Come with me to Church, walk up the path and through the door, I hope that you will be welcomed warmly, but if you have time just take a look around our foyer, you’ll see a Christians Against Poverty Banner letting folk know that our centre is now open, also a collecting box for the Selby and District Food Bank, and a notice board with details of activities and events. What you won’t know is that this has not always been the case, and that some people don’t like it looking as it does, only last Sunday I heard of complaints, people asking what the entrance says about us; I hope it says that we care about the poor, the hungry and the homeless.
Now imagine for a moment that you are one of the guests of the family who are bringing their baby to be baptised, you’re a bit confused because you thought that baptisms were private services but this morning the whole church is here; all of these people make you feel a bit nervous. I hope that we’ll help you to relax, and that you’ll enjoy the service; you might be surprised by the fact that we use a screen and video projector and the atmosphere is much less formal than you’d expected….
Now imagine you are a fly on the wall overhearing a later discussion, one of the retired Local Preachers has tackled me he thought the service was a shambles, the prayers weren’t right and the sermon not hard hitting enough, “those people need to understand God’s message!” Another member approaches me, “you did well considering those people didn’t know how to behave” is the comment made. I was speechless, and the next comment made me even angrier, “at least they dressed up properly”….
Them and us syndrome is a horrible curse, it prevents us from seeing others in a positive light, it puffs us up and fills us with a false sense of pride, it is distasteful and out of place in the church! As I was processing my reactions to all of these comments and conversations I came across post after post concerned with why younger folk don’t come to, or struggle with church. The first one that challenged me was entitled “Why you can’t solve your churches young adult problem” , the first thing to take on board was a simple statement of fact;
“Churches are not perfect- nor should we ever think they will be- but as long as church people do mean things to people who are a little different, don’t be surprised when no young people want to come to your church.”
It should be obvious- and of course it is not only young people who will stay away, only today a friend said this;
“ I long for something interesting to ponder, something to challenge and inspire, something to give me hope and faith in the future here, something worth putting energy into fighting for - you know, a better world, a healthier environment, greater justice, fairer distribution of resources, world peace. I don't see the Church delivering any of that really, or offering people any great incentive to get on board enthusiastically with it. I don't even feel it's a particularly loving place, so why would I wish to be in it?”
Ouch, but she makes a good point, as does the writer of the first article, who continues by asking us some very pertinent questions;
“Do we really want young people in our churches? Or do we really mean we want to preserve our values in a younger generation of prototypical images of ourselves? And are we willing to make the gospel compelling enough by trying to actually live it?”
If you want young people in your church, go to where they are. Learn what they do. Strike up a relationship and trust the Holy Spirit enough to let you know when it’s time to invite them to church. In the meantime make sure your church is a place that worries about doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8). …”
Make sure your church worries about doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God NOT about how people are dressed and whether they “behave” according to our standards. Surely we should be helping people to connect with God by offering an open door a welcome and a place to be, an environment where questions and confusions are heard and answered gently... Which brings me to the second article “Releasing the generations”, written by Bishop Graham Cray. He begins with this:
“The relationship between older and younger generations in the Church is complex. Older people can hang on to leadership too long, while younger people (if they stay) get frustrated. Well-intentioned, but often token, appointments of young people are made to church bodies whose meetings can frustrate - or bore the life out of - those same young people. Yet there are also older people looking for someone younger to take on roles they have filled for years – and they can’t find anyone to take their place. The problem is essentially one of power: who has a say and who does not. The issue is also vocational: is each generation respected and released to obey God’s call and trusted to trust God’s promises?”
