“The Sin of White Supremacy” – Sermon for Proper 14, Year A

Sermons

The intended audience of this text is the congregation of Christ Episcopal Church, Roanoke, VA. It was written to be delivered as a sermon on August 13, 2017. Any non-traditional formatting is due to this intended use. 

Audio of the sermon can be found here.

Good morning.

I had a sermon prepared for this morning before yesterday, but the events in my hometown of Charlottesville led me to reconsider.

I should begin by saying that I condemn the events in Charlottesville. I condemn white supremacy and those who adhere to that racist ideology.

But I can’t stop there.

As a priest, I confess my own failure to condemn the spectre of white supremacy that has haunted this country for three hundred years and is now coming to the forefront of our national conscience again.

A Church that has nothing to say about what happened in Charlottesville this weekend has nothing to say about the Gospel.

A Christianity that has no words for the people of color who for months (and years and centuries) have watched white supremacists grow more confident and bold has nothing to contribute.

If you’ve ever wondered where you would have stood during the Civil Rights Movement, now is the moment to decide.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, this weekend a number of neo-nazi and fascist hate groups planned a rally in Charlottesville around the statue of Robert E. Lee. This is not the first time these groups have rallied in Charlottesville.

Hundreds of people, including clergy and the Bishops of the Diocese of Virginia, planned to be in Charlottesville as a counter to the hate proclaimed by the neo-nazi groups.

As the smoke cleared in the hours that followed, we saw the violence that happened. Many people were injured, some arrested, and three people died.

So what does our faith say about this? What does the Gospel of Jesus Christ speak into this moment?

Unfortunately — sinfully — the Church has been quiet for a long time.

For many mainline denominations, many historically white denominations, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s marked a shift towards a spiritualizing of the Gospel. Increasingly, the message became one of saving souls. The Gospel was about receiving Jesus into your heart and little else. It is worth noting that there is nothing in scripture about receiving Jesus into your heart.

This denial of the incarnation, this rejection of the physical reality of human life is the predecessor of the prosperity gospel.

That anyone can read the words of Jesus and with a straight face claim that God’s desire for people is personal wealth and financial success is beyond me.

But it is not a far jump from those who can go to a neo-nazi rally on Saturday and worship the God of Jesus Christ on Sunday.

It is not a far jump from the American enslavers who sat in church pews while enslaving human beings.

And in case you think I am up on my high horse, the cognitive dissonance that has gripped American Christianity is the same that causes people, like me, to read the words of Jesus and walk past a homeless person without making eye contact.

We have separated the Gospel of Jesus Christ from the lived realities of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. We have made the Gospel a self-help program to make better American citizens.

We have neutered the Good News that “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

Paul’s words sting when he writes,

“…how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?”

That’s us, folks.

We are the ones who have been sent to proclaim Good News to the poor, release to the prisoners, hope to the orphans, comfort to the widows.

We are the ones.

We must be less concerned with the success of our denomination or the flourishing of our individual churches and more concerned with the proclamation of the Gospel.

The Western world has been presented with a watered-down version of the Good News.

Jesus Christ preached that Truth, with a capital ‘T’, that the peacemakers, the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, the sick – that the very least of these – are blessed.

To be blessed is to be with those on the wrong side of privilege.

To be blessed is to be at the receiving end of the hate offered by the world, because that is where you find Jesus.

I have no doubt in my mind that Jesus was on the side of the counter-protesters in Charlottesville.

I have no doubt in my mind that Jesus stands with the people who proclaim with a shaking voice, weary from having to say it in 2017, that Black Lives Matter.

Dr. Martin Luther King’s words in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written in 1963, still ring shamefully true:

“I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you….when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodyness’–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

We cannot wait any longer.

The Gospel has something to say about the events in Charlottesville. It is not found in pleasantries or calls for peace. It is not found in blanket condemnations of “violence” or abstract allusions to “reconciliation”.

The Gospel calls us to condemn white supremacy with our words and actions. To put our privilege on the line in the name of Jesus Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

This is not a pleasant topic or a nice discussion and I am sure there are those who wish I wouldn’t bring this up.

It would have been much easier to keep the sermon I had written before yesterday, but as Christians, we must call things what they are.

Whenever Jesus encountered a demon in the Gospels he first called it by its name. This is uncomfortable and necessary work.

There are those who are at arm’s length, imagining that any discussion of racism or Confederate statues or white supremacy is a discussion of history and theory, but I can assure you – for people of color it is a reality, it is life, and it is unavoidable.

White supremacy is not a problem for people of color to solve.

It is a problem for white people to solve.

We must speak up and stand up.

Those of us with privilege must surrender our comfort for the sake of the Gospel. We must follow Peter out of the boat and into the waves of our modern age, for Jesus is already standing on the waves and saying, “Come.”

If the Episcopal Church has nothing to say about Charlottesville, then what are we doing? Are we worth saving from decline? 

If our churches have nothing to say about injustice, what Good News do we have to offer?

We must keep our eyes on Jesus and our feet in the march towards the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven.

We must keep marching forward to a day where problems are not solved with torch-lit marches or nuclear bombs.

