Posts Tagged 'Confirmation'

Transformed NonConformists, the Creative Maladjusted, and the Spirit

For the secomakingdisciplestransformationnd year in a row I’m helping teach our church’s Confirmation class. Confirmation in the United Methodist Church (and some others) invites students in middle-school and above to take a deeper look at Christian faith. Ideally these young men and women will  “confirm” as their own the Christian faith they’ve learned from their families and their church. We’re about a month away from our church’s Confirmation celebration. On that great day, these youth will join twelve million other United Methodists in our mission “… to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. “ (2012 United Methodist Book of Discipline, Par. 120). They’ll share our mutual promise to support this mission with our “prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness”. While this generation’s discipleship will reflect their God-given uniqueness and the times in which they live, they’ll also show a strong “family resemblance” to previous generations of the Christian community.

The world in which we live and serve as “disciples of Jesus Christ” hasn’t stood still during our four-month journey. It’s continued to change at a pace somewhere between breathless and chaotic. Much of that change runs counter to our vision of “the transformation of the world”. I wonder how well we’ve equipped our students for their/our transforming mission. Doing church “the way we’ve always done it” won’t work any better than it has for the last few decades. Our class is learning the Church’s traditions. One we often fail to teach is that God is “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5) and invites us to partner in that continuing process of God’s Spirit uses God’s people to tell the Christian story in new ways that touch peoples’ hearts and “make new” our ever-changing world.

Jim Wallis wrote recently about an inter-racial, ecumenical gathering on the 48th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination (April 5, 1968) at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Ebenezer is the church both Dr. King and his father served for many years. Wallis’ closing remarks that evening included some of Dr. King’s own words: “This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists … The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority… Human salvation lies in the hands of the creative maladjusted.” (Strength to Love)Transformed NonconformistDr. King described the post-Easter church perfectly! Jesus’ first followers formed a community of radical sharing. They welcomed the poor, the crippled, everyone their Jewish religious leaders had labeled “unclean”. Then Peter and Paul threw open the doors of the church to Gentiles—the most unclean of all! And that was just the beginning. These “transformed nonconformists” were out to change everything!  I would argue that the Spirit moves more often through out-liers than through the Establishment:

  • In 5th-Century Ireland pirates captured a Christian named Patrick. This “nonconforming minority” of one got to know his captors so well that he translated the story of Jesus into their own cultural expressions and eventually baptized many of them.
  • In Germany in 1517 a “creatively maladjusted” young monk challenged the massive Christian monopoly known as the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther’s boldness ignited a revolutionary transformation in the Church of Jesus Christ.
  • In early 18th-century England two seminarians invited fellow students to form an intentional community. These “Methodists”, as their critics called them, set out to live a more disciplined Christian life together. They embraced their new name. John Wesley wrote the words for the new movement, and his brother Charles wrote the music. John struggled for a while, but eventually experienced a personal transformation that focused and energized his ministry. The “nonconforming minority” called Methodists grew into today’s global Methodist movement that is millions strong.

The history of the Church is full of “nonconforming minorities” and “creatively maladjusted” communities like the Desert Fathers, the Mennonites, Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm, Howard Thurman and the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, Henri Nouwen and L’Arche Daybreak, Sojourners Community, Cecil Williams and Glide Memorial Church. Beyond these headliners, millions of very ordinary followers of Jesus share God’s transforming love in Christ each day in countless ways all over our planet.

Last fall I wrote about “Doing Jesus’ Laundry”.  Fifteen-year-old Caroline Gowan needed a community service project to complete requirements for a Girl Scout award. Caroline and her mother regularly made their own laundry detergent, and donated some to their church’s food  pantry. Clients welcomed it because it saved them some money, but they still spent up to $20-30 every time they went to a laundromat. Caroline thought, prayed, studied—and formed a plan. She arranged to use a local laundromat one afternoon a month. She enlisted her church’s help with donations of money, supplies, and volunteers. She spread the word as widely as she knew how. Last June “Loads of Love” began washing clothes and sharing God’s love in Bonaire, GA. They come in with dirty laundry,” Caroline says, “and leave with a renewed spirit and clean clothes…I feel like not only am I doing something for the people around me and that I am doing something for people I don’t even know, but that I’m doing something for the Lord. I am doing Jesus’ laundry!”

A few daysJesus Laundry ago I heard from Caroline’s mother! She’d seen my post. Caroline had received her Girl Scout Gold Award. “Loads of Love” continues “doing Jesus’ laundry” in Bonaire, GA and many other communities. Last Friday,” Michelle said, “27 volunteers from her family joined [Caroline] to serve the people in this community in honor of our grandmother and her legacy of service. Cousins came from all over the state and we had a family reunion at the laundromat. We began the night with $250 in quarters and when we left, we had done dozens of loads and had $315 in the box. There is no way to explain it other than ‘loaves and fishes math’. One thing she knows; God wants her to continue this ministry”. 

Thank God for “transformed nonconformists” like Paul, Peter, Patrick, Caroline Gowan, and all the rest! Thousands of youth are in Confirmation classes like ours this Spring. May the Spirit form them into “transformed nonconformists” serving our God who “makes all things new”!

