How many more Sundays?

I had the opportunity to hear Brian McLaren give a day of talks at Moravian Seminary in Bethlehem, PA last month. He quoted our Lutheran attrition stats, that something like 90 percent of the young people who come up through the ELCA are gone by college years. (Our bishop has used the same statistic on several occasions, with the rejoinder: If you're ok with only 10 percent staying, then you don't have to change anything!) Brian went on to note that the Southern Baptists and other denominations have similar statistics. Later he observed that while denominations are rightly concerned about the missing 18-29 year olds, he is becoming concerned about the 45-year-olds in our churches who are wondering if they can keep doing church one more Sunday.

That hits home, because my peers are in this age group, and I know a number of people who are going through the motions of church with no real engagement, and several more who have just plain given up, dropped out as solidly as any college freshman. And of the folks I know who are solidly churched, well ... I happened to start sharing this observation with a friend from church and before I could get to Brian's point, she supplied it for me. The next day I spoke to a friend from another church, and she, too, supplied the "can I do this one more Sunday?" line before I could.

This anecdotal evidence is hardly proof of a trend, and this observation is not new (George Barna hits upon it, with some dire predictions, in his Revolution, published last year). Still, it's worth paying attention to. The average age of ELCA members is 58, and the average age in the five-county Philadelphia area is 37. If even a small percentage of our 40-50 year olds, who are often key leaders and givers, are wondering about their commitment to church, where will we be in 10 years? Where will their kids be?

Out of the frying pan...

I think I'm breathing again.

For most of April I was quite immersed in preparation for our Synod Assembly -- producing videos, making tech arrangements, helping to plan worship, arranging musicians, organizing PowerPoint(R)'s, etc. The Assembly itself was an amazing time; the election of a new bishop was a process much more holy and spiritual than political, which is not how I had experienced other elections.

As soon as it was over I jumped into working to connect the media with our bishop-elect, and I started with my first online course. It's with Nate Frambach at Wartburg Seminary, on youth and family ministry in postmodern culture. So I'm still too busy to blog much, but the experience of using "moodle," the collaborative course software they use, and all the ideas springing out of my head from my reading have made it inevitable that I'll be thinking out loud here from time to time.

For this course I'm at present working through two books: "Practicing Passion" by Kenda Creasy Dean and "Liquid Church" by Pete Ward. I'm still too much in the middle of them to offer much cogent reflection, but I will share a couple of interesting ideas I've gotten from each so far:

Dean argues that the adolescent years are focused on passion -- the quest to love and be loved, and to find loves worth giving one's all for. She says there's a huge parallel between that life stage and the Passion of Jesus Christ, broadly considered (the entire incarnation event, not just the events of Holy Week). But the church has tamed that story and drained it of most of its pathos, leaving youth wondering why they would commit to the church. She spends some energy arguing that the problems of youth ministry are the problems at the church, and that while adolescents experience this to the extreme the lack of a passionate church -- both one with energy and one with something to live, and die, for -- affects many adults as well. I agree. While many view whatever is emerging as a generational thing, I have seen many in my generation who would offer some of the same critiques of the church that adolescents and young adults do -- too much going through the motions, too little passion and life change. In short, I think that's good news, because it means that the answers aren't about style and music and attitude but about getting back to the same reality, the Passion of Jesus, that drove the early church to explode.

Ward's book is really interesting to me. He avoids the pitfalls of talking about postmodernism by contrasting the "solid modernity" of the last several hundred years with our current "liquid modernity." It's a great way to describe how fluid attitudes and institutions and certainties have become in my lifetime. He also argues that this fluidity has impacted the church, even where it says it has not. The modern church has mutated, in his term, and takes a stance regarding the fluid culture. The church becomes a heritage site, preserving for future generations what it has been entrusted with. This is not bad, unless it makes inaccessible the very treasures it is trying to keep accessible. Or the church become a refuge from the fluid culture, creating a Christian bubble world (and sometimes megachurches that are like resorts), he says. Or the church becomes a nostalgic community, hoping 1957 will come again someday, and telling itself stories to pass the time. An excerpt:
The nostalgic community sells itself as the one place where communal meetings remain possible in society. We tell ourselves that in church young and old gather together in ways they never do outside of church. This kind of myth makes us feel good about our congregation... The nostalgic community is more wish fulfillment than reality. Congregations are generally monocultures reflecting the tastes of one or perhaps two different types of people. Black and white most often worship separately, as do the working class and the middle class... (28 ff)
It looks like "Liquid Church" is not a rant against the system but a realistic look at how church and culture are colliding. I like his idea of liquid church, spelled out in the introduction:
I suggest that we need to shift from seeing church as a gathering of people meeting in one place at one time -- that is, a congregation -- to a notion of church as a series of relationships and communications. (2)
This sounds like the early church, meeting together, breaking bread, teaching, and also caring for widows and orphans -- relationships and communications. More later...

Can love be commanded?

This past Sunday we read the appointed Gospel lesson about Jesus commanding his disciples to love one another. It was observed that love can be given, and love can be inspired ... but it can't be commanded. Demanding a relationship that must be voluntarily entered into is an oxymoron.

It occurs to me that what Jesus was doing was being contextual, using the language of his audience. To the observant Jews of his time, the commandments were the pinnacle of piety -- keeping the law wasn't part of the religion, it was the point of religion. It was the only relationship with God that mattered, that of obeying the externally observable rules.

Jesus had been very clear in the sermon on the mount that keeping the law was a first step, not a destination. This "righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees" would be exceeded by people who lived in the kingdom. But it was the litmus test of his time, used to include some and exclude others.

By making love a commandment, Jesus isn't asking his followers to force the feeling of love. He isn't coercing the disciples, nor is he simply describing another "law" that can be measured by neutral observers. Rather, Jesus' point, I think, is to say this: You think that the point of your religion is to keep the law. No, I say the central thing is love. You think you have been given a law to keep, I say you have been loved extravagantly. The response isn't just to keep the law, it's to love in the same way.

We accompanied this reading and discussion with a new video by The Work of the People, based on Derek Webb's song "A New Law."

don’t teach me about politics and government
just tell me who to vote for

don’t teach me about truth and beauty
just label my music

don’t teach me how to live like a free man
just give me a new law

i don’t wanna know if the answers aren’t easy
so just bring it down from the mountain to me

The film uses a great visual piece of business... people on the street are handing out blindfolds, which people wear to walk, eat, drive, read books, view art, preach... and finally have the boldness to peak out to see what's really there.

That seems to me to be what Jesus was saying... don't just take the law and then use blinders to shut out its implications for your life, but look... really look... and where love can make a difference. And then do it.

Thank you, God, for taking off your blinders and coming to live among us.