{Many Questions and Few Answers Along the Never-Finished Journey of Faith}

How Can Pastors Speak to a Younger Audience in Preaching?

How can pastors more effectively speak to younger adults through preaching? I asked myself this question after reading an online conversation early Saturday morning. I happened to find a series of tweets from Carol Howard Merritt:

@CarolHoward: Using a John Hughes sermon illustration. Almost cut it our because half of the congregation wouldn’t relate.

@CarolHoward: Made me realize how much I cut out Gen X references. Meanwhile I almost feel like I was alive in the 60s, I’ve heard so much about it…

@CarolHoward: Made me realize how much I cut out Gen X references. Meanwhile I almost feel like I was alive in the 60s, I’ve heard so much about it…

When it comes to sermon illustrations, you use what speaks most clearly to your audience. And if the average age on a Sunday morning at most churches is any indication, then there’s a good chance references from the culture of younger generations will not speak to a majority of listeners. I’m a preacher born in 1982. And I admit that I’ve struggled at times with this dilemma because I know there’s a reference I could use to make a great point that could get lost with a good number of my listeners.

So how can we broaden our base of cultural references in preaching?

Now before I go on, I do want to offer a couple of caveats along with this post:

  • This is not about trying to be relevant (or any other buzz word we like to toss around in the church without truly knowing what it means). This post is simply an appeal to preachers to widen their base of cultural references if they find they tend to concentrate in particular eras of history.
  • This is difficult when the majority of your congregation is made up of one particular generation. I’m lucky in my current appointment that there’s a pretty good range of ages on any given Sunday. But I do know that’s not true for many preachers. I trust the preacher to use the information following in an appropriate contextual way.
  • Good sermon illustrations are more than just cultural references. I know this. My preaching professor in seminary is one of the finest preachers in the world. He taught me that. However this post is trying to call into question one type of illustration we can use.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about why it’s important to speak to my generation. There’s a great deal of talk in The United Methodist Church about reaching new generations. But if we’re committed to making young people a priority, then preachers need to become students of that generation.

I made a mass appeal for help with this blog post on Facebook. One of the most common responses was something like:

Don’t just throw references out trying to “be cool” or “relevant.” If pastors want to use references from a younger generation, then those references should come out of relationships with younger people.

Make no mistake, if you want younger people plugging into the life of your congregation, then you better be authentic. These sermon illustrations aren’t meant to be cheap appeals to younger adults in an attempt to seem “hip” or “cool” from the pulpit. They are, however, an attempt to be mindful that some of the people you’re ministering with (or hope to minister with) may not get every song reference or cultural nod to the 1960s and early-70s. If you want the gospel to come alive for them, learn more about them, strike up a relationship with them, and then remember to occasionally use references from “their world” to drive a point home in a sermon.

So without further adieu, here’s a working list of cultural references to begin your education:


(This one is tough because the rise of the Internet has created a huge diversity in popular music. But here are a few artists and why they’re important for my generation)

  • Nirvana: This band marked the end of the 80s punk/hair band era many Gen-Xers fondly remember. They ushered in a new genre of music known as alternative/grunge. Besides than, the lyrics are pretty poetic.
  • Lilith Fair: For many women of my generation, this solidified the identity of the female artist. Keep in mind that this identity is also in tension to the hyper-sexualized image of many current female pop artists. But nonetheless, it was a powerful breakthrough for women in music.
  • Reality Show/YouTube Music Stars: Again, I admit this list was the toughest to compile because of the access to so much music due to downloading. But you should keep abreast of the fact that the hottest new artist in music could come from a reality TV show or a viral video on YouTube (granted the odds are they’re more likely to be a “one-hit wonder”). This is an avenue of being discovered that could seem foreign to folks from previous generations. But in the age of the Internet, this process of becoming a star can happen in a moment’s notice.
TV Shows
  • How I Met Your Mother: It’s quickly becoming an iconic show on what it means to be a 20/30-something in today’s world. The writers are brilliant and cleverly weave a great deal of contemporary culture into the plot lines.
  • The Cosby Show: This was the first sit-com on television that depicted an affluent African-American family. This was huge in shaping the worldview of those of us who grew up watching this show. Many of us never knew how taboo this was — it just became normal for us.
  • Reality TV: I know many of us wish this genre never came to be. But a well-timed writers’ strike in Hollywood gave enough time for this to become a new normal. Like it or not, you can’t understate the impact on how folks my age view this as impactful.
  • The Daily Show/The Colbert Report: In an age where cable news polarizes reporting based on partisan preferences, many young people have turned to master-satirists, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, to offer perspective on current events. The writing staffs for both shows are truly brilliant. In the case of Stewart, many contributors on his show have gone on to become some of the biggest names in comedic acting. Remember these shows are not the major source of news for young adults — they’re funny because they assume viewers already know the news and are looking for a different perspective.
Other noteworthy shows currently breaking barriers and/or shaping the genre of television:
  • The Office: One of the earliest breaks from the laugh track sit-com style. Brilliant and it trusted viewers to know the funny parts to laugh at
  • Modern Family: Another brilliant “laugh track free” show. It’s also a testimony to the complexity of family and the beauty of families who can function despite their defying the nuclear family image.
  • Any Show on HBO or Showtime: Shorter seasons and better writing largely due to a freedom from advertiser dollars influencing decisions
  • Parks and Recreation: Brilliant female lead to an ensemble cast.
  • 30 Rock: Another brilliant female lead to an ensemble cast.
  • Up All Night: We’ll see the longevity of this show but it’s become the hot new show for everyone new to having a baby. It’s a cultural marker for new parents and the beauty of DVR is we can watch whenever we want.


