Remembering a Body of Work
Looking back over some posts from the past year, I realize that I’ve been harping on the topic of discipleship for sometime. I’ve written about the role of discipleship in the hierarchy of the United Methodist Church. I’ve written about the lack of talk on discipleship at our Methodist General Conference this past May. That piece followed a piece on how General Conference couldn’t save the church because we all knew it couldn’t focus on discipleship. I’ve written about how small group ministries are misunderstood as so-called “drivers of vitality” in the local church. I’ve written about how our American spirit of individualism hurts our development as disciples of Jesus Christ (and again here). I’ve talked for sometime on the need to rethink what it means when we say “making disciples for the transformation of the world” here, here, and here.
Enough on Theory — How and Where Can Discipleship Happen?
Since I am so new to ministry in the local church, I figure that while I’m fairly deep on theory I’m probably a little shallow on practical experience. However as a young adult in the ministry, I depend on those older than me to offer advice from their experience. So I will give you my assumptions on the looming questions of how and where discipleship happens, but I will do my best to put them in the form of questions. It’s up to you, the reader, to supply answers and direction from your own experiences.
Are We Biased Towards the Larger Church?
In all of the discussion on congregational vitality in The United Methodist Church, I can’t help but wonder whether or not we have a particular bias towards the larger church? Churches identified as uniquely “vital” are, more often than not, large churches with large worshipping communities. This is in spite of the fact that recent research has shown that only 4-5% of churches in The United Methodist Church worship 350+ on an average Sunday. In other words, are many of our churches not considered vital because they’re not like the top 5%? Though the Towers Watson report notes that 59% of vital congregations are among small churches, it notes that “larger churches are more likely to be vital” according to the standards used in the study.
Furthermore, our Book of Discipline is formatted with a bias towards the larger church. Just ask any pastor who’s tried to fill out the required committees in a small church. It’s nearly impossible to cover all of your required committees without asking people to cover multiple roles. How is it possible to concentrate on cultivating a culture of discipleship in a small church when everyone is run ragged covering committee work?
Have we created a church culture whereby small churches are left to feel inferior because the ministry we place on pedestals most often comes out of larger churches who benefit from more people and resources to do ministry? And I appreciate our mega churches “giving back” by putting on resourcing workshops. But there’s a big difference between pastoring a small church that’s just been planted and pastoring a small church that’s been historically small.
Can Large Churches Actually Disciple?
In the drive to grow (not to mention the drive to just carry out the basic ministries of the church) how equipped are our larger churches for the work of discipling? After 2 years as an Associate Pastor in a larger congregation I can testify to the efforts it takes to meet these 4 core areas of ministry for a local congregation: Worship, Teaching Basic Doctrine, Pastoral Care, Community Activity. Even if you’re able to do these things exceptionally, you’re still lacking in the area of discipleship. Are these great demands on a local church why discipleship has been swept under the rug for so long?
In all of our talk about vitality, we seem to be describing ways to more effectively meet the 4 basic areas while simultaneously growing in membership as a result — is this the same as actively forming disciples of Jesus Christ?
Quick, What’s a Disciple?
A disciple is defined as a follower of Jesus Christ. We can nuance that all day but essentially this is what we’re describing. In a previous post I defined discipleship in the local church as: The process of being formed in the ways of Jesus Christ as taught in Scriptures and expressed in acts of justice, mercy, worship, and devotion under the empowering guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, the work of the local church is twofold. First, the local church must intentionally and creatively make the process of discipleship a primary ministry of the church. Secondly, an emphasis on process and accountability must be a part of any ministry of discipleship.
Questions for You, the Reader
It’s odd to say, “Thanks be to God,” in response to words like that. You may find it a bit strange that the focus of today’s worship service is about the death of John the Baptist. Maybe it’s odd because in worship we’re used to uplifting messages, soul-inspiring music, and affirming words of faith. God has created, redeemed, and sustained us. Isn’t worship supposed to be a never-ending exercise of praise and warm fuzzies?
Well, we get another perspective today. We gather in this place to worship God and the stench of death is in the air. There’s very little to feel warm and fuzzy about in today’s reading. John the Baptizer is dead. He’s been a pawn in an evil web of manipulation and he’s opened his mouth one time too many. He’s been killed. Not just killed – he’s been beheaded. And we’re left being told that his disciples simply took his body and placed it in a grave. There’s no fanfare. No national day of mourning. Flags will not fly at half-staff. There’s just a tragic death and a quiet burial.
