Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Church We Give to Our Young People...

The church we give these young people…
A Confirmation Message
2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2

On Sunday, May 22, we celebrated the confirmation of a new generation of Christians. These young people spent months learning about the historical Christian faith, grasping concepts of what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ. They struggled with how radical it is to profess resurrection in a world that rejects it. We have reviewed creeds, learned about worship, and tried to figure out what it means to “reject the spiritual forces of wickedness” and give our lives totally in obedience to Jesus and receive him as Savior and Lord. 
They asked hard theological questions, and silly ones as well. Questions about heaven and hell, and also why I wear a robe at one service and not at the other. They have been challenged to think big God-sized thoughts and to discover what it means to be a Christian in a world that is far from God. The world we give them is not the world we inherited, it is far different, it is a world where the gospel is optional and church is decreasingly valuable to their daily lives.

The world we are giving these young believers is pluralistic, postmodern, and post-Chrisitian.[1] It is pluralistic, that is that all faiths are not simply tolerated (not they ever were) but are now celebrated. By embracing all faiths we have moved our spiritual life from the center of our lives to a side item on life’s buffet of options. It is a world that is postmodern. Postmodern at its simplest essence is a radical skepticism of all that is held certain. There are not absolutes; everything is negotiable, relative, and unstable. It is a world that is post-Christian. We are finally  acknowledging that while 76% of Americans claim the term “Christian,” we essentially live as though our faith does not impact our daily lives. Essentially most of us are nominally Christian and practically agnostic. We believe there is a God but don’t live like it matters. This is the culture that we are handing over to these young people. We must also give them a church that will equip them to live out their faith in that culture.
What is the result of the erosion of faith? Thom Rainer, CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources  commissioned a comprehensive, cross denominational study of faith engagement by age and this is what he found a decreasing amount of faith involvement by genration:[2]

Born before 1946 — 65% 
Born between 1946 and 1964 — 35% 
Born between 1965 and 1979 — 23% 
Born between 1980 and 2000 — 15%
We are increasingly losing more from of each generation to live a faithless life and then, encounter a Christ-less eternity. This is unacceptable. Essentially what has happened is that our neighborhoods and communities, streets and schools have become the greatest mission field the church in America has ever tried to reach. When we say that we are called to connect people to Christ, community, and calling “around the corner and around the world,” we are acknowledging that we are not reaching them now and must find a way to engage our community with the truth and light of the gospel. These young people, our sons and daughters, their friends and eventually their children, depend on us to find ways to build bridges relationally so that we can turn on lights spiritually[3] and introduce them to Jesus as their Savior and Lord. 

Perhaps we think, “If this church was good enough for my parents and grandparents, its good enough for them?” This is what I know, it wasn’t good enough for your parents, or your grandparents. How do I know? Because we are not in a white board building on Paul Street where this church was founded. The grandparents built a brick building with a castle turret on the corner to testify to God’s presence in that south Rocky Mount neighborhood. Then you (or your parent’s) decided that you needed more room, a different neighborhood, or to reach new people and you relocated here and built what is now the Goldston Fellowship Hall, but still you weren’t done and in the 1980’s you built this beautiful sanctuary with pews, and carpet, and stained glass. You realized that while this is the church we have, it is not the church that will reach your community and you made changes. Every generation of Christians must discover how to share the gospel with its generation and the emerging generations, in new ways, in new places, to reach new faces. The church we need to give this generation is not just brick and mortar, it is a body of believers that will come along side them and show the love of Christ to them in a way that will form them, shape them, and embolden them to live as radical followers of Jesus. We must be a church that walks with Jesus, works for Jesus, and witnesses about Jesus to a world that is far from Jesus.

