Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower… Abide in me as I abide in you.”
If you have been to my house you know that wisteria covers the pergola on my backyard deck. Once established, wisteria is a hardy vine, to say the least. You can do just about anything to it and it keeps coming back. A year ago I had to cut it all down to replace the deck structure that had rotted and two months later the wisteria had recovered the entire pergola. That penchant for growth translates into a lot of trimming. I have noticed that within five minutes of cutting off a shoot it begins to wither. The affect of being separated from the vine happens just that fast.
Jesus drew on this imagery – although he was thinking of grape vines, not wisteria – to highlight one of the most important features of the spiritual life: our need to be connected to him if we are going to have healthy, productive lives being able to make sense and draw meaning out our existence.
Parker Palmer tells the story of a three-year-old girl who was the first-born in her family. Upon learning that her mother was pregnant again, the girl became excited at the thought of being a big sister. When a little boy was born and brought home, the girl made an odd request of her parents. She wanted the door to the nursery to be shut so she and only she could be in the room with her new brother. The parents were not sure what to make of this, but remembering that they had a baby monitor in the room figured they could grant their daughter’s request while still being able to listen in for signs of trouble. So they left the room, closed the door, and listened attentively from a short distance away. After a period of silence, the three-year-old girl, surely standing next to the crib, said to her newborn baby brother, “Tell me about God – I’ve almost forgotten.”
There is something wonderful about a child’s faith. It is so pure, so innocent, so trusting, so open. And yet, as the little girl’s story suggests, it does not last. Billy Collins, poet laureate of the United States, describes the change that occurred in him in a poem called “On Turning Ten.” The thought of adding a second digit to his age made him feel like he was coming down with something – “a kind of measles of the spirit.” He recalls how he began to look at the world differently. He reflects on seeing his bicycle leaning against the garage and how it appeared to him as if “all the dark blue speed [had] drained out of it.” Collins concludes with this:
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I would shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bled.
Abiding in God seems to come naturally the younger we are, but its ease begins to slip away; perhaps by the time we turn ten; certainly as we reach our teens and early twenties when the harsh realities of life, with its difficult questions, become our everyday reality. Consider Colleen’s story. She spent her years in public education preparing to go to college. It was very important both to her and to her parents. She got good grades and was accepted at several schools. Unfortunately, her parents were not able to provide much financial support and even with a few scholarships Colleen faced incurring a mountain of debt in student loans. Then she heard about a fertility clinic that paid really good money to egg donors. She researched the subject on the internet, but was still left with major questions: Does the church have a position on the issue? What does the bible have to say about it? Would God approve, or be unhappy? She decided to talk with the youth minister at her church but that person was completely unequipped to help her think through the moral and spiritual implications of her decision.
Colleen is representative of many in her generation who are entering that age when we all start to ask serious questions about God and life and meaning. Sadly, at this key point of searching, 36% of Christians in their teens and twenties report they don’t feel the church is a place they can go to ask their most pressing questions in their life. The result, young people are leaving the institutional church in droves.
To the degree that we here this morning believe it to be our calling to help young people grow into an abiding relationship with God we ought to be concerned. What is going on in our society? Is it merely today’s expression of teenage angst that every generation experiences and works through, or is it something different, something more permanent?
In his book, You Lost Me. Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith, researcher David Kinnaman identifies six areas of disconnection between young people and the church:
Young people want to engage the culture and find expressions for their creative impulses, but they experience the church as over-protective – giving the message that the culture is to be avoided. They want to reimagine, recreate, and rethink everything – including how to be the church – but their drive is being neutralized by those guarding the status quo.
Young people experience the church as being shallow – a place to be told easy answers that do not help them to connect their faith with their gifts, abilities, and passions.
They grow up in a world saturated with the benefits of science and technology while at the same time receiving a message from the church that is strongly anti-science. Half expect to have a career in science and technology, but get little or no guidance from the church on how to understand this as their calling. The message they receive is that you can be a person of faith or a person of science, but not both.
Many young people are putting off marriage until the late twenties or early thirties, but are exposed to sex at a very early age. The church, preferring rules to reasons, comes off as repressive and, as a result, there is a growing disconnect between what the church teaches and the reality of young peoples’ lives.
This age group has a difficult time embracing the notion that the church has an exclusive hold on the truth. They value open-mindedness, tolerance, and acceptance and prefer to find common ground as opposed to identifying differences.
Finally, young people report that the church is not a safe place to express doubts. When faith doesn’t make sense, the church’s response is trivial and fact-focused, as if a person can be talked out of doubting.
All of this might suggest that young people are no longer religious. This may be true for some, but Kinnaman’s research reveals that people in this age group are spiritual tinkers who have a cafeteria approach to faith – a little of this from over here, a dash of that, and a helping of something new I have never tried before. I have no doubt that young people will continue to seek the Holy and search for an abiding relationship with God. Given the amazing access they have to information and the global, cultural mixing that is a part of their reality, they will be able to get input from a multitude of avenues that did not exist when we were that age. The real question is how influential and involved the church will be in their pursuit. Up until now the church has been reluctant and ill-equipped to abide with its young people as they inhabit a landscape so alien to our experience.
As I read You Lost Me I could not shake the notion that its research sounded more reflective of young people who grew up in the Roman Catholicism or fundamentalist churches. That’s not to say that we in the Episcopal Church have it all figured out – we don’t. Still, Kinnaman offers three broad suggestions which, as it turns out, are not exactly foreign to our branch of the faith.
First, he calls on the church to rethink relationships by recovering the biblical notion of a generation. We think of a generation as marketers do – the boomers, the busters, the millennials, the mosaics, etc – a clustering of a twenty year (or so) age range based on experiences and world views. When the bible talks about a generation it is refers to everyone alive right now. This means we are not here to prepare children and young people to be the church someday when they are older, but rather we all are the church right now – together – a partnership to fulfill God’s purpose in our time. While this notion has many implications, at its heart it calls for all of us to be in relationship – an abiding of all the fruit on the vine now matter where it is in the process of ripening.
Next Kinnaman says the church needs to rediscover the ancient understanding of vocation. Our young people lack clarity about what God is asking them to do with their lives. This has got to change. Like the hymn says about saints, “And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green… and there’s not any reason, no not the least, why I shouldn’t be one too.” Each of us can use our gifts, talents, interests, and passions in a career inside or outside the church in service to God’s kingdom.
Finally, the author suggests we focus less on rules and more on wisdom, which is the “spiritual, mental, and emotional ability to relate rightly to God, to others, and to our culture.” That is, after all, what we ultimately hope for each member of the church, not that he or she merely does the do’s while shunning the don’ts. These are important, to be sure, but there is more – so much more – to an abiding faith than being a good little boy or girl.
If it clears up later today I will have some yard work to do. On my list is trimming the wisteria. No matter how much I cut, it will grow back, but what is cut off is lost. I can’t say for sure if the trimmings represent young people who are leaving the church or if they represent the church itself. The faith will go on because as St. Paul tells us faith, hope, and love abide. For the church, however, there is no such guarantee. Its role in life is related to an interesting blend of fidelity to God and cultural relevance. The good news is there is still time for us to discern and to change. There is still time to be what God asks the church to be – a place where all people can come to abide in God with one another.