The issue is essentially one of power he says, I wonder if it is also one of fear, fear of what might happen, what might change if we were to let go. In their book “The Human Face of Church” Sarah Savage and Eolene Boyd-McMillan refer to sociologist Max Weber’s observations which point to a cyclical process amongst religious movements;
“Weber argued that any great vision require a human process to carry it through time, sometimes in the form of “a man, a mission, a movement, or a monument”. Even with the Body of Christ, the life giving charism has to be embodied in a routine – in some form of human organisation. Yet, life giving visions do not fit easily into neat boxes. So the very process that gives the vision continuing life also begins to kill it. When the maintenance of the institution (which protects the charism) becomes the institutions primary purpose, the death of the charism is on the horizon. Only spiritual revival or reform will re-ignite the gift.” (Savage and Boyd-McMillan 2007. p4)
A church that is willing to let go and pass on the power, that is willing to be re-invented for every age is a church that will grow, it’s risky certainly, but the risk of not daring to do so is surely more costly for it will result in our ultimate demise, a picture we see all too often! Cray continues;
It is not the calling of young people to preserve or continue the church as it is but to engage in God’s mission in a way which will inevitably shape the Church of tomorrow. If we are to engage with the UK as a mission field with its sheer scale and diverse complexity, we need the missionary gifts of young people today - not just tomorrow.
So we need to consider our ways, how we share leadership and power, and dare to risk leaving behind what we have to travel to a new future, but of course there is more, for what is Church without God. Let me take you back to our baptism service, during the intercessions which took the form of a power-point display set to music I offered people a chance to respond to God by offering a blessing for those that wanted one, a couple of church members responded, but then something powerful began to happen as a number of the baptism party began to come forward, some of them were in tears, the Spirit was moving, and I too began to weep. I believe that THERE IS A HUNGER FOR GOD planted within us, and that hunger was stirred as folk came forward, they hadn’t expected it, they hadn’t looked for it, but equally they could not resist it. That leads me to a third article by Shane Raynor entitled “When Christianity gets boring” and while I don’t agree with the thrust of his article that young people stay away because church is boring I do find truth in this:
“Christians have spent a lot of time figuring out how to get people to church, but we haven’t always done a lot to establish them in the faith once they’re there. That's partly because we’ve largely reduced faith to activities and programs or to creeds and doctrinal statements. And many of us are chasing a Christianity that’s a figment of our imaginations. We’re looking for the faith of the church fathers, the faith of Luther, of Calvin, of Wesley... sadly some of us would actually settle for a Christianity that’s a snapshot from somewhere in time rather than explore the infinite God of the now!”
…sadly some of us would actually settle for a Christianity that’s a snapshot from somewhere in time rather than explore the infinite God of the now! I want to cry out- surely this is not true, but sadly deep in my heart I know that it often is! We look for methods and fixes, for programmes and solutions, and fail to seek God, the author and perfector of our faith, God who can do immeasurably more in us than we can begin to ask or imagine. Raynor exclaims;
“…since the power and presence and person of God are anything but boring, that tells me we have a disconnect between experiencing God and experiencing church. “
Another Facebook friend posted a comment from a young man who says this;
" I did a YouTube video the other week on the reason why church has made me contemplate leaving. I'm 31 and have only been a Christian for two years. The two main reasons for me, and it seems to be echoed by others around me are lack of discipleship (we are just left to get on with it, questions remain unaswered) and too much noise. Church tries to be 'trendy' loud music, bands, messy church. All great concepts but what myself and others want is hard, straight up answers to questions and silence. Church is not boring, its just failing to connect with what young people really need....God"
People NEED GOD, not just young people but people of all ages, sizes, colours and backgrounds, we were made for God, by God and NEED a real relationship with God who loves us more than we can possibly imagine. People need God, and the church is called to know, and nurture that need, to call forth life by growing changing, and adapting, sharing the life that it has received allowing it to flow out into the desert places of this world causing the desert to bloom. Life should no be kept in a neat box, safely shielded from the realities of the world, if we do that with life it will die, and we will be lost….
Let me tell you why you are here. You're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavours of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You've lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.
14-16"Here's another way to put it: You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colours in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don't think I'm going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I'm putting you on a light stand. Now that I've put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you'll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven. (Matthew 5)
Maybe we need to remember;
“God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us. “ (Ephesians 3)