12Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 13Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching. 14Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders. 15Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. 16Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers. 1st Timothy 4.12-16
Fast forward to this week, which for the first time made me realize that perhaps there’s something more than the occasional cold going on. Every year for as far back as I can remember, I’ve gotten a “cold” somewhere around the end of April. It’s gotten worse the past ten or so, and so today as I’m driving home, thinking about how I can’t breathe, it suddenly dawns on me that I’ve got some sort of dander/mold allergy that flares up every year about this time. This isn’t just a coincidence: there’s a pattern to this. And maybe it might be time for me to look into ways I can work against the pattern instead of just believing something might be wrong.
This morning I drove down to Ankeny to have coffee with Erik Ullestad, a youth minister in Des Moines – I wanted to pick his brain for some ideas about integrating campus ministry and youth ministry, and get his take on some stuff I see happening in the church. During the course of our conversation, he started describing some conversations he’s had with his students about being Lutheran, and how for quite a few of them, the concept essentially is this: the “Lutheran church” is a place where I’m not entirely understood, accepted or wanted as I am, a place where I can tell people love the idea of young people in the church but aren’t sure what to do with actual young people.
As Erik was saying this, I was replaying a scene in my head from 20 years ago, when I was one of those 16 year-old young people. My home congregation was trying to be better about youth ministry, which is commendable, and so some of the Council was meeting with the youth group to talk about ways we might be more involved at the church. We brought up the fact that by church policy, as confirmed members we were “adult members” of the congregation, so maybe one or two of us should be on the Council or serve on some of the committees. That idea was immediately shot down by a Council member, who said, “You wouldn’t make it to all the meetings.”
Message received. Never mind whether or not this Council member might have been right or not – the message was plain and simple: you are not one of us yet. Forget everything you learned in confirmation, forget the idea that confirmation makes you an adult, forget the idea that you might have something to say about the way this church operates – you are not one of us yet. And there I sat, in a booth at Panera this morning, twenty years later, and I realize the truth. This isn’t just a coincidence: there’s a pattern to this. Ten years of springtime colds is an allergy – and twenty years of alienation is a disease within the church.
Here’s what really sucks: like most allergies, the body of Christ that is diseased is not going to be able to fix the problem on its own. When you’ve got an allergy, you can take an antihistamine or cold pill to fix the symptoms, but you’re just masking the problem until your body fixes the disease on its own. While this might be an adequate solution for my hay fever, it’s not going to work for the church – we can’t afford to keep alienating people like yourselves, especially in a culture where there’s so much more competing for your faith and loyalty.
Paul told Timothy not to let anyone consider his age, but to set an example for believers of every age and station in life. To me, this is what ministry between the ages of 15 and 35 needs to adopt as its mission statement. Notice I didn’t say ministry “to” those ages – your ministry must adopt this mission statement. The body may not know what to do with you, but you are already here – the only way we fix this particular problem is to live and work and minister in such a way that the body of Christ realizes you are not a foreign substance but a necessary, essential, life-giving part of the body itself. In essence, your ministry as young adults in the church must serve as its own anti-rejection medication: you must show the church that you belong, not for the church’s future, but for its present.
I don’t know exactly what this looks like, but I do know this – whenever I go away from ISU and tell people what you’re up to, they get excited. They realize that your example can be a powerful witness to the great story of Christ in which we are all part of His body, and they want to know more about it. As we wrap up this semester and prepare to embark on new adventures over the summer, my challenge to you is this: what will your example be? How will you live as a full member of Christ’s body here, now, as you are, in a church that sometimes doesn’t know what to do with you? Whatever you do, know that the Spirit will guide and move and breathe new life into you, and you will go with prayers and blessings from me, Erik and everyone else who knows that the church has often failed you. Christ will not fail you – live well, be an example, and know that God watches in love and joy as you do so. Amen.