The Church Is My Mother

 

          Is church essential to your life?  Statistics continue to pour out from survey groups on how nearly two-thirds of college students and twenty-somethings simply drop out of church between ages 18-29.  In fact, statistically, all age groups are backing-off on making church an important part of their lives.  This does not necessarily mean that young adults are losing their faith; they simply do not view church as vital to their lives, and so with the pressures and deadlines of school, the need for a vigorous new work schedule, and trying to keep up with the demands of life in general, making church part of the fabric of a person’s life becomes optional.  Young adult Christians, instead, may rely on intermittent personal devotions, community through existing networks of friends on campus or at work, and connecting with others through technology rather than face to face meetings and encounters.

The issue here is not one of church attendance; it is the reality that an entire generation of young people has chosen to put themselves outside of the means of grace given by God for their own benefit and spiritual formation.  There is a profound lack of understanding concerning the nature of the church, as well as a paucity of significant relationships between many twenty-somethings and the rest of the Body of Christ.  Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her so that she might become pure and holy, and become one with Jesus in practicality, as she is in reality through the cross (Ephesians 5:26-27).    The church is God’s ordained means of bringing growth in grace to any person’s life; to neglect her like ignoring your mother.

Like a mother caring for her children, the church is to be a nurturing community for the exercise and development of faith and perseverance.  Without her, the believer is at risk of being like an orphan, cut-off from the life-giving Spirit of God who uses the Word of God in preaching and sacrament to edify and feed.  John Calvin has put this in rather vivid terms:

“For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother (the Church) conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like angels.  Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives.  Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation… it is always disastrous to leave the church.”

 
          
 
          Young adults and college students need to both experience and recover what it means to be the church.  Church leaders need to think in terms of grace and nurture with caring and sensitive ministry to those persons.  The goal is not simply to get young adults to stay or come to a church service; the purpose of ministry to such persons is to enfold and engraft them into the life of a local body of believers in relationships and ministry so that they might grow in faith and use the means of grace that is available to them.  This formative experience in the young adult years provides a foundation for a lifetime of walking with God and steels them for the years ahead in their engagement with the world.  So, how do you view “church”?  What adjustments to your life must you make in order to experience the grace God has for you through his Body?

The Big Deal About Education

 

Education is a big deal to people.  It’s big enough for parents to shell-out thousands of dollars to a university, and big enough for students to rack up tens of thousands in debt in order to obtain a college degree.  If it is that big of a deal, then it only makes sense that the church would take an interest in students and parents.  I’m in that parent role of seeing my own kids come and go into college.  Taking an interest in students by talking to them about their classes, degree programs, plans for post-graduation, and helping them to make sense of their education is a huge opportunity for the church to guide young people in forming a healthy view of school and in developing a solid Christian worldview.  Just sending kids off and hoping for the best isn’t the best approach to either education or the Christian life.  The following are some realities of student thought, and some ways we as the church can help them as they go through their education.

Students look at education as a big deal because they tend to view it as instrumental in getting a good job, and going to college as a place to have fun. So, it really matters to them to obtain the degree so that they can have a rewarding, secure, and comfortable life. It is not very often that I have heard students talk about the intrinsic value of education, but only in terms of the advantages an undergraduate degree will have for them. Yet, a college education affords the chance to be shaped into seeing a broad perspective of the world and become productive members of society and responsible citizens. In other words, education has the potential to have life-long worth even if a student never attains a high level job.

More than just obtaining information, knowledge of a subject, and a certain skill set, a good, well-rounded education can instill necessary critical thinking abilities and an expansive understanding of the world that will serve a student for a lifetime. So, rather than school being only a series of hoops to jump through in order to obtain respect, security, and a comfortable lifestyle, it truly has value in and of itself.

One of the great privileges of getting to know and talk with students is helping them to think through the value of their education from a Christian perspective, to see how their major studies and degree programs used for God can impact the world, and how they can take all their acquired knowledge and make sense of it through biblical categories. In doing this, we can help redeem a college education from only being a means to an end in a pragmatic society.

Here are some questions I typically ask students concerning education and work:
–How do you understand the working world?
–Do you see being a student as a calling? Why, or why not?
–Do you view a “secular” job as a calling? Why, or why not?
–How do you, or can you, connect your faith and your education?
–What do you think is the meaning and purpose of work?
–How does being a student reflect the nature and character of God?
–How is God transforming you through being in college?
–Can you think the thought that God wants to use your job as a means of sanctification?
–What ethical challenges do you face as a student?
–How does your education help you to be a better person?

               What I am laying out here is a view of church, let alone education, which, seems to me, is necessary.  In other words, is church just a place to go and attend worship services?  Or, is church made up of forgiven people who seek to help one another redeem their lives in the world in which they live?  If so, relationships are imperative.  If this is all such a big deal, let’s show it by investing relational capital, and not just money alone, into young people’s lives.