  • E.T.
  • Forrest Gump (ironic that it was set in an era “before our time” and is still such an influential movie)
  • Lord of the Rings Trilogy
  • Harry Potter
  • Most any Will Ferrell movie
  • Judd Apatow is writing iconic films at a similar clip to John Hughes
  • Trey Parker and Matt Stone: South Park and the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon — need I say more?

Important Historical Events

  • 9/11
  • Columbine School Shootings
  • The rise of the Internet
  • The rise of Social Media (led now by Facebook and Twitter)
  • The fall of the Berlin Wall
  • The election of Barack Obama as the first African-American President
  • Rising awareness of environmental issues

I got a lot of great feedback on other items as well. For example, many folks mentioned iconic sayings or catch phrases from various television, movie, music, and commercials. All of these things speak to formative pieces of culture that have shaped who we are. If you’re a preacher, then it’s vitally important to be familiar with these things — first for the sake of real relationship, and second in order to connect the gospel to the real lives of younger adults. If we’re serious about reaching out to younger adults in the church, then we better get serious about getting to know them. Otherwise I promise they’ll sniff out the manipulative tactics and do their dead-level best to never, ever grace the doors of our churches. 

So why not begin in relationship and allow those relationships to connect in the life of the sermon? You might be surprised what happens when you broaden your base of references, build relationships with new people, and let the gospel speak in new and exciting ways…


Note: This is by no means an exhausted list. Please feel free to add to it in the comment box below!

Baptismal Vows and Membership Vows (A Follow Up)

If you stop by this blog often, you’ll remember that I wrote a post last week advocating the idea that in order to form a culture of discipleship in the local church, we should preach and teach our baptismal vows instead of relying solely on our membership vows to the job. I got a lot of great feedback through a number of forums including the comment section on this blog, Facebook, and Twitter. In fact, there was so much mixed feedback I feel the need to come back with a follow up post on the topic.

Baptismal Vows and Membership Vows: A Review

Our Baptismal Vows are as follows:

1. Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
2. Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
3. Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?

**According to the grace given you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world? [More on this one later…]

And our Membership Vows:

As members of Christ’s universal Church, will you be loyal to Christ through The United Methodist Church, and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries? [Membership Vows for the UMC]

Will you participate in the ministries of this church with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness? [Membership Vows for the local congregation]

Addressing the Criticism

I had a number of people question the necessity of rooting a ministry of discipleship in our baptismal vows. One of the common responses went something like this: If people actually their vows of membership seriously, then we wouldn’t have a discipleship problem.”

I’d like to address that comment with some follow up thoughts…

First, I should remind readers that in order to make the case for the importance of baptismal vows I had to argue they were at least as important if not more important than our membership vows. By no means do I think we should do away with the vows of membership to the local church. This is not an either/or sort of thing. I’m simply saying that our current culture has not done an adequate job of forming disciples when we’re talking only about what it means to be a member in a local church. Doubling down on a system that’s already proven to yield a low capacity for discipleship doesn’t make sense. Adding an emphasis on baptismal vows as the basis for discipleship only enhances one’s life as a church member.

