Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Church We Give the Next Generation

The Church We Give the Next Generation
2 Corinthians 5:11-21/Luke 15

Today we celebrate a new generation of Christians. These young people will be learning about the historical Christian faith, grasping concepts of what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus   But, then again, isn’t that what we should all be doing this year? Growing in wisdom, knowledge, and practice of Christianity?
Christ. How radical it is to profess resurrection in a world that rejects it off hand. They will review creeds, learn about worship, and struggle to understand 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.

Every time I am with them they ask hard theological questions and silly ones as well. Questions about heaven and hell, life and death, sin and grace. They are 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. It is our responsibility to equip them for the world they will live into. To teach them to think, be able to make decisions based upon their faith, and to live in a new world. You see the world we give them is not the world we inherited; it is far different.

The world we are giving these young believers is pluralistic, postmodern, and post-Christian.[1] Pluralistic, all faiths are not simply tolerated, 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. Postmodern at its simplest essence is a radical skepticism of all that is held certain. There are no absolutes; everything is negotiable, relative, and unstable. Post-Christian is the final acknowledgement that while 76% of Americans claims 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.[2]
Born before 1946 — 65% attend worship regularly
Born between 1946 and 1964 —35% attend worship regularly
Born between 1965 and 1979 —23% attend worship regularly
Born between 1980 and 2000 —15% attend worship regularly
Born between 2001-2010—4% attend worship regularly
We are increasingly losing more out 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 at St. Paul say that we are called to show love, share Christ, and shape disciples, and that our mission as a church is “Inviting all God’s children to care for others as Christ does,” 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 and introduce them to Jesus as their Savior and Lord. 

Perhaps we think, “If this church was good enough for my parents and grandparents, it’s good enough for them.” This is what I know; it wasn’t good enough for your parents, or your grandparents. How do I know? 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 parents) 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 realize that while this is the church we have, it is not the church that will reach our young people? Every generation of Christians must discover how to share the gospel with its generation 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 them a church that:

Walks with Jesus—about a relationship with Jesus (v. 17) and becoming the “New Creation.”
            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 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.

            Last week I had a call from a spiritual hero of mine, Janet Evans. Janet, and her husband Tom, were my best friend’s parents when I was growing up in Raleigh. They were the first to consistently take me to church and to show me what it means to live like Jesus. I remember doing a “youth service” and we wanted to use a guitar and bongos to sing some praise songs from this new artist, Keith Green (okay it was the ‘80’s give me a break). The deacons called a church meeting to discuss using “heathen” instruments in the church. Tom was a piano and organ man. He loved hymns and old campmeeting songs; let’s say he was not a fan of guitars and surely not 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, and then he said, “You know, I read in the Bible that David used a harp, a flute, a drum, and a bunch of other instruments to sing about God. A harp is kind of like a guitar, a drum is like bongos. I reckon if it was good enough for David 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, it’s good enough for me. I’d rather have them in the church playing these things, than 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 and it was horrible, but we were there 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 you an update about that church, the church that formed my faith. The church that taught me about radical obedience, the power of Scripture, the importance of faith—they are dying. They decided they didn’t like loud music with guitars, that if what they had was good enough for them, it was good enough. They forgot that the mission of the church is to “make disciples,” to do whatever it takes to reach people, so the church is dying. And that breaks my heart. I do not want to give the next generation a dying church; I want to leave a living body of Christ. That is going to take a lot of work.

Works for Jesus—living in radical, sacrificial obedience (v. 18). We are called to the ministry of reconciliation; to reconcile, and restore all of creation back to God.  We must model for them that while the “world will not be completely healed until Christ’s return…the process begins now as we partner with God.”[3]

            This is not a generation of watchers, but a generation that seeks to be doers. 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 with ZOE Ministry or providing 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 in the name of Jesus, unashamedly. 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 is to return to the neighborhood we abandoned thirty years ago and find a way to serve the 500 homeless children in our local schools. Maybe it’s to acquire abandoned homes in that neighborhood and rebuild them, then move people into them to help us build bridges relationally to turn on lights spiritually. Maybe it’s to partner with the Rocky Mount Peacemakers or anybody else to reach that community. I don’t know but I know it’s going to take work.

Maybe it’s 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. We wonder why youth get into trouble, but we don’t give them any spaces in this community to just be young. This is what I know— the church we give and live for this generation must be one that works with those who Jesus cared the most about, those who are young, those who are poor, and those who are hurting, and anyone that is 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. The church we give the next generation will be a church that lives its faith by working for Jesus, then and only then it will have the credibility to give witness about Jesus.

Witnesses about Jesus—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 last year much news coverage was given to a group of people who claimed God would end the world in 2012 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 of God 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 been 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, works for Jesus, and then has the credibility to bear witness about Jesus to a world that is far from Jesus. 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. It will mean that we must seek to discover our divine calling so that we can encourage and equip them to discover their own.

This is the church I want to give the next generation; will you give it to them too?

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

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