It could be easy to miss the fact that John dies in the Gospels. We’re so quick to want to move forward with the ministry of Jesus that we forget there was one who came before him preaching a message of repentance and healing. In fact, some of John’s disciples would go on to become Jesus’ disciples. Yet we might miss this fact because one of the main points of John’s ministry was to decrease in fame so that Christ might increase. I suppose that’s the way it goes with true prophets.
Mother Teresa was the prophet who served Calcutta – a woman devoted to ministering to the lepers and those forgotten by modern society. Her life was a living testimony to a God who refuses to forget those whom the world might forget about. She died on September 5, 1997. But I’m willing to bet many of you may not remember that because Princess Diana died 6 days earlier. And just like that, the death of this prophetic woman from Calcutta went to the B-section of the newspapers. I’m sure Mother Teresa would have preferred it that way. But that’s just the way it goes for prophets I suppose.
So here we are – gathered to praise God and to witness to our faith as we celebrate the life of John the Baptist. In the midst of death, we gather to celebrate the life and witness of our brother, John.
Maybe you didn’t know John that well? This is common in the church. It’s easy to know someone by reputation. Their story is a part of the greater story of the community. Yet they’re somehow distant from us personally. We know about them but we really don’t know them in an intimate way.
Who was this odd man who lived in the wilderness and preached for crowds on the outskirts of town?
Mark cuts right to the chase and tells us John appeared in the wilderness preaching about baptism, repentance, and the forgiveness of sins. Crowds from the whole Judean countryside came to hear this fiery preacher and to be baptized. His liturgical wear was a bit unorthodox for any respectable preacher. He didn’t wear a stately black robe and stole. Instead he wore camel’s hair tied on with a leather belt around his waist. He wasn’t nourished by covered dish suppers. Instead he chose to stay in the wilderness and eat locusts and honey. But he was an amazing preacher – surely a sight to both hear and see.
Matthew tells us John appeared in the wilderness and began to preach a convicting message:
“Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”
Luke gives us a little more background on John. He tells us about John’s family of origin. His mother was Elizabeth and his father was Zechariah. You may remember how John’s father was struck mute before John was born. When it came time to name John the family wanted to call him Zechariah. After some discussion the muted father wrote on a tablet – “his name is John.” At that very moment his tongue was loosened and he was able to speak again. The family knew John was something special. Upon being able to speak again, Zechariah began to prophecy about his baby boy:
“And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of sins.”
By all accounts, we can agree John was a prophet – a messenger sent by God to proclaim a message. His mission was to come and give a basic sermon to all who would have ears to hear.
John’s message wasn’t unique. That’s the thing with prophets – they have a way of using the work of prophets who came before them. All 3 of the synoptic gospels report that John’s sermon largely consisted of words from the prophet Isaiah:
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
You’ve probably heard something like that before? These words make up a big part of the first scene in Handel’s Messiah. But they’re also the words that helped frame the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr. used the prophetic words of John and Isaiah to proclaim a message of justice for all peoples. The words of the prophet are passed from generation to generation – wherever there’s a need for a prophetic word to be spoken. And these words are etched into the collective memory of the people who hear them.
What is it that makes the poetic words of a prophet so timeless? Theologian Walter Brueggemann refers to this phenomenon as the prophetic imagination. The prophetic imagination is an act of seeing the world as it is now but daring to put words on the world as God would have it.
It’s seeing a world where lepers in Calcutta are impoverished and forgotten by society? But the prophet dares to imagine a world where the love of God is made available to even them.
Or it’s seeing a world where race creates division seemingly impossible to get over. But prophet dares to imagine a world where folks are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Or maybe it’s even more basic than these grand examples?
I was in Columbus a couple weeks ago visiting family. I stopped in to McDonald’s to pick up some breakfast for family members. I know that McDonald’s well and have eaten at it many times over the years. This particular morning was no different than any other morning for that busy place. It was slammed as usual.
However it didn’t take long for me to notice this wasn’t your typical busy McDonald’s morning. The line was long but it wasn’t moving. Orders were getting backed up and the folks behind the counter seemed stressed out. I noticed the manager at the register – she was wearing a blue uniform to set her apart from the others in white. She was carefully instructing what looked like a new employee on how to take orders and run the register. I placed my order and casually sat in a booth nearby to wait.
