Loving our Enemies: Subversive Love as Nonviolent Resistance

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Listen to My Sermon “Loving Our Enemies: Subversive Love as Nonviolent Resistance” 

In this sermon delivered on Sunday, February 20, I explore the biblical notions of holiness and perfection through the lens of Jesus’ teachings on loving our enemies. Unlike what is usually assumed, Jesus is not advocating passivity or acceptance of abuse, but imaginative nonviolent resistance in the tradition of the civil rights movement. Ultimately, Jesus is telling us that we are holy, sacred, and worthy of love – not because of anything that we do – but because God lives within us. And that through us, God will transform the world.

Now that’s a church I want to be a part of.

 

Epiphany 7A Scriptures:

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Psalm 119:33-40

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Matthew 5:38-48

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The Answers to ALL Your Questions about Young Adults and the Church

Obviously, this title is a BIT of hyperbole.

But you may be surprised just how many of your questions about Young Adults and the church are answered in a new study just released by the UCC ( United Church of Christ).

In this report, Engaging Young Adults, compiled by  Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi and the Center for Analytics, Research and Data of the United Church of Christ, we get a plethora of important, incredibly practical information about Young  Adults and their engagement with the church that we did not previously have access to. Much of what the report has to say may be obvious to some of us, but the important thing to recognize is that it may not be obvious to all of us in the church – and this report could be a launching pad for renewed vitality, engagement, and vision for you and your congregation.

You never know.

Stranger things have happened

This study, whether intentionally or not, is rooted in the incredible work about engaging change done by Chip and Dan Heath in their incredible book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. Essentially, the study is done by observing the “bright spots” and asking the question of how do we duplicate success. Rather than focusing on all of  the things that are NOT working, it analyzes congregations in the UCC where Young Adult Ministry is working, and asks the fundamental question, “So what is working there that we aren’t doing here?”

The study begins by recognizing many of the essential truths and trends that have been discussed here, setting the landscape by saying:

“Young adults pose a vexing and urgent challenge for congregations. On the one hand, they are particularly crucial for growth. On the other hand, and as many recent studies have shown, today’s young adults are less religiously affiliated, and less inclined toward religious belief and practice than ever before. As a result, their presence within faith communities has been on the decline for some time. In the United States today, young adults comprise about 23% of the total population; yet only one in ten American congregations reflects this level of representation.”

But it quickly moves beyond the paralysis that these tectonic cultural shifts and BIG questions can often cause, to a nuts-and-bolts-practical analysis of what is working, acknowledging:

“An exploration of these factors was beyond the scope of the Survey or this report. Nevertheless, there are key practices and characteristics of congregations that can make a difference in recruiting and retaining young adult participants. These are the focus of this report.”

So let’s get into it.

It is the practical, nuts-and-bolts data that the study has collected that is the real treasure here. Here are the key findings:

  1. Young adults are more likely to participate in larger, more urban congregations in growing population areas.
  2. Greater utilization of electronic technology, the Internet, and social media occurs in thriving young adult congregations.
  3. In general, many of the same characteristics of thriving congregations also exist in thriving young adult congregations, including participants’ involvement in recruiting new people and engaging in congregational programs, committees, and service projects outside of worship.
  4. Both prioritizing young adult ministry and creating a specific strategy for engaging young adults are necessary for a thriving young adult congregation.
  5. Nearly half of all young adults in American congregations are married with children. However, most young adults are not married.
  6. The majority of young adult participants come from families who are already present within the congregation.
  7. Attending worship is the most frequent way that young adults participate in faith communities, but thriving young adult congregations tend to be those in which all of the members are involved more in activities beyond worship.
  8. Young adult programming in congregations focuses largely on fellowship or other small groups, web/social media engagement, and community service.
  9. Specific dedication of people and time around young adult engagement is the key to enhancing this ministry within congregations.
  10. Congregations in which one or more leader(s) of young adult ministries are young adults themselves are more likely to have increased or maintained their young adult presence over the past three years.
  11. Congregations believe that their own lack of desire/passion to reach out to young adults, as well as a lack of interest on the part of young adults themselves, most impedes their ministry with this population.

All this barely scratches the surface of the report, and there are great, accessible, data-rich explanations of each and every one of these observations in the full report. So if you have an investment in Young Adult engagement in YOUR church, in the church at large, or a friend, son, daughter, or grandchildren on your mind as you read this…I STRONGLY recommend you check out the full report for yourself!

You can find the full report on Engaging Young Adults in your congregation RIGHT HERE!

 

Has the Church Lost its Fire?

So, if Young Adults today are more spiritually hungry than ever…why are they simply not coming back to church?

To begin to answer this question we can look at the answers of teenagers to questions asked by Kenda Creasy Dean and others in her book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is telling the American Church. This book was published six years ago in 2010, so what we get is almost a portrait of the faith of many (now) young adults in utero – just as they were entering the early stages of Young Adulthood.

As she mentions in the book, “The good news is that teenagers are not hostile towards religion.” This came as a shock. She confesses, “[We] expected to find teenagers rebelling against religion – arguing with parents, looking for more ‘authentic’ forms of religious expression, trying to be ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious.'”

