The past month has been an interesting one. Articles have abounded on-line and in print about the exodus of the Millennial generation from the church. The reasons that are said to be the cause of this phenomenon are as manifold and as divergent as those who report on it. When you get down to it, though, they all seem to come down to a two-fold critique of the church; first, on the basis of how she treats her own, and second, how she treats those who stand outside her walls. I do not believe that there are any quick and easy answers to these critiques. I do believe there are answers- don't get me wrong- I just don't believe they are quick or easy.
First, we must admit that people aren't flocking to our doors. But why should that come as a surprise? In theory we, as Christians, are called to be a "peculiar people"- peculiar in that we are supposed to stand as a witness to the love, justice, freedom, and peace that finds its root in the soil of the Kingdom of God of which Jesus was the harbinger. In practice, if we are honest with ourselves we must admit that we have allowed that call to be peculiar to morph into the easier goal of being just plain weird. Our churches have lost their edge, and the plot. What we call evangelism and discipleship have become, more or less, transparent attempts to perpetuate a two-thousand year old institution for one more generation. Frankly if all the church has to offer is simple self-perpetuating weirdness, then it ought to be left to die its slow and lingering death. I do not believe, however, that this is the case.
What is needed in our churches is an alternative narrative. One that focuses not on the slow death by degrees of irrelevancy, but one that focuses anew on Jesus. Do you remember that old hymn- "I Have Decided to Follow Jesus?" I know that at its heart this should be what all churches are supposed to be about. But, so far as I can tell, the problem is that amid all the car washes, bake sales, raffles, talent shows, lock-ins, concerts, bingo nights, committee meetings, sub-committee meetings, ad hoc committee meetings, exploratory meetings, fund raisers and building campaigns, we often fail to follow. Following requires commitment, courage, and humility. Instead of displaying these characteristics in spades, we have found ourselves as a haven for fear and all its friends (gossip, slander, bigotry, hatred, small-mindedness and back-biting). We have taken those elements in our culture that once seemed to serve our ends and have made them sacred. We have enshrined the Bible, calling it the Word of God (a title it never claims for itself) and have given it our highest reverence, because that is easier, less costly, and far less dangerous than doing what it asks of us (namely, loving the God to whom it testifies and loving and serving our neighbors around us without condition). We have become too caught up in what many of us saw as the beautiful scenery of a bygone era. In turning around to enjoy the view, we have taken our eyes off of Jesus as he continued pressing on and as a result the church now finds itself in a panic, trying to remain relevant and important in a world that rightly sees our activity as "…full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing."
This is why we at Central have decided to turn to the hard work of simply trying to follow Jesus. When I was younger, I would lose about anything put in my care- toys, books, homework, shoes, you name it. When I did, my parents would have me retrace my steps from the last time I could absolutely and reliably remember having whatever it was I lost, until I found it again. It was often difficult and time consuming, but more often than not it worked. In this vein, we have decided to start back at the very beginning, in the Gospel of Matthew, where many of us first met our Christ- in a manger.
In the weeks that have followed, we saw him baptized and realized that in the telling of this story God is signifying that in our walk with him we too ought to identify with those around us and seek to serve them rather than being served. We followed him into the wilderness, where we learned that along the way we too will be tested and tempted to do what seems necessary, right, or expedient. We may even hear the Scriptures used by those who would sway us. We learned that a good way to tell if the voice quoting the Bible to us is demonic is to listen to what it is compelling us to do. If it is calling us to do something destructive to ourselves or others, whether physically harmful or spiritually dehumanizing; if it is calling us to hate our brothers or sisters for any reason whether it is on the basis of their age, gender, race, economic status, educational status, citizenship, or sexual identity; if it is compelling us to put our own abilities on display and leverage our own relationships for self-promotion, then we can be certain that the voice of the sinister is whispering through those words, regardless of where they come from or who is mouthing them. We learned that on our own journey we must ultimately rely on God alone- God's timing, God's ways and not our own.
This week we got introduced to the rule of threes. In Matthew's Gospel, we continually run across sets of three. In the genealogy, in the temptations in the wilderness, and in the triad of stories that mark the beginning of Jesus ministry in Galilee we run across the number three. This week, we followed Christ as he picked up where John the Baptist left off as a sign of God's faithfulness, proclaiming his first message: "Get ready, here comes the Kingdom of God!" We learned that he chose people- normal, everyday people- to be the community that God would use as the instrument through which this Kingdom would spread. Finally, we learned that as Christ went throughout Galilee doing the work of God.
It is here, in his doing the work of God, that we run across another set of three. That three-fold work was: teaching, proclaiming, and helping others in their weakness and need. I believe that this is the work that Christ is leading the church to do, and what we must do if we are to follow his lead: teach, proclaim, help.
Christ is leading the church to teach the will of God to the people. This will is not synonymous with any party platform or any set of Church Dogma, rather it is the content of the self-sacrificial life and love of Jesus Christ. It is revealed in both his words and deeds, and I look forward to picking back up the warp and woof of those teachings as we continue our journey with Jesus in the months and years ahead.
Christ is leading the church to help. This means we need to be just as present for and in tune with the needs of people in our local communities as Christ was those who came out to see him from the land around the Jordan, from Syria, and from Jerusalem. We need to be involved in our neighborhoods, know who is there, and have a way to provide for their needs. If we live among the hungry this can mean starting a food pantry. If we live among the sick, we can try and provide access to healthcare. If we live among those whose work-a-day world seems to swallow all their time and energy it can mean helping them to find a way to slow down, to reconnect with friends and family, and to reorient their priorities. If we live among the old it can mean a ministry of visitation and household help. If we live among the very wealthy it can mean helping them to see how to serve others with their things, their influence, and their abilities. Regardless, Christ set the example in helping others in their weakness.
Finally, Christ is leading the church to proclaim. Decry injustice. Declare the inherent worth of people. Give voice to that cry within the human heart that there must be something more to life than existence. Cry with a loud voice, "God accepts you! God loves you! You don't have to have it all figured out! You don't have to be young! You don't have to be pretty! You don't have to be "successful"! You don't have to have your life together! You don't even have to believe what we believe! There is more to life than all of that! The kingdom of love is here- and love is calling you to be a part! To come home!"
That is our message. It was the message of Christ. Let it echo in ten thousand permutations throughout the church. We will try. We will fail. We will try again. I do not know if this message will get Millennials interested. I do not know if it will perpetuate the church for another generation. I do know that it is the message of Christ and that if we claim to follow him that we must walk as he we walked. And I do know what we'll be humming as we follow him down that road… no turning back… no turning back…