A sermon preached on the Third Sunday after Epiphany 2015 . Our readings included Ecclesiastes 3:1-13, “A Blessing for New Beginnings” by John Donohue and Mark 1:14-20. Listen to the sermon here
Fishing for Young People Will NOT Save the Church!
Changing National Demographics Tell Us that
Youth are NOT the Future of Christianity!
Good News! Yesterday, I spent over an hour embracing our newest grandchild. Our granddaughter arrived into our corner of the cosmos on Wednesday morning. As I held this precious little humanoid in my arms, I couldn’t help marveling at the billions and billions of years of development that led to the configuration of cells in which little Evelyn Adele’s conscious self is now poised to be without a doubt one of this planets most dynamic, intelligent, beautiful, talented, compelling, loving, engaging, smart… funny, did I say beautiful?
She’s gorgeous!!! Just like all our grandchildren! Of course. Just like all of your grandchildren. Just like each and every child who has ever been born! Little Evelyn has already won my heart. It is amazing how much love bursts forth when a tiny little humanoid appears in your life. Holding Evelyn is like holding the sun, the moon, and the stars in your arms. It is difficult not to burst with sheer joy at the realization that life is so much more intricate, complex, beautiful, and awesome than you can even begin to imagine and yet, there’s a sadness in the tenderness of that sweet embrace. Because life is more intricate and complex that we can begin to imagine, the knowledge of all the risk, danger, sadness, and tragedy in creation I couldn’t help thinking of all the disappointed parents and grandparents whose hopes and dreams did not come to fruition. Then there’s the tragedy and injustice of all the beautiful children whose lives are at risk because of poverty, injustice, hatred, violence, war, and indifference. The complexity and the fragility of life seem so acute when you are holding a newborn. The mixture of emotions and the intensity of feeling is something that mere words cannot adequately describe.
All of the parents and the grandparents here know this. But if you had told me any of this a few years ago, I would have understood what you were saying but I would have had precious little idea of what it is that you were feeling. Being a grandparent is something that I never thought possible for me. Usually you have to have children before you can be a grandparent. But thanks to the generosity of my beloved Carol’s children, I have been blessed to be a grandmother. Next to Carol herself, I must say that being “Gran” is the best surprise I could have hoped for, way back when I was discovering who I actually am. But I will confess that the role of grandmother is not a role I ever imagined playing. My image of myself is changing. My ideas about the future are morphing into something I barely recognize. My hopes and dreams are expanding. I can hardly wait to see what lies ahead. The future is calling me to follow wherever these glorious little humans may lead us.
So, this week as I have been wondering about what the future holds for some very precious little ones, I have also had the words of today’s gospel reading floating in the corners of my mind as I try to figure out exactly what the good news is. “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Change your hearts and minds, and believe this Good News!” Good News. “evangelion” a Greek word which becomes in English: evangel as in evangelize and evangelical. It is an important word for us. Holy Cross is part to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. To evangelize is to bring good news. I suspect that many of the members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada are more than a little indifferent to the word “evangelical”. We may call ourselves evangelical but what’s in a name really? Thanks to some other churches’ callous way of being evangelical the very word itself has fallen into disrepute. Honestly, most of us would rather not be associated with evangelicals. Good News hardly applies to the types of Christians who are willing to hit people over the head with their bibles in order to judge and condemn them into the kind of shame and fear that sees the fires of Hell being kindled by their very souls. Besides, we’re Lutherans and by nature we’d rather not push Good News. We prefer to live our lives quietly as an example and hope that others will see something in us worth inquiring about and then we can refer them to an appropriate book, speaker, or pastor so that their questions can be answered in a modest open kind of way that may or may not lead them to any particular conclusions but will of course affirm that God’s grace is sufficient.
It is more than a little ironic that our very name includes the word evangelical but there is precious little good news about the state of the Lutheran church or any church for that matter. Jesus said, “Follow me, I will make you fishers of people.” But we all know that there are precious few people willing to be caught these days and we church folk are woefully bad fishers. Sure there are plenty of fish in the sea, but the holes in our nets makes casting into the seas of busy, discerning, modern, populations seem futile. Those of us who are willing to bait a few hooks with contemporary food for thought can’t seem to snag enough fish to ensure our survival. So dwindling congregations and growing expenses have led us to cutback after cutback as we huddle together in the few remaining buildings that we can afford to maintain.
Good News? Not really. Over and over again we are told, and so we tell each other, the church is dying. It’s not a particularly slow death. We are told, and so we tell one another that, the few members we do have are aging and once they are dead the church too will die. The answer we are told, and so we tell one another, is to attract young people. We need more young families. We need children. We need youth and vitality. Unless we figure out how to attract young people the church shall die.
The only problem is we are not attractive to young people and to date our efforts to be hip, to get down with the program, and move with the times has only exposed us for the aging frauds that we are when we try to be something we are not. Whatever you say about the inexperience of the younger generation, they are smart enough to spot a fake or an imposter and so our programs and our youth outreach, or even our pub nights, movie nights, and yes our contemporary worship, has for the most part failed to produce the kind of results we need in order to survive. So, some of us have turned on others of us as we compete for meager resources and clamor for attention from the generations missing from our pews. For the most part church’s that want to grow their numbers have become obsessed with trying to figure out what to do to bring in a younger crowd.
