Researchers and professors like Kenda Creasy Dean, Christian Smith, Kara Powell have been trying to answer the question so many of our churches are asking, “Why don’t young adults come to church?”  (Even in the phrasing of our question lies the seeds of our despair in the old line church–vital faith is conflated to church attendance.)  The answer has many facets and can’t be boiled down to worship style, no-coffee-in-the-sanctuary rules, changing moral emphases, etc.  But two insights about the young adults who remain vitally connected to the religious and spiritual roots have stuck with me.   (These are not the only predictors (read “silver bullet”) for which young adults will make the transition from growing up in church to choosing to be actively affiliate, invest in, and lead in church as an adult.)

The first insight is that involvement in church life was a value for the whole family and both parents.  When they say, “I grew up in church” they mean more than attendance on Sunday.   It means that Jesus, ethics, God, church community were talked about at home.  Faith was presented AND PRACTICED as a lens through which to make decisions, form values, and see what you and the world should become.   This is the Deuteronomy 6 approach.   At all times discuss, ask questions about, and teach the way of Jesus–when your walking along and see something, when you get up and think about what the day has in store, when your sitting and resting, when you go to sleep and review your joys and regrets.  Since most of life is mundane (meaning ordinary life not boring) you can’t just wait until the exciting religious thing happens to start thinking and talking about God.  You will go too long in between conversations if you do. [Parents are important in this the research says but young adults who stick with the faith also report having several significant relationship with other adults in the church–who presumably are also walking, sitting, getting up and lying down and talking about God.]

The second insight stirring me is that while they need the mundane growing up in the faith, they also report having significant spiritual experiences.  Yes, old line church…conversion experiences!   At some point in childhood and adolescence (and hopefully and necessarily multiple points) they must come into the presence of Jesus without the protective shield of adults.  They realize that they have agency as people and responsibility to respond to God who is calling them as individuals to come and follow Jesus.  Faith is not just a “we” thing that my family does.  It is also a “me” thing in which I come face to face with God.

Often number two doesn’t happen in the ordinary life of the local church–maybe camp or a mission trip–and so how can the experience be integrated into number one?  If parents and adults often don’t have the language or familiarity or comfort to talk about their own life-changing spiritual encounters, how can the church community foster that language and those conversations?

This is making disciples of all people…beginning with those at the kitchen table and in the back seat of the van.

 

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What is your mindset about the challenges that you face in your job, in relationships, in personal growth, in spirituality? Researcher, Carol Dweck, identified two mindsets that lead to different outcomes when we encounter adversity. One is a fixed-mindset in which we attribute our successes and failures to innate talent (smarts, athleticism, charisma). The other is mindset is a growth-mindset in which we give more weight to practice, learning, and hard work. Children she identified who had a fixed-mindset when when they failed in a task attributed it to them not having enough talent. Fixed -mindset children would not persevere towards a goal but stopped. Those with a growth-mindset did not see failure as a reason to stop but continued to employ different strategies, worked harder in order to complete the task. Matthew Syed cites Dweck’s research in his book Bounce and gives more examples especially in the field of athletics.

As a pastor of a church I wonder about how this applies to our functioning as churches. When churches describe themselves do we use inherent traits, which are usually fuzzy categories. Positive ones would be warm and friendly, family-like, generous. Negative ones might be dysfunctional, conflicted, graying, not growing. (I’m sorry if the use of graying in this way offends those who have gray hair but I’ve never heard graying used a selling point for churches. This is evidence of a fixed-mindset.) Note that all of these may be accurate descriptions but they also lock us into expectations, keep us stalled and risk-avoidant.

Or do we focus on what we have actually done, what we learned, how we failed, and how we grew through our trying. The growth-mindset helps us to see failure as an opportunity to try something else or to persevere in our attempts. It nurtures in us a learners-mind, creative solution-seeking, and risk-taking.

How do you see these mindsets at work in you and others?

The story of Elijah’s encounter with God has great significance for church congregations today as we look at where we are now as institutions and what our futures might be.

In 1 Kings 19 the prophet Elijah is tired, depressed, feels abandoned by his fellow Israelites (and maybe even his God).  Running away from a queen who wants to kill him and practicing a religion that is less and less valued by his culture Elijah runs to the mountain of God.  Yahweh meets him there but asks him twice, “What are you doing here?”  And then he says “Go back the way you came. I’ve got some work for you to do.”

God isn’t angry with Elijah for going on a retreat or even from running away in fear. God is not chastising him. God is asking Elijah why are you searching for me here in the wilderness but not for me back there in that messy, changing, dangerous life. Well, its because Elijah doesn’t like what life is becoming “back there.”

We spend a lot of energy, money, and time trying to get people to join us on a  weekly, one-hour trip to the mountain of God.  Much of our hope is dependent on getting more people to come on this journey.  There used to be lots more people making this trip.  When get to the mountain we can feel like we’re the only ones who REALLY CARE!  Maybe God is asking us ‘What are you doing here?  What about being my people back there?  It won’t look the same but that’s where I’m calling you to be.  In that messy, changing, dangerous life.  Go back the way you came.”

Elijah went back with a new mission of choosing a couple new kings who would be God’s change agents and a new prophet to be his successor.  Elijah wasn’t going back to make things the way they were but to bless what new thing of God was coming.  Maybe our churches should be doing that as well.  Less focus on keeping up the institution that isn’t connecting with the people who don’t want to make the trip to the mountain.  More focus on seeing what new thing God is doing…what new mountain(s) God is found on (or coffee houses, or website, or businesses, or house churches, or mission groups, or bars, or worshipping communities) and then anointing and blessing them. And maybe finding that God was waiting for us, too, to find him there.

