church. Unless we remove these unnecessary hurdles, it is far easier for a millennial to find a general spirituality in one of the 20 yoga classes offered by this single studio on a single Sunday morning than it is for a millennial to make their way into the life of a church. We need to find ways to make a life of Christian faith more accessible to everyone of all ages, and far, far less awkward.

Becky Zartman is the Assistant Rector at St. Thomas Dupont Circle, and is working on a Fresh Expression in the diocese. She blogs at www.vicarofhstreet.blogspot.com and tweets at @Becky_Zartman.