Easter 6A: A Lost Generation (Rev. Lindsay Marie Hills)

Last fall, I was invited to participate in an online bookgroup by an old classmate from high school and middle school.  I had never done one of these online book groups….but was touched by her personal invitation to be apart of the group.  The text had been chosen “You Lost Me:  Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith.”  By David Kinnaman.

I grew a bit anxious when I heard the book selection…because I am clearly on the other side of that threshold…..I know why I left the church… in college.

But I know that my friend, unlike myself never came back to church….and now identifies as somewhere in the agnostic – atheist spectrum.

The two of us were raised in nuclear Roman Catholic households….both of us with parents married for almost 40 years…

And yet we have gone very different directions in relationship to Church. Making the invitation to be in an authentic dialogue about our experience with the church so refreshing..

The premise of Kinnaman’s book weaves together both quantitative and qualitative findings about youth dropout rates in a way that seeks “to explain the next generation’s cultural context and examine the question How can we follow Jesus —And help young people faithfully follow Jesus –in a dramatically changing culture?”(Kindle -location129)

Unfortunately the book does all to good a job painting the reality of youth ministry in America…”.beginning with the dropout problem that hinges on two simple facts”

1)   teenagers (13-17 year olds) are some of the most religiously active Americans.

2)   (while) American twentysomethings are the least religiously active….

The ages 18-29 are have become the black hole of congregations….and are often missing from churches….reflecting a 43% drop off between the teen and the early adult years in terms of church engagement….an overwhelming 8 million twenty somethings who once were active and invested teenagers…..gone from our communities before their 30th birthday,” becoming what has been coined unchurched (Kindle location 243)

What often happens with this missing group…..is rather than ask questions, seek information, or learn about the cultural shift……

we sit back and WE make excuses for why they aren’t at church….….

-”they are just too focused on their careers”…..or

-“its ok they will come back when they have to baptize their children.”

These, among others, are common “outs” offered by well meaning church-goers to help make sense out of their absence…

but its often those very excuses that help keep us in denial about why they are really gone….and why they won’t come back.

While the book is not perfect, and definitely leaves room for discussion, it does,

I think….get a lot of things really right about the lost generation and how and when we fail them….

It also does a great job of outlining how we, sometimes unknowlingly, KEEP the lost generation….just that…..lost

And while I must admit….it sounds like a depressing read….its actually not as depressing as I may make it sound, namely because it addresses the common reasons for departure from church, and how we might begin to think about meeting the needs of this growing generation and of the generation following them….

Less one feel totally helpless at the end of the book, it also includes a helpful “50 ideas to find a generation” which were generated by congregations attempting to “cultivate a new mind for understanding and discipling the next generation.”

Another thing that makes this feel hopeful….is that we aren’t alone in this exodus phenomenon.  .

We often think that the missing generation is something unique to mainline Christian denominations…..but a recent documentary titled “Un-mosqued,” highlights that it is no longer just a Christian phenomenon.

In a recent NPR story,[1] they explored the new documentary and why it is causing such a stir.

The film “depicts a younger generation of American Muslims, drifting away from Islam and while Christian churches haven’t generally accepted their responsibility in pushing young Christians away…, UnMosqued, goes straight for the jugular and is not shy in blaming the current Mosques for their failure to meet the needs of young adults.

I was enthralled as the story unfolded….talking about so called “third spaces” emerging where young adults are trying to gather outside the mosque to form new Muslim communities….similar in many ways to what Episcopalians often refer to as “fresh expressions.” Examples of dinner  “churches” or dinner “mosques,” congregations meeting in coffee houses or in the fields of farms, communities of faith reclaiming an earlier “house church” model of worship where people can worship God free from the burdens of our physical buildings and all that so often comes with them.

In a time when Christians and Muslisms are at war with one another around the world….there was something refreshing about the story….in that we aren’t the only ones that have screwed up…. And we really aren’t as alone as we think….

other organized religions are struggling the same as we are….

Struggling to make sense of a changing world….

Struggling to understand the mystery of God in the midst of that changing world.

And

Struggling to help others…understand that mystery.

On his second missionary Journey, Paul travels from Philippi, to Thessalonica and finally to Athens.  In the portion we hear from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles today in our first reading, we hear Paul’s sermon to the Athenians.

In his exhortation to the people of Athens, he brilliantly introduces the gospel in a way that is accessible for the “unchurched” to hear….he begins….with what on a first read might seem like flattery….”Athenian’s I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”  But what is most important is that Paul acknowledges the holy among them, acknowledging first the spiritual nature of their beliefs…even if they might just be superstition.

He meets them where they are.

And it is from that point that he seeks to teach them about  the mystery of God.

Paul skillfully introduces his hearers to Christ by teaching them about God’s interrelationship with humanity.

“God is creator of the universe, such that humans find their being in Him –we are created in the image and likeness of God. He is the sustainer of the universe –we are dependent on Him and He is independent of us. The purpose of God’s creating and sustaining role is that we may know him—enter into relationship with Him” [2]

and it is that link to humanity that Paul then uses, with a splash of familiar Greek poetry to illustrate his point…

28For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ 

Paul’s message was a message to the unchurched….to those who had no connection with Jesus Christ….

And from the portion of the reading that follows, that we didn’t hear today, we know that some were converted through their encounter with Paul and his sharing the story of the resurrection with him.

“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, ‘we shall hear you again concerning this.’  So Paul went out of their midst.  But some men joined him and believed…among them were Dionysius…and a woman named Demaris….”

Perhaps the success of Paul was his ability to honor the truth about people’s experiences with the sacred.

I know I have talked about chapel several times this year, and one of the exercises that we have been doing this year is to answer children’s questions about God, faith and life, in the context of our Episcopal identity.  This past week, Chaplain Amber was faced with the question, “why do we have so many different religions?  Why isn’t there just one religion?”

I thought her approach to this very difficult question was particularly refreshing….she talked about how in the beginning of time the mystery of God was born throughout creation, and then how people from the very earliest cave dwellers….to Hindus, jews, Christians, and Muslims all really sought to make sense of that same “mystery of god” in their own unique way….often times drawing on the traditions of the past, but creating something new for themselves….and how at the end of time, on the opposite side of creation, that we might understand end times, as a time in which, all our ideas of the mystery of God will coalesce….

24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands

but rather it lives inside each of us….from generation to generation….

Paul grappled with Mystery of God…

the Athenians grappled with the Mystery of God.

 

Just as we grapple with the mystery of God… in the midst of our changing world….

Just as our Muslim brothers and sisters grapple…

And it seems like perhaps one of our greatest challenges may be to remain open minded to the ways the mystery of God, reveals itself to us in the midst of this changing world…

but perhaps more importantly HOW we respond to that Mystery….to that Spirit?

how we can make that mystery be known to the lost generation in a way that honors where they are…or even prevent generations from being lost in the first place?

If we don’t carry on the important work of Paul….who will?

If it is truly In him we live and move and have our being,  we have no choice but to respond prayerfully and powerfully to the changing world around us, attempting to make sense of the mystery of God in the midst of us, in a way that seeks to transform our relationship with God, one another, and the unchurched….authentically, faithfully and lovingly.

[1] NPR “Unmosqued”  http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2014/05/23/314867358/unmosqued-examines-muslim-variant-of-unchurched-youth

[2] “The Areopagus Sermon,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources. Includes detailed textual notes.  Available:  http://www.lectionarystudies.com/studyot/easter6aaot.html

 

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