“One Generation Away?” Don’t You Believe It!

“Christianity is always just one generation away from extinction”.–Someone

It sounds so true that it must be true. Wherever we turn, we see aging, graying, declining churches. These profound, oft-repeated words must have come from someone very wise. But I couldn’t remember that wise saint’s name. Neither could Google. Turns out it may well have been “someone”, as in “Someone has said…”

“…one generation away from extinction…” is a favorite chant of the prophets of doom-and-gloom. They resurrect this tired cliché to launch every guilt trip about real or perceived failure to reach children, youth, and their families. Trouble is, the statement is inaccurate, misleading, and just plain wrong. For starters, it leaves God out of the equation. The next sentence is  usually some variation on “If we don’t reach and train our young people…” –in “the way we’ve always done it”. Bringing God into the equation means we stop, look, and pay attention to the “new thing” God wants to do in our ministries with younger people (Isaiah 43:19). How about less whining and more daring-to-trust-God with the impossibilities before us?

“…one generation away from extinction…” generates far more survival anxiety than missional passion. Just ask former members of the thousands of churches that close annually1. When our defining question becomes “What do we need to preserve our institution?”, we’ve become terminally self-centered. We lack sufficient missional passion to thrive. Missional passion asks boldly, “How can we partner in what God is already doing here? What does it mean for us to ‘…make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world’ within our reach?” Missional passion boldly asks risky, transformational questions—and then boldly trusts God for resources to accomplish God’s dream for the people and places within our reach.

And “…one generation away…” denies the healthy reality of most local churches. We are multi-generational communities. At our best we reflect the demographic makeup of our neighborhoods. Granted, churches that look very different from their communities need to take a closer look at that imbalance. It may be pointing to a mission field! In many settings the youngest generations are the ones under-represented. (There’s the grain of truth!) But the church’s fate never rests with a single generation. It lies in the interaction among generations. Authentic intergenerational community releases a divine chemistry of wisdom, experience, energy, creativity, tradition, and an understanding of how to relate to our neighbors here and now.  Read all about it in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4:1-16. The gifted, Spirit-powered community we call “the Body of Christ” envisions a wider ministry. The immediate focus may be “one generation”, one ethnic group, or some other aspect of their context. That multigenerational  faith community prays, learns, adjusts, sacrifices, invests itself and its resources, and risks in order to share the good news of Jesus with these new persons and groups.

I heard this “…one generation away from extinction” nonsense once again recently. It was just noise on a Christian music station. But it came up about the time I began an extended engagement with this “one generation”. I was begged invited to help lead our church’s Confirmation classes for middle-school youth. It’s one of the best things I’ve done in a long time. Many Christian churches invite youth to “confirm” as their own the faith they’ve been taught by their parents and church. Confirmation classes provide an environment where youth can consider together the faith and values upon which they’ll build their lives. We explore in depth the basics of Christian faith and the United Methodist style of Christianity. We want students to know what it means to follow Jesus in a congregation like ours. We help them begin spiritual habits they can use for a lifetime. We link each youth with an adult mentor who’s an experienced Christian. And we try to be real about the challenges they’ll encounter on this life-long faith journey. Our goal is to equip these youth to choose freely, intelligently, and responsibly. Their best decision right now could be “Not now”, “I want to know more,” or even “No thanks”. It’s crucial that every Yes be a wholehearted YES! We want students to see Confirmation as “Commencement” rather than “Graduation”. Confirmation is a rite of passage. If it’s “graduation”, then you’ve learned all you need to know. But Confirmation as “commencement” is a new beginning of increasingly mature discipleship. You’ll be learning and growing the rest of your life.

The twelve middle-schoolers in our class display all the unique behavior expected of their age and stage—for better and (rarely) for worse.  Their openness and curiosity are refreshing. They’re intelligent and engaged. They complete their homework and make up missed classes. They participate eagerly in class and ask thoughtful questions. They’re developing relationships with adult mentors and with other adults in the various ministries where they serve. They’re discovering their place in the bigger picture. They understand the church places a high priority on the Confirmation process. Youth and their parents have made clear commitments to class attendance, worship attendance, and church and community service. Students see their parents and other adults providing support that ranges from food to transportation to the mentors’ daily prayer and at-least weekly contact with their students.

Our class is a living example of another piece of Someone’s wisdom: “Christian faith is caught more than it is taught.” Teaching discipleship happens through the day–by-day life of healthy faith communities. Elders teach the depth of the faith, the richness of tradition, the way it’s brought them through tough times. Children and youth teach simple joy and trust. When our walk doesn’t match our talk, they call us out—or they walk the walk and wonder why we’re lagging behind! They help us understand contemporary culture. Their curiosity drives us to find fresh ways to share our faith with new generations.

“…One generation away from extinction…”? Not if we choose missional energy over survival anxiety. Not if we loosen our death-grip on “our church” and embrace what God’s already doing in our neighborhoods; not if we abandon individualistic religion and embrace life together in Christ; not if we follow the Jesus who teaches that truly great disciples seek to serve rather than to be served; not if we invite the Spirit to transform our safe, sterile churches into contagious communities of bold faith, revolutionary hope, and limitless love where “Christianity is caught more than it is taught”.  

1Exact numbers vary widely. Estimates range from 1000 to 5000 or more church closings per year with a rough consensus around 3500-4000 annually in recent years.

 

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