Have we forgotten how to call young people

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Over at the Lutheran, the magazine of our communion partner, the ELCA; they’re asking “Has God forgotten how to call young people?”

Drawing on research by the Pew Research Center, the article states;

29 percent of millennials (ages 18-33) aren’t affiliated with any religion and the rate of atheism in this group is twice as high as any other generation in America. Why? David Kinnaman, author of You Lost Me (Baker Books, 2011), suggests millennials are leaving the church because they experience it as overprotective, shallow, anti-science, simplistic toward sex, exclusive and unwilling to provide room for doubt.

But the ELCA should be a mecca for young people. We have a complex understanding of sexuality, an open view of Christianity, we provide room for doubt and promote scientific exploration. So why are our young people leaving?

The same question applies to the Episcopal Church; the average age of our membership is 57 and the Church Pension Group’s Report on the Clergy noted that

“The age distribution of clergy has changed drastically over time, with fewer clergy being ordained at younger ages and more clergy with older ages at ordination.” The current average age at ordination is 44, and out of over 13,000 clergy, only 624 of which are under the age of 40.

The Lutheran editorial posits it’s an issue of courage

Millennials are afraid to be Christian. It’s safe to join the Peace Corps, run a race that raises money for the poor, occupy Wall Street or make the world awesome by being a “nerdfighter.” It is not safe to be a Jesus follower.

But also, they suggest it is a lack of courage on the part of the Church;

We must be a church willing to venture into such fear and speak a word to a generation equally afraid. We must lay down our insecurities and follow our Lord who laid down his life. We must “not be ashamed of the gospel”

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Does that sound right? Is the prevailing cultural image of Christianity overwhelming our witness? Does the issue lie with the Church mainly or elsewhere?

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Wayne Sherrer
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Wayne Sherrer

As I see it, the "call" of the original article was not to ordination but to a life of faith and to participation in the faith community. Pastor Lackey, the campus pastor who authored the article, pointed to the high percentage of millennials unaffiliated with any religion, to church workers who "write off students as too busy or uninterested in faith" and to clergy who rarely "seek out those no longer attending or who've never been inside a church." In fear of saying the "wrong" things to young people (and to others, I would add) we too often say nothing to people outside the walls of our church buildings about the Good News we know and so, we call no one. Yes, there is a risk (at first) of being identified with the fundamentalists when we talk to friends about our faith, but when we never mention faith, those friends are left with no alternatives to fundamentalism except atheism or "spiritual, but not religious." Telepathy is even less effective in evangelism than it is in marriage. A parish may welcome the adventurous who risk entering its doors, but few are willing to do that without the knowledge that a familiar face will be present. People, young or old, respond most favorably to a call from someone they know. It is not enough for thousands of tongues to sing our great Redeemer’s praise inside church walls, those tongues are also needed to tell to all the world, even to our next door neighbors, that God is love.

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Brad Ley
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Brad Ley

This is interesting to ponder, but it may also be a red herring...particularly in a denomination where clergy are traditionally referred to as "father." It's good to have clergy with life experience. It's a strength, not a weakness, and we do it well.

We should embrace it. Agree and amplify: "Our average age of ordination is 46. Our clergy have life experience that equips them to respond to a variety of needs and situations."

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Philip B. Spivey
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I have a particular interest in seeing young people consider ordained ministry, too. But like Paul Martin, I see tremendous obstacles today.

The first concerns the orientation of the millennial and X-generation members: American institutions, perse, are an anathema to many of them. The Church, as one of our oldest existing institutions, does not escape their scrutiny. I think it is fare to say that TEC has distinguished itself by taking-on humanity-affirming issues over time that others domains of Christianity have not. However, when our young adults look at the whole of Christianity, no such distinctions are made. Christianity and frequently all organized religions, are dismissed with the same brush. When (if you can believe it) Public Service Broadcasting and its featured PBS NewsHour are among the most trusted American institutions, you know we have a problem. To bear this out,in our most recent election cycle, polls reported that the youth and young adults stayed home in large numbers. In these very critical times I must ask, how alienated can they be?