Secondly, membership vows alone are not enough to form Wesleyan disciples. If we’re honest with ourselves we  know that we can be 100% active in our local church through prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness and remain nominally Christian. “Participating in the ministries of the church” is a far cry from the language of Wesleyan holiness. Agreeing to pray, be actively engaged in a local church, give of our financial gifts, and encouraging others to do likewise is not on the same level as renouncing and repenting of sin, accepting the grace to reject evil and injustice, and confessing Jesus as Lord. That doesn’t make membership vows something to scoff at. But it does remind us that are active members of a local church because we are first baptized into God’s mighty acts of salvation. The accountability we hold one another to should include whether or not we participate in the transformative ministries of our local church but it should not end there. Accountable discipleship asks whether or not we’re growing in grace, moving on towards perfection, and becoming more and more holy. Wesleyan disciples are active church members as a result of this journey towards entire sanctification.

This is precisely what it means to “remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?”

A (Short) Personal Testimony

My daughter was baptized today during our 11:00 worship service. I had the great pleasure of not robing up as a preacher because it was more important I be a dad today. As my wife and I stood next to the font holding our daughter, I thought about the water inside and the precious life in my arms. Our senior pastor asked us — in front of about 350+ members of our local church family — the questions of baptism I wrote above. It occurred to me this was probably the first time since my confirmation that I had renewed my baptismal vows. So there I stood, before God and a full congregation as both pastor and dad, and I tried to answer each question in as best as I could — slowly and intentionally because I was not only answering for myself but also as a promise to raise my daughter likewise.

For me, discipleship must include a continual reminder of these vows of baptism because I refuse to set the bar so low as to let my daughter think that as long as she’s active in a local church everything is okay. I answered those questions knowing that one day she’ll answer them for herself. When that day comes I hope she knows that should not be the last time she hears those questions. Through the ups and downs of her life, I hope those questions echo in her ears just like I hope the waters of her baptism keep her feet a little damp no matter where she goes. If her baptism is to mean anything, it ought to mean that by God’s unfailing grace she’ll live into a life that seeks to model these vows. And in doing so, I hope she knows that also means she must be active and faithful to a local church. But that faithfulness comes out of the fact that on a day she can’t personally remember, her mom and dad stood before a group of folks and declared that, by grace, she would raised as a disciple of Jesus Christ come hell or high water. If even and ounce of that comes true two things will happen: First, she’ll know that grace alone is responsible; and secondly, there will be no question at all over if she’ll be active in a local church — by grace, that will come as a natural result.

What if Membership Vows Are Not Enough???

“As you join 1st Downtown UMC, we have to ask you this question: Will you support this church with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness?”

Maybe you’ve heard or even said something along those lines at the end of a worship service when someone (or even a few someones) take the long walk down the aisle at the end of worship during the final verse of a hymn. As the hymn ends you may have heard your pastor (or maybe you are the pastor) announce to the congregation the addition of a new member to the congregation. These vows are merely the formality of what promises to be a life-long loyalty to the church.

But what does that even mean?…

We’re in the midst of a 50+ year decline in membership in The United Methodist Church. There’s a growing market for curriculum designed to educate new and prospective members. I’ve recently conducted a very unscientific poll through social media and word of mouth. Among those who responded to me, the majority of churches who use a teaching model for new members generally set it up with a trajectory towards the membership vows — prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. I wonder if we’re in the business of making disciples, then should we root discipleship in the membership vows of the local church?

What if Discipleship Requires More?

One of the frustrations with imagining a church that makes disciples might be found in the fact that we set people up to be members and not disciples. The truth is our membership vows are essentially individualistic in nature. Membership vows convey the importance to support the local church through showing up, helping others, and even inviting others to join you in doing these things. But is this what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ journeying together towards salvation?

For John Wesley, the journey of faith was one that required sojourners to move towards entire sanctification — being perfected in love through grace. Wesley believed faith was a means to radically transform your life physically, spiritually, emotionally, and even economically.

Hear from Mr. Wesley himself:

“It is thus that we wait for entire sanctification; for a full salvation from all our sins, from pride, self-will, anger, unbelief; or, as the Apostle expresses it, “go on unto perfection.” But what is perfection? The word has various senses: Here it means perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul. It is love “rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, in every thing giving thanks.”

