A Ray of Hope

I had a long, boring conversation with one of our denominational mucky-mucks this week about our impending doom.  He feels that I am unreasonably optimistic about the state of the church.  (Obviously he hasn’t read everything I have written…)  Two points in particular motivated his getting in touch with me: one, that I think all the doom-and-gloom obsessing is bad for us and really not warranted, and two, that I think the attempt to get young people to join 36f88f53712e4c12ab696a1073838667the church is misguided.  My response to him is consistent with what I say here: I think there is more to be gained on what we have and who we are than to dwell on what we lack and who we aren’t.  Getting new people makes no sense when we don’t know what to do with the people we already have.  And in my understanding of the mission, making disciples for the transformation of the world trumps making members of the UMC for the survival of the institution.  However, my solution is a both/and rather than an either/or.  I truly and honestly believe that if we do a better job creating authentic Christian community that is equipping people to live as the body of Christ to serve and heal the broken world, we will attract many new participants, a large number of them young.  It has been depressing the number of emails I received  about my blog, Time Warped, from older, entrenched UMs horrified by the idea that young adults would actually be given power.  My ideas that young people need to be give responsibility, authority, autonomy, and encouragement were labeled variously as “naïve,” “ignorant,” “stupid,” “idealistic,” “deadly,” “short-sighted,” “foolish,” and “b***s***.”  To the best of my knowledge, none of these opinions came from anyone under 50 — which may illustrate the problem better than anything I could say.

However, I want to share a ray of hope.  This weekend at Chula Vista resort in the Wisconsin Dells 1,000 teenagers and young adults are gathered for Senior High Convo 2009.  The energy, the spirit, and the faith of these young people is breathtaking.  These are kids seeking a relationship with God and they haven’t given up on the church (yet).  There is hope here, and joy.  There is a sense of God’s goodness and life’s meaning here.  This is church.  It isn’t measured in numbers or attendance or membership.  It’s measured in desire — desire to come together to worship God, to learn the faith, to be energized and encouraged, and to be sent into the world and home with a renewed commitment to follow Jesus.  The disciples of the church of Jesus Christ are being formed right here, right now.  What a glorious opportunity.  What a witness.  This is where we need to focus our attention — on those who are seeking and striving, those who are open and inquiring.  Doesn’t it make more sense to focus on how to cement the bonds and relationships with the young people we have rather than figuring out how to get them back ten years from now?

Yes, there is a huge mission field “out there,” but there is a pretty big one “in here” as well.  It is my hope, prayer, and dream that we will work doubly hard with the children, youth, and young adults we have to help them fall in love with God and Christ, that they might be lifelong members of the body of Christ — and through their own faith, they might reach others who have yet to hear God’s great news.  The church we have is spectacular — every bit as good as the church we keep wishing we could have.

10 replies

  1. David Springstead (there were two David S’s, hence the full last name– I’m not calling you out! Well, maybe I am a little?)…

    I’m not sure what you referred to when you spoke of “using” youth and younger adults “in church leadership.” If this refers to the usual committee structures of a typical congregation, my guess is that sort of thing is about as appealing to most youth and young adults as memorizing the periodic table alphabetically, numerically, and backwards– in short, tedium tremendum, non fascinans.

    Here’s the core problem, as I see it. Congregations by and large aren’t directly about discipleship, and their leadership structures almost never are. They’re about monitoring the financial life of the congregation, or learning what the pastor’s up to, or making sure the Sunday School literature is getting to the folks who need it, or getting a mission trip to Nicaragua together or any number of other things, all of which are fine things in themselves for Christians to do, and that we should do, but all of which are also at least one step removed from actually living as disciples of Jesus and as his representatives in the world in our daily lives.

    Confirmation isn’t supposed to be preparing youth to serve on committees. It’s supposed to be preparing them to live as missionaries in Christ’s name, wherever they go. There are leadership skills needed for that task, but we don’t typically create structures to support and sustain either that task (at least not seriously) or the kind of environment that helps folks learn to lead well in these direct daily missional environments.

    So… if confirmation leads up to people now being able to serve on committees where they’re not necessarily going to get listened to much, and which, frankly, are a waste of their time, is it any wonder we see such a high “graduation” rate from the worshiping community after confirmation? I mean, really, isn’t there a kind of bait and switch going on here (and a sad and often transparent kind at that)?

    I go back to the image of the energy and vitality and commitment Dan described in Wisconsin. And then I ask, honestly, “Where in the life of our congregations is there room for THAT level and kind of energy?” That energy isn’t enthusiasm to be part of the committees. It’s enthusiasm to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world. So… how are you, instead of “using them in leadership,” launching them into discipleship in the world, trusting them to be disciples, and so to fail, learn from failure, and keep plugging away at things OUT THERE for Jesus?

    Confirmation shouldn’t be about sealing the deal that they’re now “in here”– it should be about sealing the deal that the Spirit is driving them, as the Spirit drove Jesus, into the wilderness to get going on his mission.

