The church is coming around to recognize something… the world has changed, and it is effecting us. Effecting us to a point that we can’t ignore it. Looking around the church, the patterns aren’t the same. People grew up, left and came back. At least that’s what we told ourselves. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. But for a number of reasons, the number coming back has reached a level where we are noticing that it is getting emptier. This isn’t just true at First Lutheran. It is almost everywhere among the Lutherans and other ‘mainline’ denominations.
David Bowie’s music was part of the soundtrack of my childhood. One of his great songs has something to say to us in the church today… The chorus goes like this:
Ch-ch-Changes (Turn and face the strange)
Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it
Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes (Turn and face the strange)
Where’s your shame
You’ve left us up to our necks in it
Time may change me
But you can’t trace time
That second line has something to say to us. The generation now coming of age has more people who have no church affiliation than those who do. Hear that. By the time my kids grow up, it is quite probable that fewer than half of the people in the US will belong to a church.
But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t faith out there. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a genuine curiosity for the mysteries of God. But we are looking at a generation that is unfamiliar with what church is all about, who has seen scandal after scandal and sees the church as a place of judgement or negativity. Sure, we don’t think we are, and probably aren’t. But that doesn’t matter. Perception matters.
How do I know there is faith out there? Let me tell you about an experience this week. To get to know the world outside church (which isn’t easy for a pastor to do), I have started going to a bar… a pretty quiet place. The other day I had gotten into a conversation with two people in their 20s. One worked at a pizza place nearby and another worked at another bar, but comes to the Growling to hang out. Go figure. After talking about the movie that was running and other stuff, I dropped a reference to my profession. After the shock of a pastor cutting up in a bar wore off, the subject changed. The other person started talking to someone else, and all of a sudden, Philip got serious. He started asking about the Lutherans. He’d heard a little but was genuinely curious. He started asking questions. Telling his story of church and frustrations. His struggles with a religious background that was all about rules and measuring up. I could see his face lighten as I gave a Lutheran interpretation focused on grace and not on measuring our goodness.
Philip would never have come wandering in here. He is one of those who grew up in the church and maybe people are waiting for him to come back. He isn’t coming back. Well, probably not. What had to happen was the church had to go there. We have to stop blaming them for not coming back and wonder where they are. Jesus talked about the 99 sheep who stayed, but said his job was to look for the one wanderer. The Christian church in this country has a lot more than one wanderer in 100. First Lutheran has a lot of wanderers… people who have grown distant for whatever reason.
A later verse of David Bowie’s song goes like this:
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through
You see, we don’t actually spit on the young people who have wandered. Not literally. But I’ve found myself looking down on them, wondering why they don’t come back. But what happened with Philip, and with many other conversations I’ve engaged like that, is that I have learned that we are doing exactly what this song is saying. We want them to be like us. But they aren’t. They are different. When I go to their turf and open up to listen, when I stop trying to consult them of how to be like us, they open up. I didn’t offer a fix. Instead, I listened to his struggle, his challenges, and what he wanted. And if we do that, honor that, and affirm their struggle rather than try to fix them, they are open to share. They do care about their world and have that curiosity about God.
Part of getting to know neighbor and doing the main one of Jesus commandments, to love our neighbor, is going to look different. Neighbors aren’t coming to us any more. We have to go there. It is going to mean some changes for me. I have to get out more. I have to go look. But I cannot do it alone. We all have to look around and see how we might get to know our neighbors. I don’t know what that looks like. I do know it won’t be 10:30 on Sunday. But I do know that it is closer than we might think.