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Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Letter to "my" Generation

I knew on Tuesday morning what I was going to blog about this week.

For a small congregation, St. Philip is full of "doers." People who just step in and do whatever needs to be done, with lots of energy.

This week, one of those major "doers," the indefatigable Roxanne(* name has been changed for privacy), had to go to the hospital with what we feared might be a stroke.

After many tests, the doctors ended up ruling out stroke, however, and diagnosed her with a complex migraine.

Hearing that even the indefatigable Roxanne had run into a potential health scare sent waves of anxiety through the congregation. It's Roxanne who organizes Christmas Dinner, Easter Breakfast, Easter Egg Hunt, the Rummage Sale, often the Clothes Closet.

When we moved from our apartment in Arlington Heights to our townhome in Glenview, Roxanne - with her partner, Max* (name changed for privacy), was the first one there - tearing through the house and helping us move at lightning speed.

On Tuesday morning, with Roxanne still in the hospital, I came to church and chatted for a moment with one of our council members. She was tired, and worried.

"What are we going to do?" she said. "Who's going to run the Christmas Dinner and the Rummage Sale when Roxanne isn't here? Who will fix up the building when Tom (*name changed) isn't here?"

"It just makes me sad."

And then she said the line that has lived with me for past three days:

"Where is the next generation?"

Thousands of thoughts, reasoning, theology, ecclesiology, sociology, demography, ran through my head. The long list of well-thought-out and well-reasoned reasons for why "the next generation," i.e. my generation, doesn't come to church in the numbers our parents did, especially not to mainline Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches ...

I thought about how sometimes the "old guard" at a church can, unintentionally, guard the things they do and be almost suspicious of new people who want to help. How people can say they want more younger people and children, but not want the change or disruptions that might bring. How places, especially churches, can become set in their ways and cater toward a particular age group (offering programs at times and in interests that best serve folks in their 60s-70s), and then be surprised when younger people don't want to join in.

I thought about how pastors have betrayed the trust, and the church has betrayed the trust, of many people in my generation. How parents failed to pass on the key points of the faith to their kids, and those who were left to "decide for themselves" were left unmoored and resistant to organized religion.

I thought about the challenges of student loans and a difficult job market and difficult housing market and the pressures on people in their 20s and 30s to simply stay afloat.

I thought about the instant gratification we've become accustomed to in my generation. Many of us weren't taught how to fix things around the house - or the church. We're not as good at making personal connections sometimes because it's easier to stay connected online to people we already know.

We're suspicious of a church where we still see embezzlement stories - two Lutheran synods just this past year - and sex scandals and subtle messages that exclude wide swaths of the population, from people who are gay or lesbian, to African Americans to the working poor to Latinos to people who are unmarried to people who have tattoos.

I thought about all of this - but then I realized it kind of sounded like a long list of excuses. Valid excuses, maybe, but excuses nonetheless.

And I started to get fed up with "my generation," who I'm sometimes left defending and sometimes left struggling to understand.

We all want to give back, right? We want to make a difference. To be authentic and real and to matter.

We want to believe in a God who we can touch and see in a community who carries on Christ's Spirit.

We want all these things. We have valiant goals and authentic desires. In churches, where we often aren't, we could teach many things - could carry on Christ's Spirit in a new and important way.

And yet we have something to learn from those who have gone before.

They show up.

It's easy to sit on the sidelines of the traditional church and criticize it. To want to go somewhere tailor-made for us, with children's arks and upbeat music and trendy Bible studies and finance classes.

I've been there. I get it. It's easier to go to a place more like that.

But there are other places, too. And I've read a verse or two in the Bible about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and it means more about giving and less about consuming.

I had this Scripture reading at my ordination:
"Then Jesus said to them all, 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels."

Discipleship is about giving ourselves, as Jesus gave Himself for us. Church can sometimes be more about what we give than what we get.

It's not always going to be pretty or perfect or tailor-made just for us at church. Churches are coming along and working hard but most of the time we're sort of stuck in the past a bit. We're trying to update ourselves but it would be much easier for us if you'd come along and help us out.

If you want to go to a church that offers screens and visuals, offer to help run the Power Point.
If you want to go to a church with more upbeat music, think about if you might want to sing or play in a Praise Band.
If you want to start a Bible Study that meets at a bar, talk to your local pastor and run it through the church. Same for children's classes or mom's groups or whatever you'd like a part of your life. Work with the resources the church has had for generations.

Many people in my generation want to do great things to help others and change the world. The church does too, really.

Churches often have resources that we don't. Churches have buildings and meeting spaces and nurseries and sound equipment and people who give money to the church for the good of the mission of the church -- did you hear that, my generation? You might want to consider thinking about giving money to the church you attend. If you don't, ask yourself why not - and what could happen to change that.

I think the single biggest thing that could make a huge impact for Lutherans and Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians and Christians and agnostics and atheists all across America and the world, is if some of us from "my generation" dragged ourselves out of bed on Sunday morning and just suspended our judgment for an hour and checked out church. And challenged ourselves: all right, maybe this church doesn't seem like "me," but maybe I'll get to know some folks and say to Jesus and to this church: Here I Am. Use Me.

I think "my generation" could do much more good inside the church than out of it. Our generations: from the Greatest to Baby Boomers to GenX to Millenials -- we need each other desperately. The Church is one dynamic place where we can all come together for good and for Jesus.

I've seen with my own eyes what just one family can do.

We have a family in our church who came to St. Philip eight years ago. They have two children, one in preschool and one in elementary. Lots of weeks, they're the only ones in Sunday School and the only ones at my children's sermon. Their mom leads a fantastic Vacation Bible School and recently joined our staff as parish administrator.

They could have come to St. Philip and said, "No thanks," I'd rather go to that church with the Children's Ark! I'd rather blend in.

I can't say I'd have been so courageous at a place where there weren't many others like myself.

But they were. And they still do energize us all, and I know they've changed St. Philip for the better, and as a pastor I don't know what I'd do without them.

This morning the little boy was at church with his mom and walked into my office:

"Oh, you're here! Are you coming over on Sunday (for a church dinner they're hosting)?"

"I am!"

"Yes!!!"

Some of my favorite conversations at St. Philip are with this little guy. I realized as I talked with him that I had an answer to my council member's question: where is the next generation?

It's here. In this still, small voice who comes with his mom to work sometimes and picks up rocks outside and tears through the sanctuary with the Gospel Train before Sunday School.

The next generation is here. We care, I know we do.

But churches need more of us. So, "my generation," if you want to change the world, try changing a church with your presence.

4 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for your article. As an Associate in Ministry in the Lutheran Church for 35 years as an educator...and as a parent of a 30 and 28 yr. old your words out of so many hit my heart. And really, I think, were right on the mark. Thank you so much for your insights and trust me, they will be put to good use!

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  2. Thanks Kay for reading and for your comment. I hope your kids might find the article hits home too.

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  3. Wisely said! Exciting to find you here and pray that God is blessing you richly in all that you are doing!

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