There is grace in this message.

When the disciples cry out for help in today’s Gospel, Jesus responds immediately.

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Jesus is with us when we cry for help.

So we must keep marching forward to a day when the hungry will be filled and their tears wiped away.

This is our calling.

We are the ones sent to proclaim this Good News.

So be it.

Amen.

The Tyranny of ‘Best’

Short Reads

“The enemy of the best is the good.”

This phrase is often used to describe the problem of settling for something ‘good’ when the ‘best’ option is available. The thinking goes: people settle for something that is good enough instead of working towards the best thing.

I have been a slave to this type of thinking, but recently I’ve come to realize how misplaced and idolatrous it can be.

There is a common myth in American culture that the best is best. We study Amazon reviews before buying something, just to make sure we are getting the best shower mat or blender or alarm clock or pair of pants. We compare cars before buying to make sure we are getting the best deal with the best options.

Please don’t misunderstand, this can be a good thing, but we have carried this line of thinking into all aspects of life.

We don’t settle on our weekend plans with one friend just in case they are not the best plans we’re presented with. We keep the door open for a different friend to present a different, better plan.

We don’t settle on the one person to marry because we are not sure that they are the best person for us.

We get antsy after a few months in a job because we are worried that it might not be the best job for us.

This is true in the Church as well. Missiologist Michael Frost said, “No one is more transient than American pastors, like rocks with no moss.”

The problem with all of this is that it forces us to spend a bulk of our time holding our breath, waiting for the best thing to arrive. Our lives pass us by while we impatiently wait for the next best thing.

That’s why I reverse that common phrase:

The enemy of the good is the best.

The goal of life is not the best. The goal of life is enough.

God promises enough – our daily bread. Jesus calls us to ‘perfection’ which can be understood as completion.

We are called to wholeness; not to be the ‘best’ but to be the person that God has called us to be.

I find myself drawn to thinking about the ‘next’ thing. What job is next? Where will we move next? What is the next step?

Perhaps God is calling me to be where my feet are – to be here.

Perhaps the next step is to do my work today; to do the next, right thing and trust God.

The enemy of a good life is the illusion that there is a “best life” just waiting down the road.

 

The Sign of Jonas

Short Reads

“The sign Jesus promised to the generation that did not understand Him was the ‘sign of Jonas the prophet’ – that is, the sign of His own resurrection. The life of every monk, of every priest, of every Christian is signed with the sign of Jonas, because we all live by the power of Christ’s resurrection. But I feel that my own life is especially sealed with this great sign, which baptism and monastic profession and priestly ordination have burned into the roots of my being, because like Jonas himself I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”

These words mark the first page of The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton. The book is a collection of Merton’s journals during his first six years as a monk at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

I am preparing to travel to West Park, New York, to retreat at the Holy Cross Monastery for the week. Fr. Louis, as Thomas Merton was known at Gethsemani, will be my companion as I read The Sign of Jonas.

During my retreat at Holy Cross, I will be received as an Associate of Holy Cross, which is the culmination of a six-month process of discernment.

Thomas Merton entered the monastery in 1941. Over the almost thirty years he spent in the monastery, American society and the wider world changed dramatically. Social and political norms were overthrown; wars of varying size and intensity raged around the world. Everything was unraveling at the seams.

History repeats and human beings don’t change, so 2017 looks much like Merton’s days.

Somehow, in the midst of the pain and suffering of the world, Merton found peace in the monastery. He did not avoid the world, constant letters and correspondence kept him apprised of the goings on in society. Merton sought the better thing, to sit still and be with God.

My draw to the monastery and to following the Rule of Life as an Associate is a draw to an ordered interior life, to a deeper connection with God, to a commitment to seek “the better thing” in the midst of a legion of disordered desires.

lyons-still-600

I will travel to Holy Cross – a day’s train ride – to pray and be silent. I go on retreat not to avoid the pain of the world or the chaos in which we find ourselves, but to be rooted in the love and peace of Christ.

I will bring the pain and chaos with me and turn it over to God.

I will pray for guidance in this moment. What is the role of a priest in America right now? What is the role of the Church? How can I witness to the power of the resurrection in this time and place?

I will pray for the peace of God, “which is no peace”.

And I will pray for you.

Join me on retreat, in whatever way you can. In your morning prayer time or afternoon walk, ask God what you are called to do in this moment.

These are chaotic times, but we have saints who have gone before us who are interceding on our behalf.

Fr. Louis, pray for us.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” -Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

 

Tattoos and blessings

Short Reads

To celebrate and commemorate my recent ordination to the Episcopal priesthood, I got a tattoo.

Not the norm, I know. Most folks take a silent retreat or read a classic religious text. Instead, I sat for two and a half hours while an artist went to work on my arm.

Full disclosure: this was not my first tattoo, but my wife tells me that it will be my last.

I began to meet with the artist and go through drawings several weeks ago. The tattoo is inspired by an icon of the Harrowing of Hell that was written by Wayne Hajos. In the icon, Jesus is standing on the broken gates of Hell and pulling Adam out of his tomb by his wrist. John the Baptist stands by and points the way to Christ, even in Hell.