This article in the Harvard Business Review caught my eye. It speaks about what we in the Judeo-Christian tradition refer to as a “calling.” Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite authors, defines calling (or vocation) as the intersection of our “deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger”. (Buechner, Frederick (2009-10-13). Beyond Words (Buechner, Frederick) (p. 405). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)

But the question that I’ve asked and what has often been asked of me is how do I recognize this call. This article in the HBR gives some helpful and practical advice. Look for what is strong and persistently showing up in your life. Look for what springs from you and your life. The principle of incarnation is fundamental to the Christian faith (and unfortunately often ignored, misunderstood, or denied). God came to us a human in Jesus his followers believe and so God will continue to “speak” through our human experience.

But Buechner makes explicit what the the HBR article perhaps only hints in calling being personal. Calling comes from—or manifests itself in—our deep gladness or joy. When we are giving ourselves to our calling we have the experience of being what we are made to be and do. That doesn’t always equate to happiness or satisfaction. I sometimes would love to get out of my calling but its where I find and discover (help to uncover) my best self.  That is always part of offering good food to the world’s great hunger.

How have you recognized a call or moment of obligation?

Jeff Greenberg from the University of Arizona said, “When death is percolating close to consciousness, people become more ‘us vs. them’ — they become defensive of their belief system, positive toward those they identify with and more negative to those who espouse a different belief system.” This was said in a news story yesterday about how polarized the country has become politically, socially, when we are confronted by tragedy. By polarized I think he means cut off from others who are different from us and then all the negative behavior that comes along with being cut off.

I think that he has described the situation accurately but I don’t think it is “death” that causes this. Death is one of the universals for all people no matter creed, nationality race for current state of health. The polarization is about anxiety and loss of (perceived) control. That’s what we experienced on 9/11, at the Boston Marathon, and the many tragic events that happen for all of us or that that we read about in the news. Anxiety comes with cognitive dissonance. Before 9/11 we thought we were safe. We thought we were safe at the Boston Marathon. Thought we were invulnerable. But now we see that we are not. (Although it’s hard to believe that we could think we were invulnerable since every day has news about how vulnerable humans are, yet we go along in daily life like this.)

The problem comes not “when death is percolating close to consciousness” but when we deny the reality that death, being vulnerable, is part of life, part of being human. The problem comes when death percolates only in the unconscious mind. When we cannot or will not face our demons, our inner darkness, the mystery of existence and death, then we don’t have the tools needed to undertake life and to enter it with courage and compassion.

When we find the courage to travel inside, look at the demons, confront them, stand in the darkness, whatever you want to call this task of human then we find that we are not alone but that maybe even these things that we’re confronting are friends. And what we were anxious about that made us fight or flee is really calling us home. Calling us to our true self.

Brennan Manning passed away this weekend. Brennan was a Catholic priest who was most widely known for his writing with books like The Ragamuffin Gospel and Abba’s Child. His personality and drive brought much success and acclamation in his career but at some point he realized that these things were just cover-ups and cheap substitutes for his core self. For Brennan his core being child of his Father in heaven.

My dignity as Abba’s child (Abba means something like “dear father” in Aramaic) is my most coherent sense of self. When I seek to fashion a self-image from the adulation of others and the inner voice whispers “You’ve arrived; you’re a player in the Kingdom enterprise,” there is no truth in that self-concept. When I sink into despondency and the inner voice whispers “You are no good, a fraud, a hypocrite and a dilettante,” there is no truth in any image shaped from that message. Abba’s Child

Identifying and knowing who we are at our core is probably the most significant work any human can do. If we don’t do it then we will always be looking for others to tell us who we are. Now if those people had healthy and big core selfs then they might be helpful to us. But many of the people we look to would just use this opportunity to define themselves by telling us who we are! Those outside voices get internalized into the whispers Brennan mentions.

 

People with strong core selves have a both-and-ness about them:

  • confidence AND humility (I know some things but I don’t have the only knowledge)
  • embrace their strengths AND weaknesses (know what they are good at but can admit what they can’t do—although I’m not sure that weakness is the right word)
  • speak their perspectives AND encourage and welcome others to do the same
  • value their individuality AND the vital connections with others
  • seek their own success AND the success of others (don’t see themselves in competition)

Only when we know who we are and whose child we are (that can mean an overtly spiritual and religious answer like Brennan’s “I am Abba’s child” or recognizing that I am rooted deeply in my family and tradition without being determined by them) can we lead, speak, respond, make decisions, and take action in life with authenticity.

How would you describe someone who has a large core self? How did they develop that core?

A character who wants something and overcomes obstacles to get it. That’s the definition of story and it also happens to be a pretty good way to live life. Much of it comes down to the “something”. A creative vision. A dream. Working to stop human trafficking. Protecting an endangered species. Making houses that become homes. Restoring something broken and making it useful. Taking your knowledge about finances and helping folks make ends meet and make a new start. Being a mirror for a child so they can see their worth.

The something doesn’t have to be about a exterior accomplishment but something inside like facing a fear. Finding and affirming your core self.

Everyone has wanted a something that really wasn’t worth writing a story about let alone writing a life about. Climbing a career ladder. A bigger house. A fancier vacation. And then sometimes there is no something at all that we are pursuing. We don’t have any story to tell in life but life is just a series of days and events.

What is the story you want to tell, the story you want to be a character in?

This is also the question our church needs to answer.  Are we wanting something that’s worth telling a  story about and overcoming conflict and obstacles to get.  A story that others want to hear, a story that others would also want to be a character in.   That something must be something more  than ourselves, our survival, our success, or even perpetuation of our tradition.  No matter how much we may want these they aren’t the things that make a good story.