Not long after I placed my order, a well dressed man dressed like he was heading to a high-level meeting came and placed his order. He seemed in a hurry and stood waiting close to the counter. As the line continued to move slowly and orders continued to be backed up, the man began asking how much longer it would take. He grew more and more aggravated as he stood there. Soon he took a call on his iPhone and began explaining to someone I assume was in his office:
“It’s gonna be awhile. These idiots at McDonald’s can’t seem to get their acts together this morning.”
Now mind you he was standing just 3 feet from the counter where the workers were standing. After he hung up the phone he began telling people new to the order line:
“I hope you’re not in a hurry this morning. They can’t seem to get it together back there.”
He grew louder and more rude with each passing minute. Soon my order number was called and I left hot and bothered after witnessing such rudeness. Who did this guy think he was? Did his red power tie go to his head? Was he that self-important that he didn’t have time to treat workers at McDonald’s with an ounce of respect?
I decided to do what any decent person might do after seeing such an injustice – I fired off an angry status update on Facebook.
As I left, I remember seeing a homeless man sitting on the curb near my car. I had this sermon on John the Baptist in mind and I even thought, “You know, I needed that guy to be my John the Baptist – he needed to come in with his wild clothes ranting and raving about repenting of your sins because the kingdom of God is at hand.”
You know it’s easier sometimes to admire prophets from afar. Their work is so amazing it’s just too much to think we could get close to it. So we admire prophets like Mother Teresa through magazine articles and news coverage. We revere prophets like Martin Luther King through the books of history. And we remember great prophets like John the Baptist around the 2nd Sunday of Advent every year.
But the truth is, the prophetic imagination can be a simple as moving outside of your own comfort zone and speaking up when you see someone in a position of service being abused. I didn’t need a John the Baptist at McDonald’s that morning – I should have been the prophet that morning. My own personal comforts and insecurities drove me to silence when I should have spoken a prophetic word. I didn’t do it because I didn’t have the courage to move out of my own life of comfort and witness to the fact that by the power of the Risen Christ, a different world is actually possible.
John’s words 2000 years ago can ring true for us even today. But we need to be bothered in our places of comfort for this to happen. John was preparing a way for the Christ who empowers us to see the world for what it is right now and dare to say it could be different. We can, by the power of God, imagine a world where valleys are exalted and mountains are made low; a world where rough places are made smooth; where lepers in Calcutta are loved with the very love of Christ and where race no longer has the power to make us hate each other; and yes, a world where powerful people have their hearts filled with compassion and where McDonald’s workers are treated with kindness and respect because they’re children of God too.
Here lies our brother, John the Baptizer – A wild preacher from the wilderness of Judea; A man of little means, but whose words continue to inspire all of us to see the world through the very eyes of God. Thank you, Brother John, may we strive to live by your example. Amen.
This will be the final piece in my series on Kenda Creasy Dean’s fantastic book, Almost Christian. I cannot say enough that all church people — clergy and lay people alike — need to read this book. Suggest it as a small group or Sunday School study. But read this book and talk about it together!
Let’s begin with a sobering quote:
“Since the 17th Century more and more people havediscovered, originally to their surprise, they could ignore God and the church and yet be none the worse for it.”
– David Bosch
The simple truth of our struggle in the church is that we do not teach and model for people how faith is a matter of life and death. I know how extreme that reads, so let me explain myself a bit. The life and death I’m talking about is not necessarily heaven and hell (although it could apply as well). I’m discussing the potential for life we have right now and the fact that we’re all guilty of choosing the comfort and security of things to the contrary. As Americans, we’re consumed with the narrative of success. We’re taught (as Dean notes we then teach our youth) that faith is vital insofar as it helps them get further in life. Faith and church become utilitarian tools to give you a good life. God helps you when you are in need. Church makes you a better person. Attending youth group will look good on a college resume. Come on down! Dean reminds those of us in the church when it comes to thin and immature Christianity, teenagers are not the problem — the church is the problem. And more importantly, the church also has the solution.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is in the DNA of our congregations. We have to admit it and confess it as sin. And yet, as Dean confesses, I too have a certain sympathy for Christians who default to MTD as a way of faith. Somehow it’s become less combative than the religious bigotry that can make the gospel seem like anything but good news. I confess it’s easier to turn to this way of being a Christian whenever I turn on the news and they choose to profile Christianity through the close-minded, hateful, and bigoted voices disguising themselves as Christian pastors and leaders. I don’t blame folks for not wanting any part of that ballgame.
