You might be glorious!
When we think of Jesus, how often do we remember that he was only 30 years old when he began his public ministry? If he had come on the scene in 2016 he’d be part of the much studied, ballyhooed, and often maligned Millenial generation. Perhaps he’d be tied to his phone and posting parables on Instagram instead of teaching people on hillsides.
By our standards, Jesus was young when he began attracting crowds and followers, and his disciples were probably his contemporaries or younger. Some scholars posit they were teenagers.
Yet as we talk about the decline of the institutional church, we point to the greying of the pews and the lack of young people and children in our church buildings. What happened? How did a movement started by a group of young adults espousing hope and a new way of living become the bastion of the old folks and the dying? At the Faith Forward conference in the US this past Spring, Brian McLaren challenged us to turn Christianity back into a youth movement. The time has come to let our young people and children take over the church: to let go of much of our power and privilege in church and let the young people have it.
Let me clarify what I am not saying. I’m not saying that churches should abandon caring for their older people. Jesus exhorted his followers to always care for the ‘least of these’. We sometimes think of these as children and those without the means to care for themselves. Many of the older people in our churches need help caring for themselves, whether with everyday tasks of living or with staying out of poverty. I’m not saying that anyone over 45 should drop out of church and not be involved anymore. All members of the faith community have something to offer and younger people need to have the wisdom to listen to some of us, even though we don’t know how to use a Snapchat filter.
Here’s what I am saying: for too long our churches have given the older members power over how the organisation operates: often stifling change, disallowing children and young people from meaningful participation, and in the process disillusioning them about the future and hope of the Church: a pastor is convinced her local congregation needs to be more intergenerational. She presents her ideas to the church leadership and is immediately told children can’t be in the worship service because they are noisy and can’t understand what is going on. Another pastor wants to create a safe and beautiful space in the church building for the toddlers and their families but it means taking over a room long used by an adult Sunday School class. He’s told the adult class can’t be moved because they paid for the room to be painted last year and, besides, it will be too expensive to buy all the new furniture and equipment needed. ‘We don’t have very many toddlers, anyway,’ the group tells him.
John Westerhoff has said that the Church is really good at doing things for children and young people but not very good at doing things with them. This is because it is far easier to do things for people rather than with people and it keeps those doing the ‘for’ in control. When we strive to do things with others, those things we are trying to do get messy and things might not continue on as they have always been. But if Brian is right and we need to turn Christianity back into a youth movement, we older folks need to give up what it is that makes the institutional church comfortable for us and ‘about us’, and hand over the keys to the next generation and the generation after that.
In college, I was a great fan of British writer Charles Williams. In one of his books a character is trying to convince another character to do something she doesn’t want to do. His argument to her is that, ‘You may not be comfortable but you might be glorious’. I say that to those holding on to the old ways of the Church - give them up. You may not be comfortable but you might be glorious.