Keeping My Options Open

One of the great problems of today’s church, in my humble opinion, is that decades of generational ministry has led to people in the Body of Christ only relating to the parts of the body just like themselves.  Even within family units, parents have difficulty understanding teenagers and grandparents have a hard time relating to twenty-somethings.  We only exacerbate the problem by giving such a potpourri of offerings in the church (i.e. dare I say it?  a traditional service and a contemporary service) that the ages are segregated with no meaningful interaction.  In short, we just don’t know each other.  I have heard older generations bemoan the lack of commitment among younger people, and younger people complain of older folks as stuck in a rut.  I believe the onus is always on the older to reach the younger (the New Testament letter of Titus chapter 2, for example).  So, let’s reconsider the perspective that young people lack commitment.

There is a mantra that I have heard many students, twenty-somethings, and young families repeat over and over when considering what they will be doing this summer, how the next academic year will shake out, whether they will stick with a certain relationship or activity, how and when they may commit to any involvement, and if they might show up at a certain event or even church: “I’m keeping my options open.”

At first thought this sounds pretty wishy-washy.  But the thought in a young person’s head is typically one of not wanting to close doors that might be open to them, or to not burn bridges with anyone. They want to entertain as many promising options as they can, because they do not want to miss an opportunity, lose control of a situation, or get locked into something they aren’t sure of. Thus, many in the younger generations are typically loathe to settling down on any one thing.

This is why it is commonplace for people under 35 to try a wide variety of religious and spiritual organizations, and may never settle on just one. They move effortlessly between a large group meeting in one place and a bible study in another, and between a small traditional church and a big contemporary worship service. Spiritual experiences for them often take the form of freedom, exploration, spontaneity, and renewal.

Although it is important for all people to learn the value of loyalty and developing consistent routines centered in spiritual disciplines, in a younger person’s modus operandi they typically will not succumb to a dry faith that is done out of sheer duty or habit. So, instead of pressing or expecting them to be in our mold of devotion and faithfulness through closing doors and making consequential decisions, perhaps we ought to walk alongside them and join them in the journey they are on. The New Testament refers to Christianity as a road or a way, and the Christian life as a walk that we take with Jesus and the Spirit. It is in this walking together with another that we can help them consider the options that are before them, and provide counsel, wisdom, and warning concerning the forks in the road and the exits off the path. Younger generations can learn to forego certain options and commit to something particular when we take the time to journey with them.

So, rather than lament this generation’s lack of focus and ever-present flakiness, may we understand their desire to have genuine relationships with God and others that does not miss out on a vibrant life.

-How can we be a help, and not a hindrance to others in their journey?
-What can God do for and with individuals who keep their options open?
-Where is the Spirit taking a young person in his/her walk?
-What are your options in relating to particular persons, and generations of people?

Twenty-Somethings and Reality

 

            A statistic that probably is being discussed more than any other right now in the Church is that the age group 18-29 years old is leaving in great numbers.  Depending upon the study (and many have been done!) the numbers run anywhere from 65%-80% will be gone from the Church by age 29.  As a former minister to college students, I can attest first hand to this reality.  This is a topic that well deserves a great deal of attention, and needs to be addressed from a variety of angles.  Here is just one angle I want to explore:  that of instilling a decidedly Christian worldview into the lives of college age persons through the sacraments. 
 

One of the great tasks of the church, and a vital pursuit for any believing college student, is to continually come in line with a Christian world and life view. Our postmodern and post-Christian society works against becoming spiritually formed according to biblical categories. The university, as important as it is, can be the vehicle of promoting a rival worldview to Christianity. More than one professor in my undergraduate experience told me that they enjoyed shocking freshman students into thinking in more secular terms and away from their “narrow” thinking about God and the church. Although that has been a few years ago, I continually speak with students who feel like they are swimming upstream of the prevailing attitudes on reality in our society and university culture. One of the most significant means that the church can help inform students and promote a Christian worldview is through the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Western society, and sometimes even the church, tends to hold to a cleavage between the spiritual and the material in an inherent dualism inherited from ancient Greek categories of thought. Yet, in the sacraments these two elements are firmly united. The good news of Jesus is not just proclaimed by stating propositions of truth, but, as Frank Senn has said in his book Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical the forgiveness of sins is declared “by sentences joined to a bath, the laying on of hands, and communal eating and drinking” (p.31). God is the creator of all things, both visible and invisible (Colossians 1:16). The incarnation of Jesus is where the invisible God became a visible human. There is no dichotomous reality here between the material and the spiritual, but an essential unity. Leonard VanderZee has said that this unity makes the sacraments “a place where God meets us and where the spiritual and physical come together for our wholeness and healing” (Christ, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, p.28). Now that the Lord Jesus has accomplished his great redemptive events of cross and resurrection, the sacraments serve as material signs to us of the now invisible Christ. John Calvin called this a “visible word” that declares God’s saving work in Christ on behalf of every human being.