Making Faith Too Easy
So many of our churches set the bar low for faith commitment. When someone joins our church we ask them to affirm vows of membership to the local congregation — “Will you be loyal to this community?” But how often do we ask members, new or veteran, to reaffirm their baptismal vows — “Will you be loyal to Christ and affirm your willingness to die to self?” There’s a lot of baggage attached to the later option so we stick with the former in an effort not to not scare people off. Yet in an age of church shopping, we tend to encourage the heart of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism when we simply ask someone to be loyal to the local church. That “heart” is thinking faith is about us and not God or God’s continuing work of salvation for the world.
Are Young Folks Really Religious Relativists?
Dean makes an interesting point towards the end of her book:
“It may be that young people are not the religious relativists we make them out to be (i.e. you can believe what you want because everything is equal in the end). It may simply be that Christianity — or what passes for Christianity, as teenagers practice it — does not merit a primary commitment.” [p. 193]
Dean reminds us that teenagers are correct to give little priority to the gospel if it means some people are more welcome before God than others. If that’s the case, this fake-gospel should be rejected. The uniqueness of Jesus is precisely why the church cannot be an exclusive club. And the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is precisely the act of God that allows for every human being to equally stand before God.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
Kenda Creasy Dean wraps her book up with 5 major points to take away:
To a large extent, we in the church can affect the degree to which our congregations choose to imitate Christ. It’s up to us to be Christ’s witnesses of generosity, hospitality, and sacrifice. It’s also our choice when we practice a self-centered version of faith that avoids risks in favor of self-fulfillment. There are, in fact, traditions (like the Mormons for example) succeeding in forming youth in meaningful ways to that tradition.
Faith formation for young people is a part of the legacy of communities that invest time, energy, and love into their youth. And it’s a sign of the religious faith of the adults present insofar as it inspires the children being formed. The culture of our churches should be geared towards one of formation, first and foremost.
Every faith community should have in its DNA a particular vision of God expressed in word and deed through the life of the community. The life of the community should speak to the personal and powerful nature of God, the significance of the faith community for formation, the centrality of Christian calling and service, and the hope that the life of the community is a part of the larger story of God’s salvation for the world.
Quite simply, any Christian community that doesn’t teach the love of Christ is a love worthy dying for isn’t teaching about Christ. As the church, we don’t have to be narrow-minded religious zealots intent on brain-washing young prototypes of ourselves. We also don’t have to teach kids that it’s okay to “live and let live” when it comes to choosing their faith. Children and youth are formed in the very image of those teaching and leading them. Faith is vital to life itself and we can model and teach a faith that both forms and allows youth to hear their own unique calling of discipleship.
This is a big one for United Methodist congregations. A God-shaped mission is bent on the redemption of the world and not just the church. Don’t be mislead into thinking that once we redeem the church the world will magically follow. While church renewal is important we need to hear the temptation that a mission of church renewal can quickly become a mission of serving ourselves and our own ideals. This is a symptom of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The single most important task of the church to cultivate a missional imagination in our children and adults is to reclaim our call to follow Christ into the world as witnesses of God’s self-giving love.
I wanted Kenda Creasy Dean to have the final words on this series because her work has been so influential on me through this book. Besides that, she’s a fantastic writer and she can end this series better than I could:
My role in the faith journeys of young people is embarrassingly small: naming a God-sighting here, inviting them to pray or serve there. Mostly what I do is show up, and get to know them, and respond to them as the incredibly creatures God made them to be, while trying to be a faithful Christian adult alongside them.
…teenagers are still discovering that every one of them are an amazing child of God. Their humanity is embedded in their souls as well as their DNA. Their family is the church, their vocation is a grateful response for the chance to participate int he divine plan of salvation, their hope lies in the fact Christ has claimed them, and secured a future for them. If we, the church, lived alongside young people as though this were true — if we lived alongside anybody as though this were true — we would be the community Christ calls us to be. That would be more than enough. [p. 197]
I freely admit that I can be a bit of an idealist at times. I resonate with expressions like, “Why can’t we all just get along?” So maybe it’s just an expression of my young, naive, and idealistic nature that I’m just plain weary of ideological labels.
Maybe you’ve come across two articles making the rounds this weekend describing the two sides of the liberal/conservative divide in American churches? The first article is, Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?, written by Ross Douthat of the New York Times. The second article was a response written by Diana Butler Bass for The Huffington Post entitled, Can Christianity Be Saved? Let me say from the outset that I’m writing this to offer another perspective because I think both authors miss the mark in a big way. Remember, I’m an idealist at heart. So you’ll have to forgive my picky ways.
Here are a couple of quote-worthy snapshots from both articles.
