Thursday, October 29, 2015

The missing Millenials

“After three days, they found [the boy Jesus] in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.  Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.  When his parents saw him, they were astonished.  His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.’  ‘Why were you searching for me?’ Jesus asked.  ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’” – Luke 2:46-49

            Any parent who can’t find a child knows something of the anxiety Joseph and Mary felt when twelve year old Jesus goes missing.  “We’ve been searching all over for you – how could you do this to us?”  I can’t help thinking of the day I came out of the bathroom to a strangely quiet house.  Brian was still in diapers, but while I was predisposed he saw his opportunity to escape.  As I was frantically searching each room in the house for a second and third time, a knock came on the door.  It was the lady next door, and she had a little boy in diapers in her arms.  “I found him running down the street towards the McDonalds,” she said.  Apparently, the call of the golden arches overwhelmed any concern he had for his own personal safety. 

            History repeated itself when we moved across the state.  I had recently started at my second church and we were in the church basement enjoying a marvelous potluck after the service.  Soon, two of the church members, a mother and daughter, came down the stairs with a little boy in between.  They had found Brian running down the sidewalk (which ran along a busy street), heading towards the McDonalds two blocks away.  Again, the golden arches were calling irresistibly.

            As he joined his family on their trip to Jerusalem, Jesus must have felt like he was coming home.  Nazareth was a tiny town, barely a bump in the road.  Jerusalem was a magnificent walled city of nearly 100,000, David’s capital and site of the Jewish Temple.  The Romans considered it a hole in the wall, but to Jews it was the center of the world.  As one modern author puts it, “there was no city more unique, more holy, more venerable in all the world than Jerusalem” (Reza Aslan, Zealot, p. 11).

            And there on the Temple mount stood the amazing Temple built as a house of worship for all the Jews.  In Psalm 69:9 God’s faithful one declares that “zeal for your house shall consume me,” and we see just that happen to the boy Jesus.  He is drawn not to golden arches, but to the golden walls that towered above the city.  He goes there to be in his Father’s house, to spend time in the place which was built for the purpose of bringing human hearts into their Maker’s backyard, of connecting heaven and earth.  There in the Temple courts he talked to the religious professionals and wannabes, and amazed them with wisdom and understanding even they had never heard.  There in the house of  God, Jesus was on home turf.

            A lot has been said about the younger generations today, especially those who are now between 15 and 30 who are commonly referred to as “Millenials.”  As a whole, this generation shows great support for issues such as same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana.  They are also the most educated and racially diverse generation America has known.  They are less likely to invest, and more likely to choose a job they love over one with a higher paycheck than previous generations, but 84% give to charity (often through Kickstarter or other crowdsourcing  websites).  One researcher calls them “digital natives” because they have grown up surrounded by digital technology and the Internet.

            The religious habits of Millenials have been studied for years.  We know they are part of a long trend in America of decreasing religious participation, going back to the 1940’s.  They are less likely to describe themselves as religious as previous generations, and when they do, there is an increasing likelihood that they believe in a “higher power” rather than a traditional idea of God.  25% of them declare themselves to have no religious affiliation, which has earned that group the label “Nones.”

            Despite concerns about the changing relationship between young people and their faith, the picture changes when looking at Millenials who do claim to be Christian.  Within that group, recent research suggests today’s young people tend to be more committed to their faith than Baby Boomers or Gen X Christians who preceded them.  November’s issue of Relevant Magazine quotes David Kinnaman, president of Barna Research Group, as saying that a “countertrend” is emerging in this generation: “…the trend toward ‘noneness’ is being ‘counterbalanced by a different one of younger Christians being as or more committed to the Bible, Christian practice, and even theology’ as Christians before them…”

            When I work with youth, I’m used to seeing a wide range of interest and participation within a youth group or confirmation class.  Some are there because their parents make them be there, and you can tell.  Some are really interested in the material -- they ask great questions and want to know more.  Some are passionate about living for Christ and doing things for others.  Others would rather sneak out and head for the golden arches. 

