Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Millennial Church

This is one to definitely file under the "Wow, this is for real" folder.  Last week, Annie Selak, a friend and classmate of mine at seminary in Berkeley (and currently a Roman Catholic lay minister at Notre Dame University), was published by the Washington Post, writing a column entitled "The Church Young Catholics Want."

I posted it to my Facebook wall as recommended reading for anyone who wants a foundational understanding of the Christian experience for today's teens and twentysomethings, and I would commend it to y'all as well.  It's a fantastic piece.  And here on the blog, I wanted to offer a few reflections from my perspective on the topics that Annie highlights in her column.  She writes that the youth need four particular things from their religious community:

A church that takes their experience seriously.

A church that emphasizes the inclusive ministry of Jesus.

A church that embraces that God is everywhere.

A church that engages struggles and is open to dialogue.

Let's unpack each in turn for just a bit...

A church that takes their (youths') experience seriously.

On an academic level, I have been profoundly influenced by the views of Christian existentialists like Soren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich.  In a nutshell (to grossly oversimplify volumes of theological treatises), they argue that the universe is inherently paradoxical, especially concerning an infinite God and finite us.  Ergo, we can only understand God not through proofs, but through experience, because nothing can expose us to the great totality of God's goodness and grace.

What this means on a practical, rubber-hitting-the-road level, is that how we experience God matters immensely to our faith, to the point of being irreplaceable.  As the old saying goes, life is a series of short stories that turns itself into a novel.  In the short stories of our lives, we are so lucky if we can say we had a religious or God experience, but not if those experiences are largely ignored by a church or a clergy out of touch with what is happening in our lives and in our world.  And as a result, young people begin to leave the church, and our short stories going forward are devoid of a particularly important backdrop and cast of characters.

A church that emphasizes the inclusive ministry of Jesus.

And I quote the late evangelical scholar F.F. Bruce on this one: "I think Paul would roll over in his grave if he knew we were turning his letters into Torah."

Not only are we using an apostle who was vehemently anti-legalistic (seriously, read Romans 8 verse-by-verse sometime) to set up a whole structure of rules and laws, that structure of rules and laws is often used to create distinctions between men and women (women cannot teach in church), husbands and wives (wives should submit to their husbands), and gay and straight, even though Paul also writes that in Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female.

Paul was martyred for much the same reason that Jesus was--he was too radical to be kept alive by the powers that be!  And by turning Paul--and Jesus--into power that is used to narrow the scope and scale of God's great salvation for us all, we are doing the world the same disservice the Roman Empire did in Biblical times--we are shutting off a source of divine revelation because, deep down, we cannot stomach it.

And believe me when I say that young people can see through that stunt.  We have to be authentic in our inclusivity if we are to speak to them as well.

A church that embraces that God is everywhere.

This one feels like a bit of a no-brainer to me, but it often is not.  If we think that God is on "our side" (whatever that may be), it implies God's absence somewhere else.  Instead, Annie argues that our generation sees diversity and unity as concepts that go together rather than contradict each other, and I truly have little else to add to her analysis.  It's spot-on.

A church that engages struggles and is open to dialogue.

This is, in my mind, the million-dollar question.  Show me a church that proffers a 5-page creed or statement of doctrine, and I'll show you a church that doesn't teach so much as spoon-feed.

Put a different way: Jon Acuff, the hilarious author behind the Stuff Christians Like website, argues in his book by the same name, "I'm perfectly happy to spoon-feed my one-year-old.   But I'm still spoon-feeding him when he's five, we've got a problem.  Here's a fork.  Feed yourself."

Churches--and clergy--that rely on spoon-feeding their congregants also, in my experience, are more apt to actively discourage the asking of tough questions, or to respond to the tough questions with trite and inadequate answers, because being right is more important than being engaged.

(As an aside, I also find it ironic that these churches are also (again, in my experience) more likely to trumpet the virtues of good old-fashioned American individualist self-reliance, but that's a different can of tuna.)

It's okay not to have all the answers.  The minute that we think we do, something terribly wrong has happened.  But arrogance is far too easy a trap for a church and its clergy to fall into, precisely because people look to us for answers.  And I think perhaps empowering others to find answers may not only allow them to grow as Christians, but allow us to grow as Christian clergy.

What do you think?  What do you most wish the church would or could be that it isn't quite yet?  What do you want your church to be striving towards in this time and place in humanity's epic novel of a story?

Yours in Christ,

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