  2. Early Methodists were, from what we can tell, largely, though not entirely, younger adults. They didn’t wait to get permission from the Church of England or any other church to start creating worship services for themselves inside their congregations. Indeed, they didn’t create worship services inside their congregations precisely because that would either be illegal (Church of England) or disallowed (anyone else). Still, based on General Rule 3, they were expected and held accountable for regularly attending the worship services of those churches in which they had little or no input.

    Where they did have input– if not necessarily on design, but in contributing in a variety of ways through prayer, testimony, singing, and preaching– was the Society meetings on Sunday night. Wesley never intended that what happened and the way it happened on Sunday morning would be abandoned by Methodists (hence the prayer book he sent over and that was adopted by the 1784 General Conference for the Sunday morning service was an edited version of the Book of Common Prayer!). But neither did he expect the Sunday evening phenomenon of more interactive, expressive worship to cease. His vision was a both-and– and that the people called Methodists would participate as fully as they could in both.

    As indeed, in England and over here for several decades, they did.

    Why both? Because each praised God and was edifying in different ways. (Yes, Wesley did speak of worship, and hymns in particular, as edifying for us, as did St. Paul– but not in nearly as consumerist as way as seems to be expected these days). Trying to blend all of the ways these different forms of worship functioned into one service would have been a disaster. And it still is– Frankenchurch, I think you called it, Dan!

    Still, the point here is that it’s not that one substitutes for the other. That’s my deep problem with having any group, of whatever age, create their own worship service that is “meaningful” for them and that they will attend and then NOT be actively part of the worship life of the whole congregation.

    • When I helped to design and lead a contemplative worship service in the last church I attended, and that small group of thirty people who met together and worshipped together and grew together, was I not part of the “worship life of the whole congregation?” When a group of young adults, led by an ordained seminary grad, took worship to a shared space in a poor part of town creating a new, albeit small, worshipping community, did they cease being connected to the “worship life of the whole congregation?” I think we may be talking about two different things… at least, I hope we are.

      I understand that the historic church and our own tradtion was never based in disciple-making before, but it is our mission now and I believe we should take it seriously. I really don’t think our future lies in our past, and I am convinced we will not find the examples and principles we need in our past to become the church we need to be in the future. This IN NO WAY implies that I think we scrap tradtion, but (okay, here is a bizarre analogy) in my house growing up we had an ancestor’s chamber pot. But we used it as a planter, not a chamber pot. It still served a purpose, more asthetic than practical, granted, but we had a better alternative so we modified the function a bit to fit the times. It’s a wineskin/wine kind of thing. Taylor, you know I am constantly calling the church to an integrity of thought, word, and deed and I believe worship is central to that. But if our church is to be about the work of making disciples of Jesus Christ, our worship will be affected, and I believe in some very positive ways. Worship life, for me, is not just what happens in the sanctuary, and it includes the worship of practices of all the people, whether they are practiced together in the same space at the same time led by the same people or not (which is how so many people seem to think about this question).

  3. Something’s missing here. The historic church was “called” into being. Who is being called now? “Now” it’s all about self-creation, “re-think church,” emergence, on and on…into the dust bin of history.

    Meanwhile…we enjoy the conversation about what’s not happening.

  4. Hi Dick,

    I read your blog about young adults being given power and ability to create change and bring about a church that has depth and meaning to them. I am over 60 “barely”. I know that I can relate to most but not all persons, yet what gets younger persons excited about worship is different that what gets me excited. I and some leaders of a smaller UMC church let some young adults and our youth leader create a service from scratch, to reach young adults who are left to float in time and space. It intentionally came about through Bible study, prayer and a group of committed young adults who met regularly and created a template of worship of their own design. My role as pastor was to support and encourage, and let the process go forward without interference. It is still going in its infancy and yet lives have been changed, the spirit of God is in the transformation of lives. They continue to do things differently, that feeds their souls. I applaud their efforts and believe it is possible to allow new forms of thinking, praying, worshiping, if we step back and allow young creative minds to take the reins with the spirit of God equipping them along the way.

  5. From the time our youth take the membership vows they have the same responsibilities as any other member. This means we should be using them in church leadership just like any other “older” adult who expects to be there. Yet we expect the youth and young adults to wait until they’re “older” before giving them opportunities to serve. And we wonder why we aren’t reaching anybody for Christ…

    All are welcome. Jesus paid too high a price for us to pick and choose who worthy. We’d better get our act together, and soon, or there won’t be a UMC of any kind before too long.


  6. I’m over 50 (not by much…) and I agree that the young MUST be given more power, and be expected to use it. They are part of the church and they will have full control in a few years–provided they remain. Jason Santos, in his book on Taizé, believes it is the absolute trust the brothers of Taizé place in the youth that makes Taizé the success that it is. I think he’s right.

  7. Well….you shouldn’t be surprised by the responses. I have been pondering a potential solution of build as we go. Maybe allowing the current situation while allowing new congregations and younger members to function under a new system of Methodism focused on building Christian Community. I don’t think the minds of those who find comfort in the status quo will ever change.
    I think back to merger of my home church with a neighboring congregation. Despite the need for a change and despite the obvious dysfunction of both groups there were people who actually said that it is best to die as a congregation than change!
    Well maybe we should let them die and focus our time and resources on a new vine and allow those in our current system to graft in.

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