The image is powerful for many reasons. What resonates most for me is the idea of God’s grace being the motivating factor for salvation. Adam is being pulled by his wrist – he is not doing anything.

The fact that John the Baptist is preparing the way of the Lord, even in Hell, gives me hope for the wilderness situations in our world today.

In our final meeting before scheduling a date for the actual tattoo, the tattoo artist confessed something to me. This man, gritty with every inch of skin covered in ink, said, “I am not religious at all. I am a fairly passionate atheist. I never do religious tattoos, as a matter of principle, but there is something about you and this tattoo. I don’t know what it is, but I feel like I will be giving you something and you will be giving me something. I don’t know man, I feel like I’m getting something out of this.”

My first thought was snarky, as it tends to be. I thought, “Well yes, I’m paying you. You are getting something out of this.” As I left the tattoo shop and got into my car, however, I realized what he was saying. He couldn’t put his finger on it. He didn’t have the formal theological language to describe what was happening. He was saying that in coming into contact with the story of Christ, he was receiving a blessing.

I doubt he would call it that, but that’s what it was. The story of Christ and the notion of God’s grace was presented to him in a way he understood, in a tattoo, and he let it in.

Does this mean he will drop what he’s doing and run the nearest church? Unlikely.

But perhaps his heart was “strangely warmed”.

On Sunday, I celebrated my first Eucharist. To be precise, I celebrated the three services at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Roanoke.

It was a beautiful day filled with many beautiful moments. I did wear the chasuble backwards for the first service and there was a medical emergency in the late service that involved moving the whole congregation to the chapel while the ambulance arrived.

But in the midst of all of that chaos, I felt a profound peace.

The children’s choirs sang at one of the morning services, which snapped the whole day into perspective. The first time that I wore a robe in church was as a member of the children’s choir at the Church of Our Savior in Charlottesville. Now, decades later, I stood by as the children’s choir sang, wearing the robes of a priest.

“You are getting something and I am getting something.”  

That morning as I placed my hand on the head of each person with their arms crossed over their chest and pronounced something that has been true since their birth, that they are blessed, I understood what the tattoo artist meant.

They were receiving a blessing, true, but I was also receiving the blessing of following the call of God.

I trusted that God was calling me into the priesthood and have received the incredibly blessing of being able to proclaim the Good News of God and to preside over Christ’s Holy Table.

I received the blessing of being able to stand in front of the people of God and assure them that God’s forgiveness reaches them as well.

I received the blessing of being able to look out into an over-crowded chapel full of people, displaced from their normal worship space, and declare that God is indeed with them, at that moment and always.

That is the secret of ministry. It is not a top down arrangement. It is not a one-way service.

Jesus was onto something when he told his disciples to be servants of all. It is in serving and giving of yourself that you get everything you could ever need.

It is in giving that we receive.

To the tattoo artist and the children’s choir I say, thank you for blessing me as I begin the incredible journey that will be my life as a priest.

 

Five Reasons I Shouldn’t Get Ordained

Short Reads

This coming weekend (God-willing), I will be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. The service that will take place on Saturday is the culmination of years of discernment, academic study, and prayer. So you might be surprised to read the title of this blog, but read on and you will discover the five reasons that it makes no sense whatsoever for me to get ordained.

Millennials Don’t Like Commitment

As a twenty-something, I am used to being told that I don’t value commitment or “traditional” ways of doing things. The journalists and baby boomers sure do know what they’re talking about. I am so commitment averse that I have already made vows to my wife and will soon make vows to the Church. Am I the norm? Maybe not. But you can’t write off an entire generation because your neighbor’s adult son lives in the basement.

Is this too harsh? Perhaps.

In my ordination service I will promise to commit myself to the trust and responsibility of being a priest. I will promise to read and study the Holy Scriptures, administer the Sacraments, and to persevere in prayer. It is a level of commitment unlike any other.

Millennials like me aren’t steering clear of commitment. We are steering toward commitment to things greater than ourselves. Our commitment to traditional careers or life paths may be drying up, but our commitment to community service and pursuits that honor our whole being has never been stronger.

The Church is Dying

The Church Decline Industrial Complex is big and loud. People are making their names (and careers) on the idea the Church is dying, but when you say the Church is dying, you need to clarify what you mean. Nadia Bolz-Weber recently said that if you mean that you think that people will no longer gather in the name of the Triune God, break bread, and remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then yes – the Church is dying. But if you mean anything else, you are not talking about the Church dying. Perhaps the way we’ve organized congregational life doesn’t work anymore. Perhaps the way we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the world is not helpful. Perhaps the way we interact with those who disagree, especially other Anglicans and Christians, is no longer useful.

I am committing myself to a Church that is in the resurrection business. The Church as the Body of Christ cannot die, because the Body of Christ died once and rose again. The Church in 2015 looks very different from the Church in 1915 or 1415 or 115. In the same way, the Church of the future will necessarily look very different from the Church today. I am committing myself to walk with and work in the Church in the ways that the Episcopal Church has received it. The Church is not dying and I am excited to help guide the Church of the future.