Secondly, part of that alienation stems from tradition of the Church. In generations gone by, future clergy were hand-picked by some priest or bishop and sent off to seminary. In those days, somehow an aspirant could afford the journey to priesthood. In those days, it was white males who were chosen to serve. In 2014, although some racial, gender and country-of-origin barriers have been lifted, the costs of formation have skyrocketed and again, some in the Church find themselves face with economic barriers.

Finally, I don't think we've forgotten how to call young people. I don't we've given them the resources to be called---by God. Discerning God's purpose for us should begin at any early age; not the discernment for the ministry, but discernment for God's call---whatever that might be. We've overvalued the discernment for ministry (because really, how many of us are called to it?) and given short-shrift to our lay ministries, which are infinite.

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Paul Martin
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Paul Martin

I am hardly an expert, but there are some issues which I cannot let go of.

First, the world is changing. It is changing more rapidly than ever before, and so is the community and the generation we are trying to address. We have made multiple changes in the prayer book and hymnal over the years to deal with changes in the English language. The process is too slow, too difficult, but our practice changes anyway. I hear a service with subtle changes to accept women, to avoid hurting them. We have to find a way to adapt to the next generation, to express a message that makes sense to a changing world around us.

Second, who is communicating to the community at large? A few months ago, I heard a commercial from a college. It sounded like a very good pitch until I heard the phrase, “Christian College.” I am amazed by how quickly that phrase turned me off. I am a Christian. I have been an Episcopalian for all my life. And yet, the term “Christian” has a tendency to generate the image of a Southern Baptist, or other churches in that part of the Christian Community. These are the people who use that word; and I guess we don’t. This determines how the word is defined in many minds, even mine. We need a way to communicate who we are, using both the similarities and the differences with those who dominate the television ads.

Third, we must listen. I see no other way to understand the changes we need to make. When I was in college, Constance Parvey (ELCA) was very skilled in providing a place where she would listen to us. It was an experience of growth, and our relationship to the church grew as well. Graduate school and an Episcopal church right on campus was very similar. Are we surveying campus churches for their input? Are we asking churches generally for their experience with the younger people?

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William Hammond
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William Hammond

The article says that less than half of one percent of our clergy are under 40. (Is it correct?) That's not a good thing.

But don't we, these days, generally tell young people in college who are interested in seminary that first they should gain experience working in the world?

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Chaz Brooks
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Chaz Brooks

As one who works in young adult ministry, I don't think it works to start with the question "How can we appeal to the young people?" Desperate pandering is not as compelling as some churchmen and women think. We have to ready to, at any moment, speak of the work of God in our lives. That's more difficult than it sounds. It takes a lot of theological ground work to think about one's life in a theological way, and a lot of practice to speak it in a coherent and rational manner. But if one does that hard work, then the message of "Christ Crucified" is more compelling than we in the Episcopal Church have tended to think these days. This man suffering on the cross for the sins of the world is compelling all on its own.

We won't get people into our churches by tearing out our pews and sitting in circles or playing guitars or using translations of the bible produced in the 60's or bragging about how modern minded our sexual ethics are. It hasn't worked in last 50 years and it won't work in the next 50. It will take people who believe in the truth of this 2,000 year old text and can show that this 2,000 year old text is still relevant now. This the work of doctrine and dogma. As the work of dogma, it is a matter of salvation by faith in these dogmas, in the living person that these dogmas point to.

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tgflux
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tgflux

"It's also quite rational for Christians who read and allegedly believe in this scriptural passage to be ashamed of it, without at least a critical reading of its meaning."

Aye, there's the rub. I think Episcopalians (most of them) CAN read Scripture critically.

However, as "Scripture" or "The Bible" . . . or the "Buy-Bull" or "Stories from a Bronze Age Imaginary Sky Fairy!!11!" (I'm using the more angry descriptions of anti-theists there), as understood in wider American culture, it is NOT a critical understanding. It's either a non-critical misunderstanding (Fundamentalist), or a critical misunderstanding (anti-theist). Two sides of the same coin.

"Millennials are afraid to be Christian ...It is not safe to be a Jesus follower."