I want to give our young people a church that walks with Jesus—everything we do must start with our relationship with Jesus (v. 17). Our relationship with Jesus is the foundation of all our actions, all our ministries, everything we are about. Every worship service, every Connection group, every community ministry we engage in  must originate in our unwavering commitment to deepen our relationship with Jesus. This is what it means to be part of the “new creation.” We are different because our relationship with Jesus. It must be THE relationship that drives all of our decisions, all of our actions, all of our motivations. If it’s not about Jesus then we must be willing, be compelled, to let it go. Give it up. The end of the day we have to be like the disciples who gave up everything in order to follow Jesus.
            Our relationship with Jesus redeems our past; reconciles us to God; and reclaims our future.  “The new has come!” New is scary. New means change. New means challenge. I do not know what God will call us to do to reach this generation and raise them up for Christ. I know it will be new, which means for most of us it will make us uncomfortable, but you know what? I’m okay with that because I know that I made the people in the church I grew up in uncomfortable, but they were uncomfortable for the sake of eternity. They realized that preference should not get in the way of the proclamation of the gospel.
            I went to see a spiritual hero of mine this week, Janet Evans. Janet, and her husband Tom, were my best friend’s parents when I was growing up in Raleigh. They were the first people in my life to consistently take me to church and to show me what it means to live like Jesus. I remember planning a “youth service” and we wanted to use a guitar and bongos to sing some praise songs (okay it was the ‘80’s give me a break). They called a church meeting to discuss using “heathen” instruments in the church. Tom was a piano and organ man. He loved hymns and old camp-meeting songs; lets say he was not a fan of guitars and bongos. During that meeting most of the youth just sat there and listened as folks went on and on about “letting the devil” into the church. Finally Tom, who never said anything, stood up. Everybody got quiet, then he said, “you know, I read in the Bible that David used a harp, a flute, and a bunch of other instruments to sing about God. I reckon if he could do it then maybe, even though I don’t much care for it, if these young folks want to play a guitar and bang on those bongos, as long as they are singing to Jesus its good enough for me. I’d rather have them in the church playing these things, that out there, playing them and getting into all kinds of mischief.” Then, he sat down. Nobody said anything until the pastor called for a vote. On youth Sunday we sang Keith Green songs with a guitar and some bongos, but there we were, singing and playing in church, instead of out “getting into all kinds of mischief.”
            Walking with Jesus means we have to allow new ways to share the most important message in the world. Walking with Jesus will lead us to give them a church that works for Jesus.
I want to give our young people a church that works for Jesus—working for Jesus means living in radical, sacrificial obedience to serve those outside of our walls. (v. 18) We are called to the ministry of reconciliation, to reconcile, and restore all of creation back to God.  We must model for our young people that while the “world will not be completely healed until Christ’s return…the process begins now as we partner with God.”[4]
            This is not a generation of watchers, but a generation of doers. They learn by experience.  We have spoken a lot in the past few weeks about how God did not save us to be members, but to be missionaries, to actively engage our world in life-changing, soul-transforming, and world-reconciling mission. Like our efforts to build a well in the Agape Village or provide school supplies for teachers at Williford School, the way we live our faith is how we share our faith. That the work we do, we do unashamedly in the name of Jesus. That it is not some altruistic self-indulgence that motivates us but the power of the Holy Spirit living in us that calls us to be the hands and feet of Christ in a world that desperately needs to see the gospel, the good news, in action. Maybe our call it so return to the neighborhood we abandoned thirty years ago and find a way to serve the 500 homeless children in our local schools. Maybe its to create a space for the hundreds of high school students who will be across the street where they can study, socialize, and feel safe after school. I know this, the church we give and live for this generation must be one that works with those who Jesus cared the most about, those who were poor, and hurting, and far from God. If you read the gospels you realize that the church that fails to serve those outside the church ceases to be the church. Let me say that again, the gospels are clear, our call is to serve those outside the church, and if we fail to serve those outside the church it ceases to be the church.
            Everything we do must be ruthlessly evaluated to discover if Jesus is the foundation for all of our work, all of our action, all of our ministry. It all ties together, working for Jesus must be connected directly, passionately, and responsibly to walking with Jesus. If what we are doing is not about our walk with Jesus, then it isn’t really a work for Jesus. It becomes simply an activity that has the fa├žade (appearance) of faith but the core of self-righteousness. The church is reduced to being a self-improvement organization, a place to pat ourselves on the back, spend time with our friends, and be seen, rather than a place to serve. In actuality we should be more interested in being seen in the streets working for Jesus than in the pews being seen by those who already know Him. Worship is where the people of God come to experience the grace and power of God for the sole purpose of leaving this room on a mission from God.
            If we truly walk with Jesus, and work for Jesus, then the church we give to our young people will then be a church that has the credibility to give witness about Jesus.

I want to give our young people a church that witnesses about Jesus—giving witness about Jesus means giving words to our actions. Connecting our walk and our work with our words. By seeking to bring reconciliation to the whole world (v. 20) we are called to be “Christ’s ambassadors.” Notice words are last. Just a few years ago I would have put witnessing about Jesus, giving words to our faith, first, even before working for Jesus but that has changed. The church has often been good at giving Jesus lip service without giving Him life-service. It is only after we have done the hard work that Jesus calls us to that we can then give witness to the work Jesus has done within us.
            I grew up in a world where we tried to persuade people to be followers of Jesus with the promise of heaven and the threat of hell. We knocked on doors with our giant “I’ve seen Jesus” Bibles and sought to sell Jesus with a canned presentation and formulaic answers. Just yesterday much news coverage was given to a group of people who claimed God would end the world and that Jesus would come and take all true followers with him, yesterday. In that case I guess we are now part of the “Left Behind” series. All this to say that Christians have lost credibility because we have spoken so eloquently about love and not lived it. We have spoken about care and then not cared about those in our neighborhoods who were hurting. We have thrown rocks as those different from us when, perhaps, stones should have tossed our way since we were not “without sin” ourselves.
            After living as a missional community that serves sacrificially and behaves what we claim to believe, then we can give witness to the One in us that calls us to live those beliefs. We can give words to the power of God, through the Holy Spirit, that motivates us to love extravagantly.  We can share the power and presence of Christ who “had no sin” but took our sin for us that we might become like Him. (v.21)
            I want to give these young people a church that walks with Jesus, where everything we do is grounded in our relationship with Jesus. I want to give these young people a church that works for Jesus that lives in radical, sacrificial obedience to serve those outside of our walls.  I want to give these young people a church that has the credibility to bear witness about Jesus to a world that is far from Jesus, church that demonstrates life service to support its lip service.
            This will require much of us. It will require us to give up our preferences in order to help them reach their potential. It will demand we disciple them, instruct them, and give them chances to serve so that they can experience how God works in and through us to change the world. It requires that we live lives of repentance, personally engaged in our own spiritual formation by modeling time spent in intentional study of the Scripture and in Connection groups where we are held accountable for our lives. It will mean that we must seek to discover our own divine callings so that we can then encourage and equip them to discover theirs. It will mean that we must be the church that is unwavering in its commitment to serve those outside of our walls motivated soley by our relationship with Jesus.
            This is the church I want to give our young people, will you give it to them too? “I tell you, now is th time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” (6:2)

[1] See The Next Christians,2010 by Gabe Lyons,  pgs. 20-28 for more details.
[3] Reggie Joiner, Catalyst Conference 2010.
[4] Lyons, p. 47.

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