Wednesday, June 19, 2013

"What Young People Want In Church..." something that I am not actually sure of.  But I am going to make an effort to identify some of these things.

I am in a preaching intensive class this week at Luther Seminary.  Yesterday one of my classmates (a woman in her late fifties) delivered a sermon in which she used powerpoint slides.  Her reasoning for doing this was that "Young people want this in a church and they are more likely to come to our church if we do multimedia sermons."

I felt compelled to speak out on behalf of young people.  The three of us in my lab but also young people everywhere.  By no means do I have all the answers and this is just a starting point.  But I do have some unique qualifications to speak to this:
-I am a young person (I'll be 30 in a month)
-I have spent a lot of time in non-traditional congregations over the last few years
-I am training to become a pastor
-I have a call to speak change into the church

So here are some of my thoughts about this.  Please chime in as you feel so moved.

1. Young people want innovative things in church.
Now, this is going to seem to stand in direct opposition to what I said above, but bear with me.  Far too often faith communities latch onto the word "innovative" and think it means media in worship services, contemporary bands, and so on and so forth.  This is wrong.  This was maybe innovative 20-30 years ago.  Maybe not even then.  When I say innovative, I mean different from ordinary life.  I have a smart phone and a laptop that are with me constantly.  I am constantly connected and surrounded by a multimedia, multi-sensory experience.  In the church that I attend, I want something different.  We actually want to be fully present and have an experience of the divine.  We are not looking for entertainment.  Which leads me to my next point...

2. Young people want church to be part of the world
Congregations have gotten into a nasty habit of trying to appeal to young people, or furthermore any new people, by trying to make their churches as much like the "outside world" as possible.  This rests on at least two problematic assumptions.  First, that the church is separate from the world and, second, that we want to be isolated from it.  This is not true.  Just because your congregation has a coffee cart in the narthex, doesn't make me think you are cool and certainty doesn't make me want to come attend worship.  We want churches that are in touch with their neighborhoods and our country and our world.  This is not limited to once-yearly Habitat for Humanity builds or mission trips (that is another post entirely) to Mexico once every couple years or collecting food for the food pantry.  No, young people want their congregations to share life with their communities.  The good, the bad, and the ugly, which leads to...

3. Young people want church to be a place where they can be real
Coming of age as a young adult right now is a lonely and terrifying proposition.  We are disproportionately unemployed.  We are the first generation who are "worse off" than our parents.  We are drowning in debt.  We are putting off getting married and having children and owning homes.  We will likely never realize the American dream as it has been known in the past.  We are being bombarded with demands to "hold it together" and maintain a certain image because networking is important and we "never know what contact will help us get a job".  There are very few places where we can be truly who we are.  Where we can share our pain and disappointments and joys and fears. Church can be that place.  But most of all, we want to be heard in all of who we are, which brings me to...

4. Young people are tired of having assumptions made about them
"Young people" are often seen as a commodity.  And furthermore, seen as THE commodity that will save the church.  A church is seen as thriving if it has young adults and we sometimes feel only like numbers and a bullet point in the strategic plan.  We are talked about and around and all sorts of people have ideas about what we want and what we need, most of which is wrong.  There is a pretty easy way forward.  People could ASK us what is important to us, which leads to...

5. Young people want to feel valued in the church
We want to have opportunities to serve and learn in faith communities.  But it is not as simple as keeping the existing structure of volunteer positions and leadership structure and plugging in young adults.  How about getting to know us and identifying and nurturing our gifts?  This is an entirely opposite approach than currently exists and it is scary.  If you want us to lead, you might have to step out of the way to make room for us. Which leads me to...

6. Young people aren't interested in maintaining the status quo in church
The Derek Penwell article, What if the kids don't want our church?, has been floating around for awhile  and I have even written about it on this blog before.  This is painful but I am just going to say it, we don't really want your church.  This is not a value judgment.  It just is.  The Baby Boomer generation is perhaps the first in American history that has had such a wide swath of products and experiences targeted especially towards them.  They received this well.  And this huge and gifted generation has assumed that everyone else wants the same thing that they do.  We do not.  We want the same opportunities that you all have received to re-imagine and re-shape what church can be.  Which opens the discussion of...