Now before I go any further, let me make it absolutely clear that I too believe that we should go out of our way to be attractive to a younger crowd, but, and there’s a very big but here, so listen very carefully. Despite what we’ve been hearing and what many of us have been saying for decades the youth are not the future of the church. Look around. You and the silver-haired aging populations of this planet are the future of the church, especially in Canada.
I will confess that I too have been fooled into believing that what we really need to do to ensure the future of the church is to bring in a younger crowd. But the real solution lies more in a reality to which many of us have been blind.
Let me begin with the facts. How many of you were born between the years 1946 and 1965? Congratulations, the vast majority of this congregation belongs to the generation of Boomers, which in Canada continues to dominate the demographics. The truth is that the population of Canada, the United States and Europe is aging. The fastest growing part of our population is seniors. Currently 15.3 % of the population of Canada are senior citizens. That percentage is rising quickly. By the year 2030 – 23.6 percent of the population will be made up of senior citizens. By 2050 that number is set to rise to 31 %.
In case you are wondering, the statisticians insist that senior citizens are people who have reached the age of 60. The Good News is that even after the current crop of seniors have long since shuffled off this mortal coil there will be plenty more senior citizens out there in the sea. The even better news is that as we live longer we are enjoying better and better health; 80% of seniors can expect to live healthy and productive lives. Wait it gets better.
Our aging population is better educated that it has ever been before and despite most of the dire predictions the vast majority of seniors are better off financially than seniors have ever been in the history of humanity. Now that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges or that some of our seniors aren’t living in poverty. It does mean that we do have the wherewithal to ensure that seniors can live vitally rewarding lives and contribute to the health and wellbeing of our society in ways we are only beginning to tap into.
The future has so much potential. If you need even better news than this let me just tell you that according to the statisticians Canada ranks 5th in the world for quality of life for seniors.
When the fish who have been caught by Jesus’ compelling good news swim off to other shores, when we are gone, there will be plenty of more fish in the seas. So, let me ask you to think long and hard about this. Why aren’t we casting our nets where the fish are?
Have we become so obsessed with youth that we are willing to let schools and schools of fish swim past us in the vain hope that minnows are more attractive because they alone can save us? While I’m at it let me push you even further. When did any of this good news become about saving the institution? We have good news to share with people who have ears to listen.
Most of us are getting up there in years so we know the importance of dwelling in the questions of this life. Who are we? Where did we come from? Why are we here? Is there a Creator, or a god, or a source, or a reality that we are somehow connected with? Where are we going? What is justice? How do we stop the violence? What can we do to ensure peace? What happens when we die? Where are we going? Are we going anywhere? Is there life beyond this life? What is love? Who am I? These are the questions that haunt our very existence.
We have a contribution to make to conversations about the very nature of reality. We have wisdom to share. We have love to give. We have a hunger for justice and peace. We can continue to be obsessed with youth or we can embrace who and what we are and live fully, love extravagantly and become all we are created to be.
I believe that this particular congregation has something special to offer. Lord knows, we have the grey hairs, bald and balding heads, old bones, wisdom, generosity, and love. We also have what so many people wish for in a congregation. We have an appetite for learning and we are not afraid to dwell in our questions. We have the courage to try new things and to fail if need be. We have a passion for life and we sure know how to play.
Holy Cross is uniquely placed to be church in the 21st century. When we worship together stuff happens. We have a Global Justice Team which not only educates it advocates and provides opportunities for all sorts of people. We have a Beyond Church Team that is always thinking out of the box and engaging the world around us. We have Pastor Tom, whose skills and talents as a pastor and a psychotherapist are enabling us to care for one another in ways that make a difference in peoples’ lives. We have Marney. Our music program is amazing. We have an adult education program, which tackles the stuff of life. We also know the importance of children and we have a dedicated group of volunteer educators who are committed to giving children opportunities to encounter the sacred in ways that will feed them for life. We have all of you and we have a vital sense of fun as we play together, sing together, worship together, encounter the sacred together, struggle for justice together and love one another in ways that nourish, ground and sustain us in this amazing thing we call life.
I hope that we can find the courage to play to our strengths. I know that we can meet our financial challenges and solve our accessibility challenges. I trust that together we can be a vital community. Please don’t go away from this sermon thinking that I want us to focus solely on being a senior congregation, that’s not what I’m suggestion at all. We need all ages to be a vital and dynamic community.
What I am suggesting is that if we be authentic to who we are; if we play to our many strengths we will continue to be the kind of congregation which is attractive to all ages. Healthy communities are attractive. Communities who know who they are and who they serve are healthy communities. Healthy communities are able to play to their strengths. We don’t need to become what we are not in order to survive. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to challenge ourselves to be more than we are. It does mean that we need to remain open to the challenges of the world in which we live.
But from time to time, we need to hold up a mirror and celebrate who we are together. Holy Cross is fearfully and wonderfully made. We have so much potential. So many strengths. Yes, there is so much more that we can be.
I for one can’t wait to spread the Good News. There are so very many fish in the sea. All sorts of varieties and ages so let us follow Jesus and cast our nets widely. Let’s play to our strengths, for we are great fishers and we the most precious bait, the Good News that at the very heart of all that is the Divine Reality that we call God is LOVE.
For everything there is a season, this is our season. Let’s embrace it. Let’s live fully. Love extravagantly. And be all that we are created to be. Let’s do it together in the midst of the One who is Our Lover, Beloved and Love Itself.