–from Sermon #43 “The Scripture Way of Salvation”

“Well, but what more than this can be implied in entire sanctification?” It does not imply any new kind of holiness: Let no man imagine this. From the moment we are justified, till we give up our spirits to God, love is the fulfilling of the law; of the whole evangelical law… Love is the sum of Christian sanctification; it is the one kind of holiness, which is found, only in various degrees”

–from Sermon #83 “On Patience”

“Entire sanctification, or Christian perfection, is neither more nor less than pure love; love expelling sin, and governing both the heart and life of a child of God.” 

–from A Letter to Walter Churchey (June 26, 1788)

Therefore while it’s important we uphold our local churches as places where life-changing ministry can happen, we should root a ministry of disciple-formation in something deeper than our membership vows. If discipleship is to mean anything significant in The United Methodist Church, we need  to encourage something more that just being loyal and paying dues to a local church.

Using Our Baptismal Vows as a Basis for Discipleship

When was the last time you’ve heard about your baptismal vows outside of the context of witnessing a baptism? Let’s review them:

1. Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
2. Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
3. Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?

When our membership vows become the basis for discipleship, then the requirements of discipleship get scaled down to fit the local church. Ministry becomes defined solely as what happens within the local church instead of a lifestyle we embody for having been a part of the church. Service eventually becomes synonymous with volunteering instead of self-giving. Giving becomes a local dues paying system instead of a tangible sign of a spiritual sacrifice.

Our baptismal vows up the ante on what it means to be Christian. It moves our faith from the local church and into a whole-life approach to faith. After all, this is what a sending forth means at the end of Sunday worship.

Renouncing spiritual forces of wickedness, rejecting evil, and repenting of sin requires the local body but it means more than merely participating in local ministry. Accepting the freedom and power God gives to resist evil, injustice, and oppression requires the presence of a local body but it means our perspective on faith is anything but local. And confessing Jesus Christ as Lord in union with the Church Christ has opened to all nations, races, and ages reminds us that while we’re apart of a particular local body, we are also strengthened as part of the Church in all times and places. The cosmic significance of this cannot be understated.

 What Can We Do Now?

If our baptismal vows are to become a part of the collective vernacular of our local churches we need to do a few things:

  1. Teach them. Lead a small group centered around the baptismal covenant. Follow the flow of the order to structure the flow of the class. Begin with a discussion on the nature of salvation. Move to the vows themselves. And then talk about what it means to be in ministry in the local church in light of these demanding vows.
  2. Preach on them. If you’re preaching on discipleship, then make sure you include these vows as a primary basis for your preaching. The good news is we don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to discipleship. Use the vows at your disposal and even invite worshippers to turn to the page in the hymnal where they can find them or project them on a screen for all to read and follow along. The vows will preach, I promise.
  3. Organize discipling groups that use these vows on a regular basis. Have groups write covenants together using these baptismal vows as a base for how they order their lives together. Discipling one another means watching over each other in mutual love and accountability. If discipleship is to become a part of the local DNA of our congregations, then we need to provide structural means whereby persons can disciple one another.

Discipleship in the Local Church (A Few Questions)

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

  • Is the small church more equipped to make discipleship the primary ministry of the community? Since a small church is more versatile and nimble, can it shift priorities more quickly to make discipleship a primary ministry in the local community? For this to happen, the powers that be in our leadership would need to recognize the unique abilities of a small church for discipleship and consider rethinking expectations (i.e. more emphasis on faithful discipling and less emphasis on numeric growth). This isn’t to say the small church can’t carry out the 4 basic areas of ministry. It’s simply an acknowledgement that discipleship can (and should) look different in a small church due to its size and resources. 
  • Do the medium and larger churches require discipling communities to come alongside the ministry of the congregation? In the work it takes to meet the 4 core areas of ministry, I wonder if medium and larger churches would be better off recruiting and cultivating discipling communities within the congregation. These communities would be vital to the ministry of the local church and members would be formed both as disciples and congregational leaders. But these communities would be embedded within the life already happening in the local community and “gates” would be needed in order to funnel new, would-be disciples in, as well as disciples “in-process” back out into the life of the church. 
I look forward to your thoughts…

Final Thoughts on the book, “Almost Christian”

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:

  • Faith can be vital for young people because others are succeeding at this

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 is not an accident

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.

  • The cultural tools needed for making faith vital for young people are a part of every Christian faith community already

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.

  • Vital faith comes with risks

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.

  • Our job as the church is to participate in the imagination of a God who sends and transforms, which is different from reinventing the church through our own creativity

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]

Imagine a Church With No Labels

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.

Douthat writes:

“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.

My Conclusion

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.

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