Monday, April 11, 2011

The Future of the Church?

I posted this article on Facebook yesterday: "Of Storks and Canaries: Youth Ministry, New Vocations, and the Future of the Church," by the Rev. Frederick Schmidt. The article makes the very good point that we need to treat youth and young adult ministry as a serious vocation and not a way station on the way to somewhere else; and we need to call and equip appropriate leaders for that ministry, including young adults. Our future as a church depends on it.

Well and good. My post prompted the following comment from a young seminarian: "Regarding patronizing attitudes, I think the denomination needs to gain some clarity about who the church is. The 'under-30' crowd, and even the under-20s, are not just 'the future of the church.' We too are the church."

Also well and good. Although the commenter was focusing on young(ish) adults, and I am really focusing on children 18 and under, I couldn't agree more - young people are here now, and they are fully as important members in our congregations as the older members who generally exercise leadership and control resources. The fact that we should be ministering to young people in our churches should be self-evident. We shouldn't have to argue to get appropriate resources allocated to children's and youth ministries - the least and smallest should always come first in the church. Didn't Jesus say that? Frederick Schmidt's article should not be necessary, and it shouldn't be necessary for the House of Bishops to spend a meeting considering how to reach out to young people. It should be happening as a matter of course, right? Our future depends on it, right?

Well, right. But I think this whole question is framed wrong. If we're saying that we should be ministering to young people because they are the future of our church, we have it exactly backwards.

Here's the deal: we don't do ministry to anyone in order to build up the church. The church is not an end in itself, and young people are not the means to an end. We don't do ministry to young people so that the church will survive - because we fear that we will die if we don't. If we are leaders in Christ's church, then we are meant to be leading the mission of Jesus. Not perpetuating an institution. Not operating out of fear.

Don't get me wrong - I love the church. I love this institution, and I think it's worth perpetuating. But I'm a leader in Christ's church because I believe in Christ's mission. And I will stay a leader in Christ's church as long as I believe that it's the best hope for accomplishing Christ's mission.

We don't do ministry with young people so that our church will survive. We do ministry with young people because Jesus loves them. We do it because we love them. We do it because we want their world to be a better place. We do it because of who we are as followers of Jesus. And we do it because of who they are.

And who are they? This is who they are:
  • They are the two children who committed suicide this week in a neighborhood near my church. And they are all the other children in my neighborhood and yours who are depressed, sad and lonely enough for that horrible thought to cross their minds.
  • They are the gay and lesbian teenagers who are trying to understand how God made them, and whether Jesus loves them the way they are.
  • They are the bright, committed and earnest students who make straight As in school, and wonder whether they will ever be able to afford a college education.
  • They are the runaways who spend their days in the airport terminal because it's air-conditioned, they can use the restrooms, and no one will kick them out.
  • They are the kids who understand that Jesus loves them, but wonder why a powerful and loving God would allow a tsunami to wipe out whole villages in Japan.
  • They are the young people who are confronted with a parent's serious and life-threatening illness, and who have to come to terms with questions of life and death way, way too young.
  • They are the kids who come to youth group because they like the fun and games, and they are the kids who come to youth group because they want to understand Jesus.
  • They are the kids who are bullied, and they are the kids who do the bullying.
  • They are the kids who wish their parents would leave them alone.
  • They are the kids who wish their parents would pay them some attention.
  • They are children of God.
These children of God - inside the church, and outside the church - need to know that God loves them. That's why we do youth ministry.

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