26 February 2014

Evangelism, Anxiety, and False Choices

Jane Trimm posted an article today at MSNBC about the flood of millenials leaving the church and a possible reason why:  
A full 31% of young people (ages 18 to 33) who left organized religion said “negative teachings” or “negative treatment” of gay people was a “somewhat important” or “very important” factor in their departure, as surveyed by the Public Religion Research Institute. A strong majority (58%) of Americans also said religious groups are “alienating” young people by “being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues.” A full 70% of young people said the same.
Disturbing news, of course.  But then the article presented the reader with this survey: 
Do you think churches will change their policies on gays and lesbians to appeal to young people? 
o   Yes, churches will adapt to a new generation.
o   No, they will stick to their values.
o   I’m not sure
Articles like this make me want to scream in frustration.  It’s obvious that the writer has no understanding of the wide array of churches that are all over the place on human sexuality, and that’s both her failing and ours. 

The Church is not a business.  We don’t have customers or clients, and even membership is a bit of a wrong-headed idea that has somehow survived.  What we really are is disciples.  We follow Jesus, not market trends.  When we change (and yes, we do change) we do so because our Lord is calling us into something new and we are called to follow.  The beliefs of God’s people evolve over time, but not out of fear of being culturally irrelevant.  Any change driven by fear and anxiety is a change that makes an entity something it is not.  What we do is investigate what the Holy Spirit is telling us in this time. 

My own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is continuing to evolve on the question of human sexuality.  Many of us, myself included, are in favor of full inclusion of our LGBT brothers and sisters.  Many of us are convinced that while all of God’s children should be treated with respect and dignity, homosexuality is sinful and should not be welcomed in the church.  In 2009 the ELCA made a decision to be a church that is not going to draw a line in the sand on human sexuality, to respect the bound conscience of all our members and leave the question of practice to individual congregations.  Some will welcome gay and lesbian pastors and bless same-gender marriage.  Some will not.  Other denominations continue to discuss and discern where the Spirit is calling them to go.  But the question is always, always “what is our faithful response?  How is the Spirit at work in this?”  It is never “do we need to change who we are to get with the times?” 

The Church does not speak with one voice.  We haven’t ever, really, but particularly over the last 500 years, the Church has disagreed with itself on all manner of things:  slavery, usury (loaning money at interest), priests who marry, the historical accuracy of the Bible, alcohol, dancing, contraception, women’s suffrage, segregation and integration, peace and war, capital punishment, women as pastors & preachers – you name it, we’ve debated it and sometimes denominations have divided over it.  2014 marks the 40th anniversary of the Seminex walkout which split the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.  So saying that “churches” might or might not change their policies is a simplistic question because it presumes that all “churches” have the same policies.  We don’t.  We never have.  

Some won’t change because they’ve been welcoming people of all sexual orientation for decades – they have no need.  Others will be convinced through prayer, study and discussion that the Spirit is revealing a new truth, something we never considered in the past, much like when we discerned that women could be pastors, or that slavery was wrong.  Others will also be convinced through prayer, study and discussion that the traditional pattern of human existence is God’s purpose, and no amount of cultural pressure or societal change will move them from this belief.  Asking if we think churches will change on the issue of human sexuality to appeal to a specific generation or group is a flawed question from the start.  It’s not how churches work.  It never has been.

This is an anxious time for American churches.  We have been living in the last bastions of Christendom for the past 50 years and had no idea what was going on.  Sunday morning was “church time” and Christmas and Easter were observed as cultural holidays (and somehow we never noticed how inconvenient that was for Jews, Muslims and people of other faiths who did not celebrate their High Holy Days on our calendar).  That’s no longer the case.  Churches compete with businesses, sports leagues and a gradual growth of apathy toward communal spiritual endeavors on the part of the American population.  The country is secularizing and churches are losing their influence over society.  So it makes sense that one might think we’d want to make a change to attract young people, but, really, how many times has that worked in the past? 

Floundering businesses who make changes just to stay afloat don’t last, and neither do churches.  The churches that will last will be those who operate out of conviction and passion – those who are convinced that God is up to something and this is the time to be about it.  We are not called to make the false choice between reluctant change or rigid determination.  We are called to be faithful, and that call takes shape in many different ways.

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