PC (USA) – Generations

This is a sermon I co-preached with my dad at Pulaski Heights Presbyterian Church on March 30, 2014. This is my portion of the text, with my dad mostly just helping me set it up. All of his parts are in italics.

The Scripture was John 6:27-40

… In what generation do you see yourself fitting?

I fit into a borderline area when we talk about what generation I belong to. I was born in 1982, which is a year that is in between the Gen Y and Millennial generations. The Gen Y group is thought to have ended right around 1980; and the Millennials are thought to start right around 1985. When I take online tests to see which one I fit into more, I find that I often identify as a Millennial, fitting in with their ideas about technology and social interaction. However, I find that I have more in common with the Gen Y group when we talk about my knowledge of the world and my desire to stay involved.

… But how does that jive with your generations?

The key demographic we have to remember for the generations I identify with is the non-affiliated persons, or the “nons.” These are the folks that belong to both of these generations that recent studies have found to be not affiliated with religious institutions. They often grew up in the church, but have since left it for one reason or another. The “nons,” studies have found, are the fastest growing way to identify oneself religiously in the USA at this time.

… Does this passage and what you read from John give us hope and direction for reconciliation between the different generations?

Yes, these passages do give me hope for reconciliation between the generations and multiple groups within. They give me hope by serving as inspiration as to how we should act in the world.

The key to understanding the non-affiliated members of Gen Y and Millennials is that they often times grew up in church, so they’ve probably heard this verse before. Or they’ve probably heard the similar verse from John 14:6, “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” And these verses are problematic for the “nons” because they present the exclusivity that is present when they view the church. These are the verses, when the “nons” were looking for faith that pushed them away. It is far too often that these verses are viewed as an exclusive Jesus saying, “I’m the only way you get to heaven.” This pushes young people that are struggling with faith away from the church instead of drawing them into the pews.

If I were to start a conversation about religion with one of the “nons” from my generation, I don’t think I would start with this selection of the Bible that we read today. It’s not that this verse isn’t an important part of the Gospels or that I don’t necessarily believe it myself, but it is kind of off-putting to someone who doesn’t know what they believe. And that is the key with these “nons:” they don’t know what they believe. And because they don’t know what they believe this “off-putting” has become a two-way street. They approach the church and say, “I don’t know what to think about Christianity. Could you help me get it in a way that I understand?” And far too often, the reply from the church comes back as, “I don’t think this is the right place for you.”

Struggling with faith is not a bad thing. Lots of people constantly struggle with the meaning of life and belief systems. I’ve been there and I’ve seen it. I’m in seminary and I constantly see myself and people around me struggle with what it means to be a Christian and how we show our Christianity to the world. It’s not that we don’t believe in the Trinitarian God, but we constantly discuss amongst others and ourselves what that belief actually means. This doesn’t mean we’re on a track to being non-believers (different from non-affiliated, I should note); it just means that we have serious concerns about what our faith should mean to us and how that should be presented to the world.

The “nons” I keep on mentioning often are in a very similar position. Their struggle to find a belief system to guide their lives is the very thing that should be lifted up by religious institutions. A faith that has gained understanding through struggle is a faith that is less likely to turn away at the first sign of conflict. Struggle breeds character that can withstand the adversity of the real world. Struggle breeds strength that the church needs to grow stronger. This faith that has survived struggle will create a strong backbone for the church that won’t fade away into a broken community. The struggle that is existent with the “nons” is the kind of struggle that faith communities need and should embrace.

I was recently at my friend’s 31st birthday party. Throughout the course of the night, several different topics came up. Now, I should explain that a lot of the people that come to this person’s parties often identify themselves as agnostic or atheist. They were raised in the church, but for one reason or another, turned away. They are, by definition, the “nons.” One of these people engaged me with a series of questions about my faith and identity as a Christian when he found out I was attending seminary. The way he engaged me and the way the conversation immediately told me one thing: it’s not that he doesn’t have faith or doesn’t want to have faith, it’s just that the church and other religious organizations have turned him away over the years.

But it’s not that this person was a true atheist/agnostic as he claimed. Instead, he didn’t have a way to relate to religion, because his ideas of what to believe were not embraced by the institutions where religion is taught. As this conversation developed, I did my best H. Richard Niebuhr and Paul Tillich and started using different terms for God in order to find out what exactly this guy believed. Over the course of the conversation, we both agreed that there is a Life Force in this world. And, more importantly, that Life Force is driving humanity towards a goal. We agreed that loving one another should be a primary objective of humanity. Likewise, we agreed that whatever this Life Force is, it is encouraging us to take care of the planet, because the planet was and is a gift from this Life Force. We agreed that there is something out there bigger than humanity that is moving things in a certain direction. He didn’t believe in God in the way that the church has taught it to him, which was in a strict, exclusive, and conservatively evangelical way. But, he did believe in the idea that humans were created for a purpose and that we’re all linked somehow and some way.

So where are we now? How would we use these verses from John in a real-life context? How would we appeal to one of these “nons” that is struggling with their faith using a verse that looks, on the surface, to be pretty exclusive? We, as Presbyterians are caught in the struggle of trying to grow our denomination in a world that only sees the mainline churches shrinking. We know there are people out there who are in search of a faith system and story, but we can’t seem to be able to relate to those people, despite our best efforts. How do we cross these gaps using the Gospel of John as we saw it today?

The easiest way to reconcile these differences, as I see it, would be to act as the Bread of Life in the world today. The way the younger generations see it, it’s really easy to stand where my dad and I are right now and tell people what to do or think. I can stand here and exegete Bible verses and find relative illustrations throughout culture until I’m blue in the face. I can stand up in a pulpit every Sunday and explain to the congregation in the pews that Jesus wants us to act a certain way, but to the younger generations, this style of church is not how the Spirit speaks to them.

Instead, if we’re to reconcile the differences between the growing gap of affiliated persons and non-affiliated persons in the world of religion, then we actually have to go out and be the Bread in the world! And the key to doing that effectively, if our goal is getting young people back and active in the church, is to be the example, without saying much. John Calvin, the theologian who started our branch of the Reformed faith, thought that going out into the world was a prime way to express gratitude to God for the grace that is bestowed upon us. Doing the good things in the world is, in itself, a form of prayer. No words are needed when you are going out to do these things in the name of God, as long as we keep close to our hearts why we are doing them. If we do them in the name of God, then that is enough to be a prayer. We need to go out and prove to the world that we want to act like Jesus, not just talk like Jesus! We need to act fully and faithfully in the name of the Holy Spirit! And all the while, we should go forth and:

Praise God! Praise God in the sanctuary and in heaven!

Praise God’s mighty deeds! Praise God’s surpassing greatness!

Praise God with trumpet sound! Praise God with lute and harp!

Praise God with tambourine and dance! Praise God with strings and            pipe!

Praise God with clanging cymbals! Praise God with loud crashing cymbals!

Let everything that breathes praise God!

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