7. Young people value authenticity
Authenticity gets thrown around as a marketing tool, particularly in churches.  Young adults have a finely tuned ability to smell inauthenticity and nothing is more pathetic than a carefully crafted facade of being "authentic."  We want congregations to recognize their own gifts and identity and live into that. Not every congregation can stand for everything and not every congregation is going to be able to be a place where young adults find a church home.  But that is okay, because we need to leave room for the Holy Spirit to do what she will and form and reform our congregations and our leaders which leads me to my final points...

8. We are open to where the Spirit is leading us and we want our churches to recognize that
Those of us who are a part of faith communities are incredibly faithful.  Our religious practices look different.  We want to discuss theology in bars with our friends.  We want to experience worship, not just attend it.  We want to sing hymns loudly and badly in pubs with our congregations.  When we start becoming engaged in congregations, it might look different than our parents and grandparents, but it is no less valid.  

9. Those of us who sense a call to serve want to be raised up as clergy in the church
We are young.  We are faithful.  We are LGBTQ.  We have tattoos.  We sometimes swear.  We have made mistakes.  We will continue to do so.  We are no different from you, yet we are so different from you. We need to be mentored by you, but we also need for you to allow us to fly and to be moved by the Holy Spirit.  

10. We want to hear when we need to step back and let a new generation lead
We won't be young forever.  Even though we are often the youngest in congregations, we will continue to age.  And if our church communities are doing what they hope we will, we won't be the youngest.  And we need to learn when to get out of the way for something new to happen as well.  At that point, we will need you to help us know how to gracefully step aside.  

This is not an exhaustive list and I would love to have this conversation continue

Monday, June 10, 2013

Grandma Amy

Amy and Grandma Amy

It's been four long years today since the world lost someone so beautiful.  Grandma Amy's favorite thing to tell her grandchildren (All 13 of us!  Plus three great-grandchildren at the time, now eight!) was that she was proud of us.  I know that she is still watching all of us and is still proud.  She was such a light in the world and we are all better for having her in our lives.  Grandma Amy inspired me to follow my dreams and to travel the world and to love big in the midst of all of it.  I hope I am half as fantastic as her someday.

I need this reminder this week

I am beginning day one of ten days worth of intensive classes (8:00am-4:30 pm).  Lord have mercy.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Death is an inevitability...but it does not have the final word (Luke 7:11-17)