Putting Myself Under Authority

Right after publishing an article about how millennials hate commitment, many folks love to talk about how millennials don’t respect authority in the traditional way. Article after article about how to handle millennials in the workplace have been flying around the internet in the past few years. So it might seem odd for me to commit to “respect and be guided by the pastoral direction and leadership of [the] bishop”. Becoming a priest in a church whose name literally means overseer or Bishop (episkopos = overseer) is a whole different level of commitment to authority.

We are in an interesting moment in history when any form of authority is looked at with a skeptical eye. In the realm of religion and spirituality there is this feeling that each person’s experience is equal to every other’s. In the history of the Church, however, it has been recognized that certain people are given the trust and responsibility to watch over and guard the faith. It is comforting to know that there is a person, in the tradition of the apostles, making sure that I stay within the boundaries of the historic faith. In another interview, Nadia Bolz-Weber  said, “I realized [as] I was watching these TV preachers and I asked myself the question, like did they at the beginning of their ministry love the Gospel? Like did they have this intention to really spread this beautiful good news? And if so, what were all the steps it took to become what they are now? And like, you know what they don’t have? Bishops. They don’t have people looking over their shoulder to say, ‘Are you still on the Yellow Brick Road?'”

I need a Bishop to keep the boundaries intact, to give pastoral care to the pastors of the people, and to set the tone for the Church. I need a Bishop to make sure I am still on the Way.

Joining a Club With a Bad Track Record

The Church has a bad history. Sure, it has done many, many great things in the name of Christ, but it has likewise done many, many terrible things in that same name. Why would I join this team, knowing the history? Because the Church is made up of broken people who are susceptible to evil and sin just like anyone else. The Church must repent of the sins of the past and apologize where necessary. The Church must repent of the sin of slavery and racism and bigotry that has stained its past.

The real test, however, is not how we answer for sins of the past but how we handle the evil and sin of our day. The Church must look at what is going on in the world and ask where God is calling us. Whether it is the #blacklivesmatter movement or the Syrian refugee crisis, there are many things going on in the world that need the Church’s voice. In twenty years, will we be apologizing for not speaking up or putting our lives on the line for those in need or will we be standing together rejoicing at what the Holy Spirit has done through us?

This brings to mind the words of Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.”

I am excited to be a leader in the Church that is called to be nonconformists to the oppressive ways of the world and to conform ourselves, instead, to Christ.

Do They Know Who I Am?

This is the most personal reason why I shouldn’t get ordained. The mistakes that I have made and the trouble that I have caused other people in my life should surely disqualify me for this order. I am not cut out to be the pure and blameless example of the Christian life. And I don’t have to be.

I once heard an old priest say that he was called to ordained ministry because God didn’t trust him enough to be a lay person, that God wanted to keep him close.

A classmate in seminary said that a priest is not the shepherd of the flock because we already have a Great Shepherd. The priest is the sheep at the front of the flock that points the way to the shepherd.

My life experience is not the most pristine but it all points to the grace of God. My own experience has helped me see how helpless I am without the grace and guidance of God. Everything that I have experienced has prepared me to minister to God’s people and proclaim the Gospel.

Priests are called by God and their faith community to lead the people in prayer and to administer the Sacraments. They are not called to be other-worldly, super-human, or to float around on cloud of smug spirituality. Priests are people who have encountered the Living God in such a way that they must respond by giving themselves to the service of the Church and helping others to hear the Good News.

 

These are the top five reasons I should not get ordained. In spite of these things, God-willing and the people consenting, I will be ordained as a priest in Christ’s holy Church. I cannot do it on my own and I don’t have to. A classic hymn has been on my mind leading up to this day. The words of the chorus are a great way to close:

“I need thee, oh, I need thee;
Ev’ry hour I need thee!
Oh, bless me now, my Savior;
I come to thee!”

Unimpressed

Short Reads

The Bishop of Springfield caused quite the stir yesterday with a tweet about how unimpressed he was with the Official Youth Presence at General Convention. The tweet sparked many wonderful responses about the role of the Official Youth Presence and the impact it has had on clergy and lay people across the world.

The Bishop wrote a blog post responding to the controversy. At one point he issued what could be interpreted as an apology, saying, “I wish I hadn’t done it, but I did.”

This isn’t a direct response to those initial comments or the “apology”, but a post inspired by the sentiment.

The Bishop was unimpressed by the Official Youth Presence because they didn’t mention Jesus enough. He was also unimpressed because they were “annoyingly issue-oriented”.

There are two major issues with the Bishop’s comments. First, there is an assumption that the Official Youth Presence exists to impress. That assumption raises my blood pressure enough for me to write a separate post on it later.

The second assumption is that there is a bar of orthodoxy and Jesus’s-per-minute that people must adhere to in order to be considered credible. Tied to this assumption is the misplaced idea that without explicitly mentioning the name of Jesus, advocacy and service becomes “issue-oriented” instead of Christ-oriented.

That last assumption is also enough to merit a separate post, but let me say this one thing: If the Lord of the universe, the maker of heaven and earth, is relying on the vocabulary and word-choice of a group of youth, we are all in trouble.

