From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.
2 Corinthians 5.14-18
I remember several years ago the first time I felt old. I was at a coffee shop, and saw a large number of young people gathering. This was in Los Altos, in the northern end of Silicon Valley, a very high-rent district. The young people were Caucasian, not making trouble, but they were all dressed in black leather and spikes, their hair stringy and unkempt. I watched them carefully and realized that if they got rid of all the Goth makeup and cleaned up a little, they would be very attractive young people. Why were they purposefully making themselves look so ugly?
That’s when I realized I was old—that generation’s idea of beauty and style was so alien to me that I could not understand or accept their choices, and I withheld my positive evaluation of their lifestyle until they conformed to my values. As I look back, I can add that of course they couldn’t care less what I thought—they were living their lives fine without my acceptance.
I think this is happening in our church. A growing number of people live not attending church, and we churchgoers, who like church the way it has been, keep wondering when those young or new people will wake up and come back to us. But the young people now—who, by the way, are starting to outnumber us Baby Boomers—never went to church, so they aren’t coming back at all. For them, to step into our churches is to step into foreign territory.
Now we assume that the way church worked for us should work for everyone else, and so we keep waiting for the day when the world will come back to what is now foreign land. We are like American tourists speaking English in France—perhaps if we just talk louder and slower, they’ll get it. But the reality is, French speakers in their homeland don’t appreciate being yelled at in a foreign language. We church goers are no longer the norm; we are the minority, so we can’t assume people need to learn our language.
This is really painful for many of us, because we just can’t understand how something as precious and life-giving as our church might not be the same for those who live outside our church. Everywhere I’ve gone, people say that if they can just keep doing church the way they do it, the world will wake up and come to them. I remember 15 years ago in Hawaii, with native Hawaiian elders who spoke passionately about reaching out to their young people. They knew that if they could reach them and make them memorize the Ten Commandments, they’d stop taking drugs. Some of us remember the best moments of our youth group and think if we repeat the activities of our youth group days, young people will swarm into the church.
But we are getting tactics confused with the essence of our faith. There is no one path towards salvation; we come to know God in different ways; that’s why there are so many Christian faith traditions. It’s not that we should keep trying to find the one way that everyone should follow; it’s that we take different paths to find God. Now of course we Presbyterians have our own ways—we learn about God, and about Jesus Christ, by trusting what the Bible tells us; we tend to grow our faith through learned preaching rather than through ecstatic spiritual experience; we would prefer living out our faith in the world rather than shutting ourselves away from it. But that doesn’t mean we have to stick to all our practices. Indeed, if we prioritize the Bible’s teaching, then we have to consider the repeated messages that in Christ, all is made new. We as followers of Christ are not called to stay still and preserve our traditions, we are called to allow lives to be changed not in our image but in Christ’s—and we have to remember that Jesus Christ’s way often offended the church leaders of his day.
So what do we do? Do we hold on to what we have, waiting for the world to come to their senses and come back to us? Or do we throw out everything that has been precious to us?
We have to be gentle with ourselves and with others. We appreciate that when everything changes around us, the comfort we received from familiarity is being replaced with an unknowable future. This is true in our nation and in our church. But just as we live into that future, we come to realize that it’s survivable, even kind of exciting, and question those who yearn to Make America Great Again. My prayer is that as we live into the future church, we don’t yearn to Make Our Church Great Again, but instead remember that our comfort, our confidence, our strength, our very future comes in Jesus Christ, not in the traditions we have developed to worship Christ, or even in the people who learned about Christ with us.
And again, let us have the mind of Christ as we care for each other as we live into this strange future. Who knows? God may bless us in ways we could not anticipate. This is coming true at West Covina, where the session and congregation chose to become a fellowship of the Presbytery, giving up their own control of their ministry and their property. After six months of letting go and struggling through the transition of this unknown territory (because there isn’t really precedent for a chartered congregation to go back to fellowship status), West Covina is ready to receive Mary Ellen Azada and Jennifer Ackerman as their new co-pastors. Who would’ve thunk—two gifted, vibrant and experienced pastoral leaders coming after the people effectively closed their church.
As we look ahead to the future, we know that change can be painful and jarring. Some change is temporary, as we learn new behaviors and let go of what we know and love. Even if the ultimate outcome is better, the transition is uncertain and sometimes even violent. As we hear of the turmoil in Venezuela, as we pray for a more peaceable and just future for that nation, we also pray for our brother Ricardo Moreno, who has lived for the last two years under unjust accusations and has had to report to court on a monthly basis. He has yet another hearing this January 30th, where he may be brought to trial or exonerated. Let us pray that he is freed, that he may commit all his energies to the ministry of reconciliation to which he has been called. Ricardo is thankful for all prayers and offers of help, especially from Pasadena Presbyterian Church, where he served as CRE pastor for the Spanish Language Ministry. We thank God for keeping him safe but also pray for his freedom, and the resources for his life and future ministry.
Finally, remember two great events coming up in February—WinterFest this Saturday, and the conference on Peacemaking called “Peace-ing It Together.” Scroll down for more information on these events being hosted by our own Presbytery. As we meet together, and worship, and learn, may we feel the upbuilding of the kingdom in our midst.