Unfortunately, as she goes on to point out, “The bad news is the reason teenagers are not hostile towards religion: they just do not care about it very much. Religion is not a big deal to them. People fight over things that matter to them – but religion barely causes a ripple in the lives of most adolescents.”

And, there is good reason for this.

As she argues, the version of Christianity most Young People have inherited is not a robust, challenging, radical vision of God’s incredible plans for the world – but a tame, harmless, and frankly uninteresting social institution that at its best functions as a kind of social service agency.  Of course – this is not always true. But it has too often been true.

And the results are clear.

She writes:

“If teenagers consider Christianity inconsequential – if American young people consider the church worthy of ‘benign whatever-ism’ and no more – than maybe the issue is simply that the emperor has no clothes, and young people are telling the church that we are not who we say we are. If we fail to bear God’s life-altering, world-changing, fear-shattering good news (which, after all, is the reason the church exists in the first place) – if desire for God and devotion to our fellow human beings is replaced by a loveless shell of religiosity – then young people unable to find consequential Christianity in the church absolutely should  default to something safer. In fact, that is exactly what they are doing.”

Even though Kenda was putting her finger on this over six years ago, this is not something the church at large has caught onto yet. While we pay lip service and programmatic “tips of the hat” to our youth and young adults, the church for the most part is NOT addressing the serious, significant, and ultimately valid critique that younger generations are making of us.

Young adults today – many of them – have grown up in our churches, been taught by our Sunday School teachers, listened to our pastors’ sermons, and come back to us with the legitimate question, “So, are we really going to live this way?”

In an age when our culture provides such a shallow, artificial version of the human experience – where identity is crafted through the products that we buy, the clothing we wear, and the social circles we live in – what is the bold, challenging vision of the world that the church stands for?

Because – too often – that is what we are missing.

Our young people have heard, learned, and internalized the lessons of the faith that we have taught them for so many years – and they have found us wanting.

There are Young Adults – plenty of them – waiting to sign on to a vision that is as exciting, empowering, life-changing, and bold as the stories they learned in Sunday School all those years ago.

The question is – will we let them?

Why the Church will Die, and Rise

The sharp decline of American Christianity has been widely publicized.

What has been less publicized, or even discussed, is why this is happening.

To many who are not religious, or not particularly religious, there is an unspoken assumption that Christianity is a vestige of the past – for them, not us. For then, not now. At the other extreme, those of us within the Christian church have long been reluctant to explore the vast societal shifts that have fundamentally changed the world around us. Or, even worse, sometimes we have willfully buried our heads in the sand, refusing to admit that the world around us is changing at all. Because of this, far too many Christians lack vital information for doing meaningful ministry in the world today. We lack the most crucial information of all – the facts on the ground.

The first step is admitting that we have a problem.

The second step is asking why?

While survey projects such as the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Survey and the National Study of Youth and Religion can provide us with much of the crucial information we need to understand the shifts in our culture, they cannot ultimately tell us why any of this is happening, or what it means. In the end, only we can do that.

So what – if anything – can we learn by looking at the data, the “facts on the ground”?

The first thing we should notice is that while the attention grabbing headlines trumpet the decline or even death of religion, this is a less than accurate conclusion. In fact, when we begin to look at the data, we find a much more complicated story. For instance, while church attendance, daily prayer, and belief in heaven and hell are all down among younger generations, the number of Millennials who say they believe in God is still around 80%. For Older Millennials it is even higher – 84%, just 8% lower than their grandparents.

Perhaps the reports of religion’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

When we really dive into the data we discover something absolutely astonishing. In spite of the headlines, many of the traditional markers of religious engagement and spiritual health are not decreasing at all.

They are increasing.

When we look at the percentage of Americans who say they read scripture at least once a week, we see that there is absolutely no change from 2007 to 2014, holding steady at 35%. Over the same period of time, we see that the number of people who regularly participate in a prayer scripture study or religious education group has actually increased.

These are strange trends for a time when religion is apparently “dying”.

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But this only begins to scratch the surface.

From 2007 to 2014, just seven years – and the same period of time that “religious affiliation” dropped by 7% – the number of people who say they turn to religion as their primary source of guidance on right and wrong increased by 4%. And during those same seven years, the percentage of people who said they turn to science as their primary source of guidance droppedby 7%! 

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But here’s the big finish. When we look at how frequently people say they experience a feeling of wonder and awe about the universe, or deep spiritual peace and well-being, the numbers are up – and not by a little. In fact, from 2007 to 2014 both of these statistics are up by 7%, demonstrating a clear, rapid shift towards something hopeful, unexpected, and new…

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When it comes to religion, what is really happening today is far more complicated than the headlines will tell you – and far more hopeful.

Sure, people are leaving churches in record numbers – churches built on 20th century models, using 20th century assumptions, to answer 20th century questions. But why should that be the only indicator of the health of religion today? Why should that, more than any of these other things, be the one that takes priority?

Maybe what has been diagnosed as death is actually just another chapter of the story.