Now I am not currently a “youth”, but I was once a “youth”, so I feel that I have the authority to speak from my experience. I also work as the Canon Missioner for Youth and Young Adults in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, which gives me a small amount of credibility when I say the following:

Youth are unimpressed with much of the leadership of the church. 

Youth are unimpressed by the paralyzingly “issue-oriented” leadership that can’t see Jesus in the world unless he is wearing a nametag.

Youth are unimpressed by leaders who require “litmus tests” for inclusion. It appears to me that Jesus had two litmus tests for those who would be his followers: love of God and love of neighbor.

Youth are unimpressed by the ostrich style of leadership that would rather bury its head in the sand than relearn what it means to be a Christian in a new time and place.

Youth are disappointed when the church they love turns on them while they are trying to serve it.

It is time for some of the leaders in the church to get the mitre out of their eyes and see that a group of youth VOLUNTEERING to come to a international church convention is a blessing before it is anything else. In a time when the church decline industrial complex is booming, the fact that youth are willing to give up two weeks of their summer to spend time with Bishops that are admittedly “unimpressed” with them is a testament to the youth and an indictment of the Bishops.

My final point is about formation in the church. If the youth do not have the language to articulate their faith, whose fault is that? We could listen to Paul’s letter to the Romans on this one: “…how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”

If the youth haven’t heard a clear proclamation of Jesus Christ in a way that is relevant and authentic, it can hardly be their fault if they lack the necessary language to articulate their faith.

My final advice to the church is to talk to the youth before you dismiss them. Talk to the youth who give up time in their increasingly busy schedules to volunteer and serve. Talk to the youth who defy the stereotypes about Millennials by believing in Jesus enough apply to be a part of an institutional church. Talk to the youth about what makes them come alive and how Jesus has impacted them personally before you write them off as “unimpressive”.

The youth that I have met and that I have the honor of working with are unimpressed with much in the world, but one thing is certain: they are impressed by Jesus, the One who has made enough of an impression on all of us to bring us into His Church to love God through one another.

 

UPDATE: I am grateful for Bishop Mark Bourlakas for his support of youth and youth ministry. Here is his statement:”I am so impressed with the commitment of the official Youth Presence here. It made me proud to be a bishop in the Church and in our Diocese where we have so many fun, talented and faithful young people committed to Jesus. Yesterday one of our own former DioSWVa youth, Grace Aheron, beautifully read the first reading at the Convention’s opening Eucharist.”

A Week in the Woods: Reflections on Youth Week at Kanuga and the future of youth ministry

Short Reads

I spent the last week in the mountains of Western North Carolina at the Kanuga Conference Center as a staff member for Senior Young People (SYP). SYP is a weeklong conference for high school students from across the country that, along with Junior Young People (JYP) and Adults Who Work With Youth (AWWWY), makes up the annual Youth Week at Kanuga.

Kanuga is a special place in my life for two big reasons. First, I was a participant at Youth Week and the winter equivalent, Winterlight, as a young person. Some of my earliest moments of self-discovery and growth took place in the meeting spaces and large group venues at Kanuga. It is a major signpost on my journey towards the priesthood. Second, and most importantly, my wife and I were married at Kanuga in the Chapel of the Transfiguration.

I look forward to making the trek back to Kanuga once or twice a year to work on staff at these youth conferences and reconnect with fellow staff members and friends from all over the country. Despite everything I just wrote, this is not a sappy post about how much I love Kanuga. Neither is this an advertisement for Youth Week or any of the programs hosted at Kanuga.

This post is about the future of youth ministry inspired by my experience at SYP.

The theme of this year’s program was “Making a Way By Walking”. The focus was the journeys that led us to Kanuga and the continually unfolding journey in front of us once we left. This got me thinking about the event-driven model of youth ministry. Too often, youth events and camps are seen as “mountain top” experiences that help sustain our faith until we can get back to the mountaintop for the next event.

I have heard numerous people refer to youth events as the “mountain top” and their daily lives as the “valley” or “the real world”.

This presents two clear problems:

First, Jesus is quite clear that the spiritual life cannot exist on the mountain top. In Matthew and Luke, he is transfigured in the presence of his closest friends on the mountain top, but then quickly returns to the work of ministry on the ground. The mountain top is an incubator for spiritual experience, sure, but it is no place for that experience to fully develop and mature.

It is easy to coordinate a weekend retreat or weeklong conference to culminate in an emotional crescendo (Ex: any healing service at a summer camp or retreat weekend). The close quarters, change in sleep schedule, and new environments make retreats and camps minefields of emotion.

This isn’t inherently bad, but it does create unsustainable expectations for newly minted faith and spirituality. Which brings me to the second issue:

By propping up the false dichotomy between the mountain top and the “real world” we fail to equip young people with the tools that they will need to take their faith into their daily lives.

Christianity is hard.

For too long we have tried to dumb the faith down and make it as user-friendly as possible, but the truth is that faith in Jesus Christ in the 21st century requires everything you have. It requires changing, growing, and being molded into the person God has called you to be. It requires speaking up against injustice in all its insidious forms. It requires putting others before self. It requires a dramatic reordering of personal priorities.

