Last Sunday, I supplied for a little church in Clarksdale, AZ. (Picture a desert small town out of the 1950s. Tada! Clarksdale.)
Before he left on a well-deserved vacation, the rector called me, and asked if I would be willing to preach on “young adults and the church.” Like the rest of AZ, Clarksdale is largely retiree-centric, and these aren’t issues that are on the parish’s radar.
Believe it or not, I had never been asked this before. It had been talked about around me, or implied at, or whispered about, but me, the 20-something college chaplain, had not been asked directly to comment on the state of young adults in the church.
I was ecstatic. And somewhat nervous. Here’s what I said.
May 13, 2012
Easter 6, Year B
Acts 10, John 15
Ever since I was first ordained, people have approached me as if I hold the secret to all life. In quiet tones, they pull me aside, they whisper to me, “You, you are a young person! Tell us of the young people we have heard so much about!”. This comes out in the tone of voice normally reserved for Loch Ness monster sightings. Tell us of the wondrous and strange creature lurking in the deep!
This has accelerated since I became a college chaplain, someone working in the mission field of the 21st century. Because it is a mission field. Adults between the ages of 18-25 arent in our ballpark. The Episcopal Church, as a whole, is..more experienced at life than the population as a whole. The average age of Episcopalians is around 60. And according to most sources, the generation gap between “kids these days” and their parents and grandparents is the largest it has ever been– spurred on by rapidly development of technology, a tumultuous economy, and a constant, and never ending stream of information that we’ve never had to deal with before.
So let this be my report from the field, as it were. In Acts today, Peter returns to the council at Jerusalem full of what he’s heard and seen in unexpected places where the Spirit wasn’t expected to show herself, and it changes the church forever. so here is what I have seen of the Spirit’s movement in this new world.
First some context: the people we are talking about are young adults. They are between 18-34 years old. According to a recent survey, 94% of them have cell phones, 70% of them have laptops. They average 319 friends via social network sites like Facebook. They text, and instant message far more than they email.
They have little memory of the world before cell phones, and almost no memory of a world without computers. There has always been television, and it has always been targeted to them, no matter what age.
Information, in other words, comes constantly, and instantaneously. And from many, many disparate sources.
There has never been, for this generation, one, single, trusted voice telling you what to believe. There has never been Walter Cronkite. There has always been many, discordant, shrieking voices trying to get you to do something, buy something, believe something. All different.
Which leads me to:
In a survey taken recently by the independent Barna group, according to young adults, the most common word used to describe Christianity was: anti homosexual. 91% of those surveyed, churchgoers and non churchgoers, thought that this was the major word that described our religion. Judgmental came in second, and hypocritical was third. All over 80%.
Nothing about helping the less fortunate. Nothing about community. Nothing about Jesus, or God, or loving your neighbor as yourself. Nothing about what we are for, just a lot about what we are against. Or what a vocal portion of us are against, rather.
The take away the vast majority of young adults have gotten about Christianity right now is that we really hate a whole bunch of people. And they don’t really want anything to do with that.
And this isn’t about what you should think regarding same-sex marriage– that’s another sermon. No matter where you are on that issue, hatred shouldn’t be what Christianity is known for. Hypocrisy, Judgmentalism, shouldn’t be what we’re known for.
There are a lot of reasons why we ended up here– but the important thing is: if we want to get out? If we want to get the young people back, if we want to be church in the new milliennium, and all that stuff?
We have to actually love our neighbor.
We can’t just talk about it, we can’t just plan for it, we can’t just come up with distracting rules, to try to cheat our way around it.
We have to actually love people.
This was always our calling– Jesus’ command to us to love one another as he loved us has never changed. But it has never been more urgent, or more clear.
We can’t assume that people know that this is what we are about, we can’t take for granted that people know that we do this, that we intend to do this, and only occasionally fall short. They don’t. We don’t have the benefit of the doubt anymore– there’s too much ready information for anyone to get the benefit of a trusting public.
We actually have to start from the ground up again. In this new world, We have to live the way Jesus calls us to live, we have to walk the walk, and not just do the talking.
We have to abide in Christ’s love. We have to love our neighbor, no matter who they are. We have to do it actively, concretely, and without fear or judgment.
And the good news is, that sort of all inclusive gospel of love, that transforms the world and makes us better, more caring people– That way of life that we preach and try to live– that is what the world is hungry for. That is precisely what so many people are so desperate for, that they roam from church to church, seeking it. They want an authentic gospel of Jesus. They want an authentic gospel of love. They want us to give it to them, and they won’t rest until we do.
That story from Acts– that story of Cornelius, the Roman gentile, who wanted to become a Christian, despite the protests, and confusion of Peter and the rest of the Jewish Christian community. The Holy Spirit got to him before anyone else had. And it was through his faith, and the Spirit’s power that the whole church eventually caught up, and entered a new world.
The Spirit won’t rest until someone does the job. The Spirit of God won’t stop moving over the waters of chaos until someone preaches the gospel. The Spirit won’t give up until someone pays attention, so It might well be us.