This has, after all, been known to happen before.

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Why They aren’t Coming Back

 

When we Millennials were born – our parents came back to church.

Most of them weren’t terribly active in their early 20s. Ask them. You might be surprised.

But then, many of them began to reach those traditional markers of adulthood – marriage, a job, having children – and there were certain things that you were just expected to do. Baptize your child. Find a church. Take them to Sunday School. Confirmation. The most critical moments and milestones of life were marked by, surrounded by, and blessed by the church. Birth, childhood, adolescence, marriage, death – the church ritualized and sanctified all of these.

It was in the air. In the culture. In the water.

And then, sometime in the past 20 years, everything changed.

Right up until the 80s – maybe even the early 90s – a large part of our society still understood itself to be living in a Christian culture. That is not to say we actually were. But it was the perception. Go to church. Have your child baptized. These things were normative – “normal”.

So WHY aren’t Young Adults coming BACK to church when they are getting married, having children and entering into adulthood – as previous generations did throughout most of the 20th century?

Well…being a Christian is no longer normal.

It’s weird.

The truth is, this shift has been unfolding for the past 30 years. We just kept on keeping on…more or less assuming that sooner or later our young people would eventually ‘come back to church’. But they aren’t. In my faith tradition, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Sunday School attendance dropped over 60 percent from 1990 to 2010. Worship attendance, giving, volunteering…all have experienced significant drops. And the data is much the same across the whole church.

Forget deep spiritual connection to the church – the vast majority of younger adults are not even being married in churches, having their children baptized, or bringing them to Sunday School. Even funerals and memorial services increasingly take place outside the church. The secular calendar of activities, consumerism, and business is fast becoming the dominant reality in our culture.

If those of us who care deeply about the church can’t start to recognize that what used to work isn’t working, that what used to connect – creating meaning and adding value to people’s lives – is no longer doing so, then we are in trouble.

Because the church is no longer the clearinghouse for the milestones, markers, and signposts of people’s lives.

For more and more people – the church no longer is where meaning is made.

For far too many, the church of today feels false, artificial, and constricting – a thing for a former time. It feels like a place where we are just going through the motions, repeating outdated programs, patterns and activities that do not connect to the 21st century. Most Young Adults see the church something that impedes, rather than adds value, to their spiritual formation.

So, why would they come?

Because they are hungry for a kind of meaning that can’t be found at work, school, or in the free market.

In fact, they are starving for it.

They Aren’t Coming Back

Where have all the Young Adults gone?

In almost every church I go into, I am asked some version of the same question. How can we get young adults back into our congregation?

I should probably mention that I work with churches, and that ministry to and with teenagers and young adults are two of the main focuses of my work. So…not such a stupid question after all.

But the thing is, it’s the wrong question.

Recently I was at a conference where Pastor Erica Liu, a Presbyterian campus minister at The University of Wisconsin-Madison, presented some compelling data suggesting that college-age adults are no less engaged in churches today than they have been for the past 40 years. I was slightly surprised at this, until I took a look at this trend alongside other data on the religious trends of Americans across the generations.

While those we traditionally think of as “Young Adults” (18-25) are indeed displaying reasonably similar behavior to even their parents generation’s religious behaviors, that is where the similarity stops. In our parent’s generation, the Baby Boomers, our parents were settling down, purchasing homes, marrying and having families by their early thirties. They were coming back to church – not for them, but for us – to have us baptized, take us to Sunday School, and raise us in the Christian Faith.

But things have changed.

Young Adulthood now usually extends to at least age 30-35, leading to a new and different phase in the life cycle of Millennials – emergent adulthood, stretching from age 25-35 or even later. And this is throwing off all the tried and true formulas that far too many churches are clinging to to “save” their church…waiting for young adults to “come back to church”. But here’s the thing…

They aren’t coming back.

The real truth that most churches just aren’t willing to face is that the cultural ground has shifted under our feet. We have experienced a social and technological earthquake..and the world has changed. And most of our congregations are still doing ministry for the old world – a world that no longer exists.

Older Millennials (30-35 year olds) are beginning to reach some of those traditional signposts of adulthood – marrying, owning a home, starting to have children – and yet…they are not darkening the door of a church. Exactly at that moment when they are “supposed” to be coming back to re-energize the church and bring droves of young children with them to flood the halls of our Sunday Schools.

In fact…

The data tells us the exact opposite is happening. About a third of older Millennials (adults currently in their late 20’s and early 30’s) now say that they have no religion, up nine percentage points since 2007, when the same group was between the ages of 18 and 26.

In other words, even if college-age young adults are no less involved in the church than ever, as they are growing through the new phase of emerging adulthood in their late 20’s and early 30’s they are leaving the church faster than ever – the exact opposite trend from their parents, and previous generations.

And this clear trend is the exact opposite of the assumption most churches are staking their futures on. Too many of our churches are doubling down on an all-or-nothing bet that is doomed to failure…and yet – somehow – they consider this to be the “safer” option than change.

We are staking our future on a logical fallacy.

 

Next blog post: Why they aren’t coming back…