Friday, May 9, 2014

The Future Of The Church

Update, May 31: Well, graduation day was today, and the intensity of feeling is only stronger.  Our class is pretty freakin' awesome.  They're going to do serious good if you folk don't get in their way.  My respect for these future ministers has only grown in the last three weeks.  To all of you; thanks for letting me ride along.

One of the inevitable things about getting into this particular vocational track, and especially noticeable as I reach the end of the educational process and make ready to jump off the cliff into whatever comes next, is that one hears a great deal of fretting and hand-wringing about The Future Of The Church.  You have to capitalize it that way to get the full effect of the fretting.  Armloads of statistics are deployed to point out that congregations are shrinking, if not disappearing altogether, and aging remarkably as they shrink/disappear.  Other capitalizable claims, all documentable with more of those statistics, are that Young People Are Leaving The Church, The Church Is Losing Its Relevance, The Church Is Losing Its Credibility, The Church Is No Longer goes on.
All of these things feed into the fretting about The Future Of The Church. It's not exactly false, by any means.  Certainly the church (and this is fairly across-the-board, with the possible exception of Catholicism) is losing adherents in the US, and the general hair color of the church is getting whiter.  When you ask people about what institutions or individuals they respect, the church and its ministers don't necessarily do all that well (though at least they do better than Congress, low bar that such may be).  Things look bad, no denying that.
So, fretting about The Future Of The Church.  It happens a lot.
I suppose my perspective is a bit different these days, though.  You see, while I've been slogging through this seminary education, I've been hanging out a lot with the future of the church.
I've been in classes with them.  I've shared meals with them.  I've been around the communion table with them.  I've been grinding my way through the library with them.  I've occasionally been to parties and ballgames and other entertainments with them (although I'm an old man and can't handle too much of that).  I've had my butt bailed out by them, particularly while going through cancer treatment.  I've laughed with them, and I'm fairly certain I've been laughed with (or occasionally at) by them, hopefully when I meant to be funny (or perhaps when I attempted to play ultimate frisbee -- yeah, that was a mistake).  I've heard their startling revelations, and made a few myself.  I've been angry alongside them (as opposed to being angry with them, which I never really had occasion to be), been frustrated alongside them, occasionally grieved with them.  I've wondered over grades and assignments, celebrated achievements, regretted setbacks, and generally shared a lot of different emotions.

And from where I sit, the future of the church, at least this sliver of it in this denomination, looks pretty good.  Real good, actually.
This future of the church is deeply intelligent.  Don't get the idea you're going to outsmart these folks when they arrive in your church.  Let's get this straight, church folk: you do not know more about the Bible than they do.  You may have more life experience, to be sure, but don't dismiss or scoff at their intellect.  It is powerful, God-given and seminary-refined, and it is a glorious thing to behold at work.
This future of the church is passionate.  Don't be fooled by all that talk about the indifference or apathy of the young adult generation.  These folks care passionately about the faith, about the church, and about doing Christ's work in God's world.  And they're not inclined to let anyone get in their way, not even you, church folk.

This future of the church, despite what others may tell you, does not seek to change the church merely for the sake of change, and in fact are suspicious of those who advocate change without good reason.  They are passionately for changing what doesn't work, what gets in the way, what deceives us into thinking we're doing what God wants from us when we're really just doing what's comfortable.  They've got vision, and are ready to go after it.  Please don't be obstacles.

I will note that a lot of this future of the church is made up of women.  This probably bothers some people.  There are probably some folks who think that the future of the church is hopeless or lessened for that very reason.  Sorry to hurt your feelings if that's you, but that line of thinking is total b.s.  The church has been waiting for, nay, crying out for these women and their talents and passions and energies for decades now.  The degree to which this church actually does grow into and serve as a genuine and faithful witness for Christ (notice I didn't say anything about "prosper" or other such twentieth-century buzzwords) is largely contingent on these women and the degree to which the church responds to that leadership.  The guys are pretty impressive, but these women rock.  (I feel like I'm echoing that West Wing episode, early in the show's run, where Jed Bartlett and Leo McGarry marvel over the women working in that fictional White House.  Fine.  So be it.  They're good.)

This future of the church isn't perfect.  They have their blind spots, to be sure.  Don't judge, older generations: look where your hangups about money and big buildings and prestige have gotten us.  These people are going to be passionate, vital, profoundly needed leaders in the church.  The very least you can do, the absolute minimum, is to get out of the way.  Better yet, follow them.  Help them out.  Provide that wisdom of experience where needed.  But don't be obstacles.
And really, don't be jerks about how much better things were when five thousand people in your town of two thousand crowded into your sanctuary (that holds about two hundred) every Sunday to hear the strong, powerful sermons of Dr. Noble Whiteguy.

I find myself with all sorts of feelings to sort out about my experiences here.  I find myself already missing these people intensely, and graduation is still three weeks off.  Three years ago I wouldn't have believed you if you'd told me how deeply I'd come to care about these folks, these (let's go ahead and say it) kids (I mean, I am old enough to be their father in many cases).  And yet I care about them not as "kids," but as treasured brothers and sisters in the faith.  They are my peers, and I could not ask for better (again, three-years-ago me is freaking out to read that).  They've been there for me, and I hope I've been so for them.  They make me laugh, think, get indignant, get excited to go change the world (three-years-ago me just passed out in consternation).  I love them dearly and will miss them dearly.
There have been "older" classmates, a more obvious age cohort, and they have enriched and challenged my life in so many ways.  But these young ministers coming at you out there in the church are something special.  Welcome them.  Embrace them.  Help them out.  And every now and then, maybe even more often than not, shut up and listen to them.

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