“ONE GENERATION AWAY?” Part 2–“Jello-ey Faith”

Not quite three months ago I wrote the first half of this two-part series. At the time, I didn’t think that I was writing the first half of anything. I described the beginning of my journey with our church’s Confirmation class. My motivation was the intersection  between my excitement about that journey and my frustration with a steady drumbeat in other places of the tired cliché, “The church is always just one generation from extinction”. When I sought diligently to attribute those words accurately, even the all-knowing Google couldn’t name the author. I finally concluded they came from the mind of the incomparable Someone–“Someone has said…”

Last Sunday we–eleven youth and four leaders–arrived at our destination. Those youth were confirmed in the presence of congregation, friends, and families. After worship, we celebrated in historic Methodist fashion—with a great meal lovingly prepared. We’d arrived at our destination—but by no means the final destination for our newly confirmed brothers and sisters in Christ. Many will serve in Vacation Bible School later this month. Others will continue to serve in various ministries where they served as part of their class experience. They’ve barely begun their discipleship journey. We expect great things from them.

Sunday was our second big day in a row. We’d spent all day Saturday at a district confirmation retreat. Youth from area churches had a chance to meet and get to know Bishop Robert Hoshibata, leader of our Desert Southwest Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Those forty-plus youth and adults gained a greater understanding of the regional, national, and global dimensions of our church. They heard that story through the very approachable humanity of Bishop Bob and other conference staff who participated during the day. All of them reminded these youth powerfully that they are not the church of the future. They are the church NOW. God’s Spirit has given each one gifts to share in Spirit-inspired ways that will make a life-changing difference in the world within our reach.

After we’d all become acquainted, Bishop Bob spoke about —“Jello-ey Faith”. No, I’d never heard that before. Yes, it took a bit of processing. Jello, the bishop explained, isn’t very interesting when it comes out of the box. It’s just colored crystals. Then we add boiling water. The crystals  become a colorful liquid. Next we add ice cubes to speed cooling. Now we put the Jello in the refrigerator to set. (Bishops are supposed to be knowledgeable in many diverse areas. Bishop Bob knows far more about Jello than I do!)   After a few hours the Jello firms up. You can take it out of the fridge and shake it, perhaps even turn it upside down. Now the Jello won’t slosh around or spill. It will wobble and jiggle, but it will stay together. The church invites us on this  confirmation journey, Bishop Bob explained, to help us “firm up” our faith. Confirmation provides an opportunity to clarify and claim some bedrock beliefs and values We may not emerge from our confirmation experience with definitive answers. But at least we’ve explored some of life’s Big Questions and formulated some provisional answers. Those Big Questions include things like Who is God? Who am I? Why am I? What shall I do with this life I’ve been given to live? Where do Jesus and the Church fit into this whole picture? Confirmation is also a time to begin to form spiritual habits or disciplines. Through the day a variety of approaches to prayer, Bible study, and creative collaboration provided tools to help “firm up” our relationship with God.

Before Bishop Bob was done, I found myself thinking about another dimension of “Jello-ey faith”. Jello is both firm and flexible. Structures that are too rigid will break or shatter when shaken too hard. The “give” built into tall buildings (nearly all buildings in earthquake-prone areas) enables them to ride out that shaking. Most of the buildings flattened in recent quakes in Nepal and other third-world countries lacked that flexibility.

When life starts rocking and rolling like the San Andreas Fault. “Jello-ey faith” helps us bend but not break. That moment is always a matter of When, not If. Nobody gets a free pass. LifeQuakes hit at the least convenient times. Our poor choices jump up and bite us. Circumstances beyond our control trash our carefully-planned futures.  Disappointments derail our dreams. Our expressway to Easy Street deteriorates into a primitive jungle track to—God only knows. Plans A through Q haven’t worked. It’s time to start hatching Plan Z-73.

“Jello-ey faith” trusts infinitely God who created us, loves us, and has a place and purpose for us. It trusts far less our plans and ideas of a “good life” inspired by our consumer-driven media and culture. “Jello-ey faith” trusts the admittedly imperfect families and faith communities that have shaped us, not whichever celebrities and self-help gurus are trending today. “Jello-ey faith” trusts What God is Doing in, around, and among us today and tomorrow far more than “the way we’ve always done it”. “Jello-ey faith” approaches the wisdom of Someone with healthy skepticism. “One generation from extinction” might be true if we leave God out of the equation. But our flexibly firm faith always factors in God’s energizing, empowering Spirit. This new equation fits another one of Someone’s pronouncements: “Christianity is caught rather than taught.” This faith drives the Confirmation process in countless churches like ours. This faith drives our whole existence as the Body of Christ—old, young, and in between; from the most experienced disciples to the newest; “all sorts and conditions” of folks, as the prayer reminds us. Together we encourage each other into the image of Christ. Together we grow into “Jello-ey faith” that leads us through life in partnership with God and all God’s people. Together we work out God’s good purposes for God’s world.

“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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