The Early Church showed that admitting Jesus was Lord meant denouncing all of the other voices that try to assert Lordship. We no longer have a Caeser that claims to be a god, but we do have systemic racism, consumerism, phobias of all sorts (homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, etc.), and nationalism that are trying to put their idols on the throne to be worshipped.

We’ve had a few decades of “I’m okay, you’re okay” Christianity and it has only given us more room in our pews on Sunday morning.

Like Peter, too often we ask “Where can we pitch our tents?” but the missional conversation reminds us that the better questions is “Where has God already set up camp?”

Instead of setting up camp twice a year on the mountain top, our mission is to walk the streets of our communities and join God’s camping trip already in progress.

The future of youth ministry is less event based and more missional. It will take youth out into their communities, out from behind the “safe” walls of their faith communities and into the messy world. There will be fewer “Facebook profile picture mission trips” and more local service.

It will mean helping youth develop a language for their faith and how their faith impacts their day-to-day lives. It will mean less entertainment and more discipleship. In the world of Netflix and iPhones, youth do not need any more entertainment – what they need is deep formation and meaning.

The last day of SYP was spent talking about the journey ahead and what the experiences at Kanuga mean for the days and weeks to come. 150 people hiked around the lake with our arms held above our heads to illustrate how hard it is to walk in the Christian way. The only relief on the hike came when we stood in a big circle, everyone’s arms resting on the people next to them.

This is the image of the future of youth ministry. Like hiking three miles with hands up, it is not easy, but it is doable. We should be teaching youth that the Christian life is not always sunshine and rainbows, but that all things are possible through Christ and the fellowship of the Church. That the world can be a dark place, but that we are to proclaim the Light.

I left Kanuga refreshed and ready to head to Salt Lake City for the Episcopal Church’s General Convention. My hope is that the General Convention is a moment of rest, when we can stand together and rest our arms as we sing a new church into being.

I hope that we are not looking to build more mountain tops, but are prepared to take our tents down and go out into the world.

I am optimistic about the future of youth ministry and the future of the Episcopal Church because of the young people that crowded into Kanuga for a week. I saw them transformed and sent out to spread the Good News that God is already working in the “real world” and it is our moment to join in.

What Story Are You Telling?: Missional Young Adult Ministry (Super Serial Post #6)

Short Reads

I am nervous about writing this post. I’m nervous because it seems that every child of God with a blog has written a post about young adults and the church.

In full disclosure, I’ve written a few (like this one).

Young Adults are having a moment. Every corporation and organization wants to understand Millennials so that they will buy their products. The church is not immune. Pastors in all denominations and branches of Western Christianity are scratching their heads and wondering where the young adults are.

I just love stock photography.

I just love stock photography.

Folks are looking to blog posts, books, other popular pastors, and anyone else who may help them tap into the young adult fountain.

This blog post is part of a series on missional Christianity, so the question here is slightly different than some of the other blog posts out there. My primary concern is not how to get young adults to go to church or even how to make our churches more attractive to young adults.

This line of thinking represents a model of church that the missional understanding rejects. The goal is not to attract young people to sit in the pews, the goal is to reach out and bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to young adults where they are.

Instead of providing the five easy steps to attracting young adults, I will give you two questions to ask when thinking about young adult ministry in your church or community.

The first question is why do you want to reach out to young adults? What is the goal? Are you hoping that young adults will breathe new life into your congregation? Do you think young adults will make your parish a little more hip? Do you think that young adults lead to young families which leads to church growth?

Everyone has a motive. To be clear, the motives listed above are not inherently bad, but it is important to understand what you want from the young adults you are seeking to reach. Young adults have energy and passion, yes. Young adults are often slightly ‘cooler’ than other generations (myself excluded). Young adults often start families and invite friends to church.

These things are true and they shouldn’t be the reason for reaching out to young adults.

The primary reason for reaching out to young adults (and everyone else) is the Great Commission – the fact that Jesus told us to tell the world that we have something they need.

This brings me to the second question to ask when trying to reach out to young adults. What story are you telling?

Young adults have grown up in a world in which they are constantly being sold things. From phone screens to televisions to billboards to every space in between, young adults are used to weeding through advertising to find the content they connect with.

Advertisers know that they need to tell a story through their marketing. The general story is that there is a problem (whether real or made up) and their product will solve that problem. If you tell the story of the problem well enough, you won’t need to work hard to sell your solution.

Christianity has the proto-story. We have the greatest solution to the world’s deepest problem. That is our story. And yet, many churches are telling a different story and it shows.

One common story that I see churches telling is that we don’t have enough members and we want more, no matter what it takes.

Another story I see churches telling is that there are social problems in the world and the church is an organization that fixes social problems.

Your church is telling a story, that is not a question. The question is whether or not you are being intentional about the story you are telling.

Young adults can tell when they are being sold of a bill of goods or a faulty solution. Too often, church leaders guess the story that young adults want to hear and respond accordingly.

Church leaders think, “Young adults love to hang out in bars. They must love to talk about theology in a bar.” Or they think, “When I was a young adult, I loved acoustic guitars in worship. We need a contemporary service to attract young adults.”