            I have to say, it is a continual pleasure to work with the young people here at Atonement.  Brenda Lenz is an exceptional youth leader, and I have great helpers in Marcia Weil and Jim Turner to assist with confirmation classes.  The confirmation students show a genuine desire to grow in faith.  Our youth, as busy as they are, value the time they are together.  This year we have a small batch of senior high youth, while I have 8 in confirmation.  Brenda suggested that we bring the groups together once a month for youth group.  I’m excited about the possibilities this will bring to both our youth and confirmation programs.  We’ll be starting this on Nov. 21 – after the regular confirmation class from 10:30am-noon, we’ll have pizza and spend an hour or so together as the youth group.

            I see many large churches around us investing lots of time and money in flashy, high-energy programs for young people.  A small church like Atonement, however, can do an excellent job bringing young people together through a youth and family ministry that focuses on relationships and spiritual growth.    It is important to make sure our young people remain included as we look toward the future, as we plan our worship services, as we think about the fellowship and service that we do. How are we reaching out to, listening to, and making room for Millenials and younger people among us?  How can make sure they don’t go missing, or if they do it’s because they’re in their Father’s house…?

Pastor Scott

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Blessings physical and spiritual

“May the Lord bless his land with the precious dew from heaven above and with the deep waters that lie below; with the best the sun brings forth and the finest the moon can yield; with the choicest gifts of the ancient mountains and the fruitfulness of the everlasting hills; with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness and the favor of him who dwells in the burning bush…
                             -                   Deuteronomy 33:13-16

Friends of Atonement,

            A man came to our church yesterday looking for help.  He looked tired, both physically and spiritually. This is not at all unusual, especially since we are so close to the I-75 exit.  I asked him what brought him to us, and he said, “First of all, I needed to use your bathroom…”  Then he said he was new to the area, and was worried about how he would make it through till next week when his place to stay would become available.  He told his story, about how he had done construction work all across the country until a botched operation left him unable to work and some poor financial decisions let his parents’ house slip into the hands of the bank.  He came seeking help both physically and spiritually – some relief for his material needs and a chance to put down the great burden he was carrying, if just for a moment.  He found both of these at Atonement.

              When Moses blesses each of the Twelve Tribes just before he dies, he lavishes wishes and prayers for great abundance upon the house of Joseph.  He asks God to provide the best from all over creation to come to Joseph’s descendants, and with those great gifts something greater still: God’s favor.  It is humbling to meet people who struggle to get by physically and spiritually.  In fact, it’s almost embarrassing.  When I eat a nice warm meal that Su has cooked, when I fill my tank all the way up with gas, when I put on some clothes that are newly washed or turn the AC down a notch – I do these things knowing that God has blessed me like Joseph – fully, deeply, and richly.  Not everyone experiences such fullness of blessing, and how easy it is for them to think that such few physical blessings must mean God thinks little of them too.

            But this is not so.  Throughout Scripture, we see God’s beloved servants from Elijah to Saint Paul struggling with hardship, famine, nakedness and persecution.  Jesus said his disciples would face these things as well.  And of course, Jesus himself lost all things in order that we might know how much God loves us.  As the author of Hebrews tells us:  “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.  In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood…” (Hebrews 12:3-4)

            He’s got a point there.  In my struggles against sin, I don’t get all that uncomfortable; in my struggles against poverty, I don’t deny myself much; in my struggles against homelessness, I haven’t made room in my own bedroom for those who have nowhere to lay their heads.  God often stretches us, but we are also given the benefit to enjoy His gifts.  Though we all have room to grow in the generosity department, with God’s grace and the Spirit’s guidance we are led into new avenues of love for others, into new depths of appreciation for the ways God has blessed us.

            I thank you for the many ways you give to God.  Through your offerings you are providing help to needy people, through your prayers you are strengthening the ministries of Atonement, through your worship attendance and works of service you are being a part of Christ’s body – His heart, hands and feet reaching out to bless the world.  It is our Lord’s hope that “…those who trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.  These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.” (Titus 2:8)  God bless now and always for giving to Atonement and to all God’s people your generous support, both physically and spiritually.

Pastor Scott