There is certainly a profound place for didactic instruction in the church on a Christian worldview, and I would argue that it needs to take place. But this is insufficient. God himself has instituted baptism and the Lord’s Supper as means of proclaiming forgiveness and declaring the unity of reality, and the great union we have with God because of Jesus. When we partake of this, we are doing much more than remembering; we are providing and re-enacting a view of the world that is in contradistinction from prevailing notions outside of Christendom. Here is where college students can find a place of seeing life from God’s perspective.  Emphasizing the place of the sacraments in the life of the Church gives an alternate view of reality from that provided in many secular environments.  This, certainly, is not the last or only word on addressing the great slide of a whole generation of people out of the Church, but the Word proclaimed at the Table is a necessary element to help college students meaningfully connect with a Christian view of life and reality.

 
So, what are some reasons you think people ages 18-29 are leaving the Church?  What are some ways that they might reconnect with their faith?  How might you build a meaningful relationship with a person in this age group?  Do you think the sacraments are important for spiritually forming people?  How about asking those in this age group who have left your church why they did so?

Just Hanging Out

Hang out around any given church on any given Sunday after any given worship service and you are likely to see small groups of people talking with each other.  Those groups typically center around friends according to age.  What is often lacking are intentional interactions between the generations.  The younger generations, particularly teens and college-age persons, need and want to have relationships with older believers in the faith.  They tend, however, to lack the confidence to go after older persons in order to be mentored or influenced by them.  Instead, I believe the onus is on the older generations to go after the younger.  The following is a brief exploration of the nature of relationships of younger generations so that the older generations can feel more equipped in going after them.

Maybe I’m just old, but it really seems like single persons ages 18-29 today have an incredible array of relationships, differing levels of friendship, and a complexity to their interactions that I didn’t have “back in my day.” What I mean is that relationships and friendships for twenty-somethings now seem much more gray, and less black and white. One isn’t always sure whether the relationship is dating, engaged, just friends, or what it exactly is. Because of this nebulous nature of relating, it is quite common for college students to call for the big “DTR” talk (define the relationship) with one another.

One of the reasons for this is the major activity and popularity of “hanging out.” Hanging out is typically sitting around with a group of people eating, watching movies, drinking, doing bible study, even studying. Its doing just about anything, but doing it together with others. Instead of dating, meetings between students often take place in a group, just hanging out. So, not a lot of definition takes place between two different people in the group. They aren’t always sure of whether a relationship is casual, serious, or something in between, where a friendship stands or how to relate and interact with others. Few teens, for example, seem to know when a relationship is romantic or not, or if it is an “open” relationship where two people are seeing other people. If this all seems kind of confusing, you are getting the point.

The DTR (define the relationship) talk, in an attempt to settle the status of the relationship, rarely seems to work well. So, many persons just go along and try to make the best of it by trying to figure out what is going on. Here is an opportunity for ministry, for we can help a younger person make sense of the nature of relationships. One of the things we can do is to really understand the reality of their interactions. For example, when I lived in a university town I used to often just “hang out” with college students, with no agenda other than just being with them. The local Perkins restaurant was at its busiest at midnight, filled with college students just hanging out. There are places in every town where young adults go, especially the bar scene. Bars aren’t just places to drink, but are locations of conviviality where persons have the chance to be around one another in a kind of secular church where fellowship happens, looking for a chance to relate to the opposite sex. All people desire intimacy and knowing that someone else cares about them. However illegitimately a young adult might pursue this, the inner affection is very real, and very much a need.

One of the best ways to minister to the younger generations in the church is to communicate to them that we “have their back”, that we care, love, and like them. No one can sniff out a disingenuous attitude quite like a teenager or college student, so it has to be an authentic desire to be around them. Also, this does not mean we have to pretend to be younger than we are. Instead, one of the greatest needs a young person has is to be in a mentoring relationship with someone older and wiser who can help them navigate life and bring some sort of definition to relationships that they lack. There is also, then, an equal need for adults to be trained in how to mentor others.  The older generations could learn to “hang out” with younger generations and find individuals for whom they can build a solid one on one relationship with. If students, in particular, can have such relationships with adults now, it will serve them for a lifetime once they leave school.

So, how about just hanging out with a younger person sometime? Consider having your own redeemed version of the DTR talk with some of them, and lead by example in how to relate with others. Be a mentor, and walk alongside another with love, grace, and wisdom. If you were a missionary in a country of  teens, college students, and single persons this is what you would do.  Let’s do the work of entering into their lives!