I rather think the lack of safety in the latter correlates to calling oneself the former. More and more, I'm leaving word "Christian" to the Fundamentalists (aka "Christianists", Andrew Sullivan's useful phrase). I talk about following Jesus, or just say Episcopalian.

Yeah, I know: in Acts, in Damascus, "first called themselves Christians". But that term has been poisoned at this point. I don't want to lose preaching the Gospel ("using words only where necessary" St Francis), just for that one no-longer-useful term.

JC Fisher

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jon white
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jon white

Wayne, I think you've hit on something that bothered me about the original article, namely, was there ever a time when the church was good at communicating to young people? If anyone at my parish ever pines for the golden years of a generation or so ago, I remind them of the 1930's when the building was almost lost to the bank and the rector went unpaid for six months prior to his death.

The postwar period was anomalous and my impression is that many people gravitated to the mainline churches to meet their societal obligation for church going rather than out of any deeply experienced call of God. Thankfully, many were serious about their faith commitment though and remain so.

But the experience of loss in the last generation makes me believe that we are shy about moving too far from the known and comfortable. In discerning ministry or call (and not just of potential ordinands) I worry that we have lost the ability to see potential, opting instead for the proven - which doesn't leave much space for anything new God might be up to.

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Wayne Sherrer
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Wayne Sherrer

The headline implies that there was some golden age when we "knew" how to call young people. Historically, the young adults in our parishes have largely been the product of procreation, inertia and the rubber band of young parents returning to baptize their infants. (Even the President of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (which has seen a slow but steady decline since 1970) acknowledges that its greatest source of growth in prior years was procreation.) Despite our official name, we have not been a "missionary society" that consistently and effectively reached out to any age group. The Good News is far too often still a messianic secret. People share the scoop on good restaurants and movies but don't reveal their participation in a church, much less recommend it to a friend.

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jon white
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jon white

Chaz, you are right that oftentimes clergy cannot clearly state what the church is for. But let's not forget that all clergy were first formed as Christians in parishes and families. Why didn't they learn it there before going to seminary? This is a whole-church problem and not just a clergy or leadership problem (though it is that too).

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Chaz Brooks
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Chaz Brooks

I've run into too many seminarians that cannot make a coherent statement about what they think the point of the Church is. To hear them talk, we ought to open a food pantry or house-building program for Sunday mornings instead of listening to lectures on ancient texts and singing slogans. Indeed, more and more people do not see the need for the song and dance to do good works.

The situation, as I see it, is that people, especially young people, have no idea why they need the Church. Our priests have little to no ability to tell them.

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Jim Strader
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The author writes " We must “not be ashamed of the gospel”

Let's see, Episcopalians and Lutherans alike will preach to a gospel wherein an imperial "Son of Man" separates sheep from goats while condemning unrighteous followers into "eternal punishment." It's not too difficult to comprehend why millennials (or anyone else with a progressive understanding of Christianity) would at least question such a text. It's also quite rational for Christians who read and allegedly believe in this scriptural passage to be ashamed of it, without at least a critical reading of its meaning. My point is that Lutherans and Episcopalians may have indeed forgot to call young people. It may be also true that we have been calling and they haven't been answering. I'd assert that young people who are raising money for the poor and joining the Peace Corp are doing a better job of living into the "Reign of Christ" gospel (Matthew 25) than most Episcopalians and Lutherans who faithfully attend Sunday morning worship services are doing. Do these issues lie with The Church? I certainly believe a reasoned person who doesn't overvalue The Church's traditions and historical interpretations of scripture would reach such a conclusion.

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Michael Russell
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Michael Russell

Perhaps God calls in idioms we neither appreciate nor understand. "We've always done it this way" is not a compelling message about Christ though it will draw 1-2%.

And if had a compelling message we would still be drowned out by megaphone fundagelicalism. Why? Because we will not allocate our resources to "represent" in the surf of messages.

Finally, we're trying too hard. People can smell desperation. So:

1 Find out how compelling messages are built.

2 Figure out what our particular, unique God talk might be.

3 Figure out how to place the message where people will see it.

4 Develop the media that people can actually use to get the message out.

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