“This decline is the latest chapter in a story dating to the 1960s. The trends unleashed in that era — not only the sexual revolution, but also consumerism and materialism, multiculturalism and relativism — threw all of American Christianity into crisis, and ushered in decades of debate over how to keep the nation’s churches relevant and vital”
Later he writes:
“Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that per haps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.”
Now on to Diana Butler Bass:
“A recent study from Hartford Institute for Religion Research discovered that liberal congregations actually display higher levels of spiritual vitality than do conservative ones…A quiet renewal is occuring, but the denominational structures have yet to adjust their institutions to the recovery of practical wisdom that is remaking local congregations. And the media continues to fixate on big pastors and big churches with conservative followings as the center-point of American religion, ignoring the passion and goodness of the old liberal tradition that is once again finding its heart. Yet, the accepted story of conservative growth and liberal decline is a 20th Century tale, at odds with what the surveys, data, and best research says what is happening now.”
So let me try to fairly critique both of these articles for missing the mark in a major way for me…
Critique of Ross Douthat
Let’s begin by telling the truth about decline in American Christianity: Every denomination is declining. Let’s just stop playing the broken record of “conservative churches are growing and liberal churches are dying” — it’s not 1980 anymore. The fact is all denominations in America are in numeric decline. Diana Butler Bass rightly notes in her article that this is a thesis that’s been around since the early 1970s. The Church Growth Movement in America — which is largely responsible for the rise of what we now call “mega churches”– began arguing this in its theological literature 40 years ago. In 2012, this is no longer true. There are conservative denominations in decline now. The Southern Baptist Convention is a great example. So no, so-called liberal churches don’t need to be like their conservative counterparts in order to grow — no one is growing right now.
If so-called liberal churches have given into the social whims of the day, then their more conservative counterparts are guilty for selling into the consumeristic whims. If there was a day where more theologically and socially conservative churches were growing, it was often accomplished through appealing to consumeristic tastes in the name of being attractional. In other words, selling one’s reputation of faithfulness on the auction block of being appealing to the masses knows no theological label. We’re all guilty in some respect. One of the greatest flaws of American Christianity is that we’d rather be liked by others than faithful to our mission. The balance we need is figuring out how to be hospitable and welcoming while being faithful and challenging.
Critique of Diana Butler Bass:
Does Christianity really need to be saved? I know she was doing a play on words with the title from the Times, but my fear is that the body of her article actually reveals a position that we, as humans, have the power to “save” our faith. The truth is, the role of faith is to save us — not the other way around. It’s a theological error to assume we humans have the role (or power) to save religion.
Why do we talk about 21st Century forms of church and use 20th Century terms? How can we truly discuss a “new form of church” for the 21st Century while we’re stuck in camps of liberal and conservative? If the church of the 21st Century is to be new, then we need to blur the lines that have divided us for the last century. Her words on rethinking church appeals to me right up until I realize the church she’s talking about has a particular ideology rooted in a liberal worldview. As much as I might resonate with her views, her conclusion is a church I do not want to be a part of. Liberal fundamentalism is not the answer to what ails us in American Christianity.
I don’t want to come off as totally negative about either of these authors. Both articles had merits and both authors made points I agree with. They actually critique each other in good and healthy ways. However they both get it wrong for me because they continue to perpetuate a vision of the church where labels divide us. So the question becomes whether or not we should just accept the coexistence of liberal and conservative churches. I, for one, refuse to accept either as a truly faithful expression of church. Inevitably both sides will leave out necessary parts of faith in order to remain true to their respective camp. As a United Methodist, I’m reminded that the fullness of our Wesleyan theology is found in the combination of the very best from both the liberal and conservative views. We shouldn’t have to pick sides!
So yes, I’m an idealist. I don’t think it’s a faithful act to label ourselves as liberal or conservative. I dream of a church where we can leave our labels at the door when we come to worship. And maybe, if the worship is lively and faithful enough, and we’re sent back into the world in service, then we might just forget to pick up those labels on our way out.
I think many in the Church will agree that, by and large, we have a “young adult problem.” What’s the problem, you ask? Well, young adults are not coming to our churches.
There are all sorts of methods out there to get young people into coming to church. Many church leaders have made strides in adding to a body of work on attracting young people. Some of the material is really good — material that recognizes the world of 2012 is vastly different than the world of 1952 or even 1982. Other material is just plain bad — material that tries to bait-and-switch young people into church by selling a notion of volunteerism or bland utopian community while conveniently forgetting to mention the name of Jesus because it doesn’t play well for focus groups. While there’s no real clear answer on how to get young people into church, I think we can all agree on this simple fact: We’ve got a major deficit of young people actively involved in our local churches.