I am not bashing these two examples. I know many young adults who love theology on tap and contemporary services. The trouble arises when church leaders think that either of these outreach methods (or anything else) is the magic bullet that will have young adults flocking.

Young adults do not have a “Spidey-sense” for guitar music and pastors in blue jeans.

Someone is singing "Sanctuary"... I can feel it.

Someone is singing “Sanctuary”… I can feel it.

The magic bullet is not a program or event, the magic bullet is to figure out what story your congregation is telling and tell it well.

As I said in my last post about youth ministry, the greatest thing that the church has to offer the world is meaning through Jesus Christ and meaning is something that transcends all settings, events, and outreach methods.

I think the urge to hold bible studies in bars or to adapt worship music to more popular modes of musical expression is a good one. It is the first step in the missional journey, but we can’t stop there.

A priest walks into a bar...

A priest walks into a bar…

We can’t stop once the young adult is at the bar bible study because once that young adult leaves the bar and comes to your church the story changes. Often, things don’t match up. The story you are telling about your church at the bar on Wednesday night doesn’t match the church they see on Sunday morning.

Authenticity is so important when reaching out to young adults. Don’t tell a story that isn’t true just so young adults will come to your church. Don’t give them window dressing.

The best way to reach out to young adults is to let your community of faith do what it does best. Don’t try to be a social club or a charity or a concert venue, but simply be the church that you are.

You don’t have to change or add new programs to attract young adults. You must simply live your life on purpose and be fully engaged in the mission of God.

You will need to change if your mission isn’t clear and your story is muddled.

You will need to change if your doors only open in. 

Alan Hirsch and Darryn Altclass say, “Remissionalizing [a church is] about gearing the whole community around natural discipling friendships, worship as lifestyle, and mission in the context of everyday life.”

Reaching out to young adults in a missional way means getting to know the young folks that work in your office or that hang around the coffee shop where you do your work. It means listening to the young adults that already attend your church to find out what story they are telling.

It means living out your faith in a way that points to Christ

It means that we must stop guessing what young adults want and go out into our community to find out what they really need.

It means learning our own story so that we can tell it to those around us.

It doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel or coming up with a new story all together.

Michael Frost sums it up by saying, “When we have no impressive buildings and no swollen budgets to sustain our work, often only then do we realize that the best we have to offer this post-Christendom world is the quality of our relationships, the power of our trustworthiness, and the wonder of our generosity.”

Transformative young adult ministry takes time. It takes the long, hard work of building authentic relationships. It takes effort to learn how to best articulate our story. It takes prayer and study. It takes risk.

The Christian story is the most captivating and transformative story in history. For two-thousand years, people who have lived their lives from within the Christian story have done miraculous things and changed the world.

We need to put the spark back in the story that we are telling. 

I’ll leave you with another quote, this one from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, that describes the reframing that must happen for the church to reach out and impact the lives of young adults (and everyone else as well).

Please note, there is so much more to be said about missional young adult ministry. You can rest assured that you will hear more from me about this topic as I begin my work with the people of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia in the next months.

For now, I leave you with these words, “If you want to build a ship, don’t summon people to buy wood, prepare tools, distribute jobs, and organize the work; rather teach people the yearning for the wide, boundless ocean.” 

What Are We Doing Here?: Missional Youth Ministry (Super Serial Post #5)

Short Reads

We’ve established what it means to be missional. Now the time has come to drill down even further and focus on two areas that are close to my heart: youth and young adult ministry. This post will focus on understanding missional youth ministry, while the next post will wade into the murky waters of blog posts about young adult ministry.

The first thing that we need to decide is the purpose of youth ministry. Youth ministry emerged shortly after the idea of adolescence and the teenage years became a cultural norm around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Prior to that, you were a child or you were an adult.

With the standardization of schooling and the protection of children from unfair labor practices, a new category emerged. Suddenly there was this group of young people: not children and not yet adults, with free time and closely drawn social circles.

Fast forward to the middle of the 20th century, when churches sought to offer an alternative to the “secular youth culture” that was seen as a corrupting force in the world. Churches created equally attractive events and groups that would draw youth away from sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and towards Christ.

Quick, get inside before the culture gets on you.

Quick, get inside before the secular culture gets on you.

The goal was to convince the youth that Jesus is their friend.

This model continued, fairly unchecked, for decades.

Growing up in southern Alabama, I remember the evangelical youth group members passing out flyers at school for events that featured free tacos, free video games, moon bounces, and any other gimmick that would draw our attention.

Moonbounce...for Jesus?

Moonbounce…for Jesus?

I would often ask, “What are we doing here?”, as I played Nintendo, ate tacos, and talked to the cute Baptist girls.

The youth group I attended at the local Episcopal Church never offered video games or nights centered around free tacos. There were never flyers to hand out or gimmicks advertised.

Instead, 15-20 of my closest friends gathered together once a week for an hour. We played a goofy game, discussed the Bible and Christ’s love, and grew in community. We would also do a lot of community service.

I remember thinking, “What are we doing here?” as we picked up trash along the beach or painted the walls of the local thrift store.

