First let me define what I mean by “old.” In some regards I am referring to age, considering an overwhelming majority of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. denomination is . . . well, old. However, I am also referring to one’s longevity and history with this particular denomination as well – cradle Presbyterians, Presbyterians that are 3rd, 4th, 5th generation, Calvin enthusiasts, and those who can speak in acronyms. I write this letter to you from me, who I consider to be somewhere in the middle. Now, while I do speak fluent acronym, I have only been Presbyterian for 14 years. And while I have done a lot in my short Presbyterian life, I am also aware that I am a year away from entering into what I call the limbo phase where according to my denomination I will no longer be considered young, but not quite there to being considered old. I’ll be somewhere in the middle. So as I enter into this “middle” zone, I want to share my observations of General Assembly from a very particular lens.
His understanding is beyond human reach, giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted. Youths will become tired and weary, young men will certainly stumble; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary. (Isaiah 40.29-31)
This passage was the theme of this year’s General Assembly (GA). What is encouraging about this passage is that it speaks of God’s incredible unending reach that is able to revive the tired and give strength to the hopeless. What is sobering about this passage is the reality that even the young get tired and weary. It’s not just the old. That’s what I saw at this year’s GA. While the “old” were debating and swimming in the pool of parliamentary procedures, what I saw from the “young” (those in age and new to the denomination) was a sense of weariness. Those of us who have been playing the game long enough have an understanding that endurance and patience are highly needed skills if one wants to “survive” in this denomination. But that isn’t the type of weariness that I saw in the “young.” They weren’t out of breath; they weren’t impatient; and they weren’t even naive to “how the game is played.” The kind of weariness that I saw was a sense of being fed up and a questioning of whether this was worth their time.
Please hear me when I say that I am not only differentiating between age, but also those new to the denomination or faith for that matter. If this denomination is shrinking, it is not just because of age, but because there is not an increase of those flocking to become Presbyterian. And while there are many arguments about being post-denominational; being spiritual and not religious; and the realities of living in a multi-faith society, I am not addressing that. I’m talking about the current couple million Presbyterians that already exist today.
I just returned from preaching at a conference of 700 middle schoolers. It is quite an experience to witness 700 middle schoolers singing to Justin Bieber’s “Baby, Baby, Baby, Oh.” But I digress. It is also quite an experience to be surrounded by this particular age group. Some are still fully planted in their childhood, playing with dolls and toys. Some are in the full stages of puberty and wafting through the drama of relationships and break-ups. What is great about this age is that they have all the hopes that “the sun will come out tomorrow” mixed in with the experiences that “reality bites.” It’s a fragile age. It’s a tender age. But it’s also a most hopeful age.
The theme of the conference was “Rooted in Love” from Ephesians 3.
This is why I kneel before the Father. Every ethnic group in heaven or on earth is recognized by him. I ask that he will strengthen you in your inner selves from the riches of his glory through the Spirit. I ask that Christ will live in your hearts through faith. As a result of having strong roots in love, I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God. Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us; glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus for all generations, forever and always. Amen. (Ephesians 3.14-21)
The words “I kneel before the Father” gives us a sense that this is a prayer between God and Paul that is intended for us to overhear. If we listen closely, eavesdropping on Paul’s prayer, we overhear Paul’s focus and concern is the community – not individuals, but us as a faith community. Paul clearly knows that it is not easy to live and exist in community. God calls us into community and it is by the power of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit that keeps us in community. As Christians, as Presbyterians, we are blessed with each other and we are stuck each other. It takes work to be in community because we are just as territorial and opinionated as anyone else. Paul’s prayer suggests that progress will be slow to grasp Christ’s love, live into the fullness of God, and tap into the power of the Holy Spirit that is beyond our imagining. A community rooted in love can last for all generations.
This got me thinking . . . what would be my prayer to God for this particular community? And who would I intend to overhear my prayer? And that’s where this open letter comes in. When I preached at the middle school conference, I told them that they are not the future of the church. They are the present. They are the now. However, after witnessing what I saw at GA, I feel that I may have lied to them or set them up to believe something that is not true. Because for that statement to be true, the “old” needs to make room for their voice and share power of decisions and influence even when it is uncomfortable.
Normally, when I say this, the “old” feel quite threatened. But I am not making an either/or suggestion, but a both/and. We who are “old” and in the “middle” have a responsibility to the “young” and we have been slacking and doing them a disservice. If we look at our denomination shrinking, we are fooling ourselves if we do not take responsibility for our own participation in that downward trend.
Here are three reasons how and why I believe we need to address the “young”:
Hospitality and Welcome
We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.
If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.
We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you!
What would it look like if we approached everything we do with a sense of hospitality – not just in worship, but also in the decision-making of the church. Hospitality is less about who we are welcoming and more about examining what barriers we create that are unwelcoming. It causes us to question what needs to change in structure and process that doesn’t translate to those who are not on the “inside” of our denomination.
When my committee (Committee to Review Biennial Assemblies) suggested a way to increase commissioners who were 35 years old and younger, one of the responses we received was why we chose to focus on age and not any other diversity category such as race or gender. My answer is that age disparity is an issue for all, whether it is GA, conferences for people of color, peacemaking, liberal or conservative. I’ve been to many conferences and I’ve been a part of many different groups and all struggle how to transform what they do so that it is “attractive” and inviting for younger participants.
Hospitality is not enough. We have a responsibility to nurture them. The kind of wisdom we can pass down is a sense of rootedness, perspective, and experience. But we need to be nurtured as well. We are living in a different world. Let’s get real, we are not in a position to figure out on our own how to engage in this world, be relevant in this world, and know how and what needs there are to be addressed. We are in this together and we should be nurturing each other as we continue to live into the ministry God is calling us to. I honestly think this is the hardest part of living in community with one another. This is when we as a community can get territorial – nurturing the other to fit into our community when really we all need to be open to compromise, experimentation, failure, and success.
One of the critiques my committee hears when it comes to younger folk participating is whether they are wise enough. My answer is “it depends.” Certainly, I am a little weary when a Young Adult Advisory Delegate has an opinion that affects my pension, but to say that the “young” does not have wisdom on how this denomination is to respond and engage in world issues or matters that affect change in this denomination makes me wonder if those who respond that way actually talk to any.
If we have successfully welcomed and nurtured, then they must be given opportunities to influence, change, and lead. They must be more than bystanders and advisory delegates. If we want the “young” to stay in this denomination than what better way than giving them a say in the future of this denomination. At best, we as Presbyterians will be better off for it. We will be exposed to ideas that we never thought of before. At worst, they will leave and share their innovative ideas, talents, skills, and energy to another denomination or organization or whatever and we will be missing out at the wonderfulness they have to offer. Or even worse yet, the challenges of being in a faith community will completely override the benefits of being in one and turn them off completely.
We should be doing everything we can to make it possible for younger leaders to participate instead of naming reasons that prohibit them. If it is challenging for those with young children, then let’s provide childcare and children’s programs. If it is about money, then let’s provide scholarships. If it’s about length of time of the assembly or meeting, then let’s change it.
We have an opportunity here. It isn’t about the “old” stepping aside. It’s about the “old” making room, sharing power, and modeling grace. I promise if we do that, we will be better off for it or at the least, it will be a lot more interesting than watching a week of what just happened at this last GA, which let’s be clear was agreeing to do nothing.
Rooted in Christ’s Love,