What are we church folks to do about this young adult problem?
Let me cut to the chase and say what we should NOT try to do: If you want to “solve” the problem of young people not active in church, you’re going to fail from the outset. This is not a problem you can solve. So if you’ve bought the latest material on how to magically attract young people after following 5 easy steps, take it back right now. You’re not going to find a recipe to attract young people. You can’t order a prescription from the local Christian resource center that will make young people beat your doors down. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but some problems can’t simply be solved.
Instead of solving our problems, let’s try to look at them in new ways — maybe even as opportunities to learn.
Translation is Key
What we need are for local churches to become places of translation — not just interpretation. What’s the difference? Interpretation simply means that a church tells you what to believe and how to behave. But churches who take the work of translation seriously will also create ways to live out those beliefs and morals in community. When this happens, the church becomes less rigidly judgmental of others and more serious about the need we all have for redeeming and sustaining grace.
Let me offer a story to illustrate:
I heard another heart-breaking story last week from a young adult who refuses to go to church. It seems that she was marginally involved in a local church — some months were better than others for attendance. But she volunteered in the nursery some and helped with Vacation Bible School because if she didn’t really know what to think about church attendance yet, she knew it was important for her daughter. She started dating a young man who was a member of the church soon after she started attending.
But a few months into her tenure in the church it started. It seems a few of the members — some younger a some old enough to be her mother — caught wind of her “past life.” They began spreading stories around the church about her and her new relationship — much of which was nowhere near to being true. But truth is relative when perception shapes so much of how we think. It wasn’t long before a whole section of the church had heard these stories and it got back to the young woman and her new boyfriend.
Needless to say, they refuse to go back to that church and I fear they’re done with church altogether after that incident.
One of the reasons we in the church won’t ever solve our issue with young adults is that we think it’s really their problem. They want to come to church and be with us, they just don’t know it yet. So we need to invest in all sorts of attractional methods to help them realize this deep longing. Churches are not perfect — nor should we ever think they will be — but as long as church people do mean things to people who are a little different, don’t be surprised when no young people want to attend your church. This girl bears the burden of not wholeheartedly investing in the church. But that’s a process for many people, old and young alike. However she’s not at fault for the fact that some people decided her past was too risque for their taste and decided to spread rumors about it. This is the kind of caricature account Flannery O’Connor would write about. Instead, I’m afraid it’s a reality more common that we church folks would care to admit.
A community who takes the work of translation — living out the gospel, putting hands and feet on the love of God, etc. — might not have been so quick to judge someone who was a little different. A community of translators knows how hard it is actually live the morals and beliefs they profess.
What’s Wrong with Wanting to Solve?
What if the compulsion to solve our problems was a part of something that’s wrong with us — even sinful at times?
I recently heard a podcast with Dr. J. Kameron Carter where he had some striking comments about solving our problems. Dr. Carter suggests that “the impulse to solve is a part of a wider impulse to master.” In the church we see this very clearly in the collective impulse church leaders and strategists have to solve the issue of young adults not coming to church. What actually happens is we define our idea of young people based off of what we see around us and not a missional view guided by the Holy Spirit. Those in the church want young adults, but the truth is we really want young adults that look, talk, act, and see the world like us. We’re on a mission for prototypes of those already in the church — younger versions who care about the things good church folk care about and want to live by the same standards. Maybe this is just the residue of the missional attitude that helped colonize and conquer others as a means of spreading the gospel? Whatever it is, it’s a desire undergirded by the preservation of power and not guided by humility and love.
Why are young people not in church? I have no idea. I’m a young adult myself and I’m forced to live in the tension between a vocation in the church and relationships with my peers who either don’t see it as compelling enough, or worse yet, have been hurt so badly by well-meaning people who don’t understand them they’ll never grace the doors of a church again. It’s a tough place for a young pastor sometimes. However, I do hope the next time we say we want to “solve our young adult problem” we stand back and see the implications of that statement: Do we really want all young people in our churches? Or, do we really mean we want to preserve our values in a younger generation of prototypical images of ourself? And are we willing to make the gospel compelling enough by trying to actually live it?
If you want young people in your church, go where they are. Learn what they do. Strike up a relationship and trust the Holy Spirit enough to let you know when it’s time to invite them to church. In the meantime, make sure your church is a place that worries about doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8). After all, that’s all disciples can hope to do.