From a sermon preached at Humble Walk Lutheran Church, St Paul, MN on June 9, 2013. 
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the Triune God.  Amen
I struggled with this week’s text because it leaves me with more questions than answers. Luke’s Gospel provides story after story to illustrate why Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God and how God is doing a new thing in the world.  This story is included for a reason, and it has all the right components:  a grieving widowed mother, a dead man, a wailing crowd, and a miraculous healing.   
So why this particular man?  Surely on this very same day other sons and daughters in the same city died leaving behind widowed mothers.  Where were their miracles?  And any one of us who has ever prayed for a miraculous healing of a loved one and ended up planning a funeral instead or tried to find meaning in a life smothered by depression, knows that miracles don’t happen just because we want them. 
I have absolutely no doubt that miracles happen every single day, just look at an infant discovering the world for the first time or getting the test result that the cancer has gone into remission.  But we want miracles to come on our terms and when they don’t, we often feel like it is a reflection of our faithfulness or quality of character.  If we would have prayed more or tried harder or were a better person, we like to think that we might deserve a miracle more than the person down the street.  In a life that seems way too painful and out of control, we need to feel like we can grasp onto something.
It is tempting to read this text as a story of miraculous healing and the power of God that comes through our actions of faith.  A healing does take place and it is because of the power of God.  But this text, and other texts like it, which we will read over the next couple months, in which Jesus performs miracles and brings hope to impossible situations are twisted around by our human need to control the outcome of things around us, particularly those things that have the potential to cause us pain.  We hear that Jesus performs miracles, and we try to influence those miracles through our own actions.  There is an entire ministry enterprise built on this, just turn on any Christian television station.  You declare your need for healing, and “prayer teams are standing by” and in the midst of all this praying, there are testimonials from those who have been healed.  And stories like the widow at Nain that we hear about in today’s Gospel are cited as evidence for the miraculous work of Christ, you just have to want it enough to pray for it in the right way. I think we sometimes want to read healing stories through this lens, but that is not what is going on in this text. 
Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd are moving throughout the country.  The disciples and the crowd had already witnessed the miraculous work of Jesus.  This group came to Nain, a small city near Nazareth.  Before they even enter the gates of the city, this crowd meets another large crowd.  This group was carrying the body of a man, the “bier” that we hear referenced in the text is a sort of rack for carrying a body wrapped in a shroud, and they are headed out of the city for burial.  This man is described as “his mother’s only son” and his mother was a widow.  At the time, this woman would very likely become destitute without a spouse or children to care for her, as there were no viable ways for a single woman to support herself.  This woman was in the most desperate situation imaginable.  She had lost her husband, lost her only child, and now she was likely to lose her home and her entire way of life. 
But when we look at the text, REALLY look at the text, the grieving widow is not asking Jesus to bring her son back to life.   The group carrying the body has no expectation of healing.   We do not hear about the widowed mother begging and pleading for God to bring her son back to life.  She has no idea who this Jesus character is.  She is just trying to summon all her energy to get through this burial so she can go home and pull the shades and finally sob in peace without being stared at by the neighbors.  She is weighed down by death.
We have all been in this place.  The steely determination of gathering all your energy reserves to get through one more day, one more hour, one more minute, before you can collapse on the floor at home and cry.  Maybe you have had to gather your own emotions to be able to “hold it together” and put yourself on autopilot to plan the funeral of a family member.  Maybe you are surviving a divorce or the grief of a broken relationship and it takes everything you have to make it through a day of work.  Maybe you are suffering in silence with addiction or depression and feel like you are dead, yet you keep waking up everyday anyway.  Loneliness is death.   Fear is death.  Sin is death.  We are all weighed down by death and cannot save ourselves.   What are you carrying that is causing you to die slowly?   What do you need Jesus to heal today?  
Yet in this widow’s unimaginable grief, in the dark tunnel that leads only to the grave where she will bury her only son, Jesus notices her.  Out of the crowd he picks her out, feels his heart break for her, and says, “do not weep.”  And he touches the shroud that covers the body of her only son, and commands the man to rise.  For this community, death was terribly taboo and against religious purity laws.  By physically touching death, Jesus is indicating that he is doing a new thing on earth.  Walls will be broken down and change is coming. 
The promise that we hear in today’s text is not that the sick and the dead will be restored to their lives here on earth, and will be able to testify about it on the stage of a low-rent televangelist on late night television, but that Jesus came to earth, both fully human and fully divine, and knows the depth of human suffering and promises to move towards us and be present in it.  It has nothing whatsoever to do with what we are capable of doing or praying or being.  We are all going to die.  The man in today’s text will die again.  His mother will die.  All of the disciples and the people in the crowd will die.  Even Jesus himself is going to die.  And while death is an inevitability for all of us, it does not have the final word. 
This is the promise of the Gospel in today’s reading.  We have Jesus, God incarnate, who came to earth to dwell among us so that we might never have to be apart from God again, not in sin and not in death.  We have a God who KNOWS suffering and who endures with us in our present suffering.  We have a God who notices the grief of widowed mothers and dares to comfort and heal in the midst of such grief and suffering.   We have a God who holds us in the midst of our grief and dares to touch the parts of our lives that are dying.  And above all, we have a God who has conquered death on our behalf.  Death happens, even in the midst of life, but it is not the end and we are not defined by it.  Amen.