These two examples show the two most prominent forms of youth ministry that I have seen.

The first focuses on numbers. The goal is to bring as many youth as possible in the door. What happens once they are inside the doors can change week-to-week, as long as a lot of youth are present. The thinking is that the more youth you bring, the more youth you can bring to Christ, and the bigger impact you can have.

The second model focuses on community. The goal is to have a close-knit group of youth, with little focus given to the size of the group. This is the predominant model in the Episcopal Churches that I have seen. The group gathers at the church, plays some games, eats dinner (usually spaghetti or pizza), and does some sort of activity.

These models are not inherently wrong.

They have worked for many years and reached many people. I was formed by my Episcopal youth group and youth minister as a middle school and high school student.

The problem is that they are both built on the attractional model of church. Programs (or tacos) bring the youth into the church building where they are entertained for an hour once a week.

If the goal of our youth ministry is entertainment, it is no wonder that fewer and fewer students are coming. If we are trying to entertain we will have to compete with social media, video games, Netflix, and the myriad of other extracurricular activities that are vying for our youth’s time.

We have lost sight of the primary reason for gathering a youth group and why youth group is important. Until we recover and articulate our purpose and importance of youth group, the other extracurricular activities will always win out. Parents can clearly explain why a young person needs to participate in their soccer team or band, but can they as clearly articulate why it is important to go to youth group?

Can we clearly articulate why youth group is important? Do we even believe that youth group is important?

In the book As You Go: Creating a Missional Culture of Gospel-Centered Students, Kenda Creasy Dean says, “We are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe. Namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people primarly focused on ‘folks like us’….”(pg. 59).

We have lost sight of the true purpose of the church and, therefore, we have lost sight of the true goal of youth ministry.

Before I go any further I should note that I am not anti-fun. I don’t think that youth group should be a lecture or another church service. That being said, if the only reason the youth gather together at church is to play games and eat pizza, why are they at church?

What makes the church different is that it is first and foremost about the mission of God, who is reconciling the world through Jesus Christ.

Youth group is so much more than a refuge from the secular world or a social club. Youth group can be a place where youth are taught the Christian story and spiritually fed so that they can go out into the world and preach the Gospel with their lives and with their words.

Another trend over the past decades is the postponing of perceived maturation in the church. People automatically assume that the youth group can’t understand weighty theological topics or can’t assume leadership positions in the church. Or even worse, many adult leaders assume youth are apathetic and don’t care about the church.

There are many churches and Dioceses that are exceptions to this trend. Many places treat youth with the respect they deserve and include youth voices in the life of the community.

However, there are also many churches that see the youth group as babysitting and the youth as wild animals that would flip over cars if left unattended.

Missional youth ministry’s first goal is not entertainment. It is also not babysitting by another name.

Missional youth ministry is about raising up youth to lead in their congregations and communities. It is about equipping youth so that they can go out into the world with a passion for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It is about getting to know the youth in the community and their actual (not perceived or assumed) needs.

It is less about one youth minister or youth worker serving as the Pied Piper of the youth and more about a group of adults investing in the lives of the youth of their faith community.

It is less about one big youth event that attracts a large number of youth and more about a small number of youth sent out to encounter and influence their world.

Paul talks about the difference between spiritual milk and spiritual meat (1 Corinthians 3). We give our youth spiritual milk from birth until they go off to college and wonder why many of them don’t come back.

What we need is a reframing of our understanding of youth ministry.

Less entertainment, more equipping. 

Less babysitters, more mentors. 

Less gimmicks, more Gospel. 

Youth can handle more than the baby food we have been serving them. The youth that I have encountered are hungry for the Gospel to be preached and are ready for the responsibility that we often withhold.

They are used to being told what they cannot do (or should not do) by all the adults in their lives.

What they are not used to hearing is what they can do or what they have been called to do by God.

What is the answer? What are the five steps to an effective, missional youth ministry?

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to do any of this. It takes the long, hard work of relationship. Each church’s youth have different needs. Each ministry context has unique challenges.

One thing is clear – it is time to put some meat on the bones of youth ministry. Many, many churches and youth leaders are doing amazing things. Many people have given their whole lives to the service of the youth of the church.

There are so many amazing youth workers that live out their calling working tirelessly behind the scenes, building lasting relationships and effective ministries.

It’s time for the rest of the church to wake up and give youth the respect they want and deserve.

When youth ask “What are we doing here?”, we should be prepared to give them more than pizza and a moonbounce or even fellowship and community service.

The church has something to offer youth and it is something they are desperately looking for. The church has Jesus Christ and through Christ, we have real meaning. We have the answer to the meta-question, “What are we doing here?”

A missional youth group is a place where youth figure out their God-given gifts, experience what it is like to live in community, and learn the story of redemption through Christ.

A missional youth group is a place where youth learn that they matter and they have meaning. It is a place where they are affirmed. It is a place where they learn what it means to be a Christian. It is a place where they find their calling.

“What are we doing here?” 

I’m not sure, but come to youth group this week and we’ll figure it out together. 

Stay tuned for next week’s post all about missional young adult ministry.