Wonder Boi Writes

Sunday Sermon

Hi Friends,

This past Sunday my pastor was out of town, and I was asked to fill in for her.  It was a fun morning, and I received so much love and support, not only from my own congregation, but also from friends and family all over the world.  I had several people ask to hear my sermon.  I even got a few requests to record the whole thing.  While that was a bit too much, I did agree to post my thoughts here.  Clearly, these words were not meant for a general audience. I was addressing our specific congregation, so if you’re not a person of faith, feel free to stop reading now.  Come back another time though, okay?

If you are interested, please feel free to read on, knowing that you are welcomed as part of my community of believers any time and in any way you see fit.

Old Testament Reading: Psalm 127
New Testament Reading: Mark 13 – 16

Sermon Title: Suffer Unto Me the Little Children

This is my first sermon in this church. When Cynthia asked me to preach today, I actually didn’t even flinch. I immediately thought of all the awesome sermons I could give on hot button issues. I wanted to do something hard-hitting. I even started to outline a sermon I tentatively entitled “Angry Jesus.” It was going to be fantastic and witty and well researched, and it would make everyone a little uncomfortable a time or two.

It was going to be so easy and so fun that I was honestly surprised when people started offering me their support and sympathies. What’s the big deal? I am just going to talk to you all, and you’re going to sit there and politely try not to nod off. Compared to teaching Sunday school, this is a breeze. No one is standing on his or her chair, no one has gotten into the scissor drawer and tried to cut anyone else’s hair. No one has even thrown anything…yet. Anyone who thinks that giving this sermon will be harder for me than what I do on any given Sunday has never run a Sunday school class.

And really, why would you? That job is hard and frustrating, and it comes with tons of responsibility. Not only do you have to keep the kids safe and relatively quite and interested enough that they don’t climb the walls, you also have to teach them everything they need to lay the foundation of a life-long relationship with God.

This is the part of sermon where I confess my deep, hidden sin before God and my fellow believers: I didn’t want to teach Sunday school. I don’t love it. I certainly didn’t volunteer for the job.

I like kids, I really do. I am a notorious baby stealer. I like to cuddle them when they are tiny. When they’re older, I like to give them things their parent’s don’t like, teach them things their parents would rather they not know, wind them up and then let them go running wildly back to their parents. I’m everyone’s favorite inappropriate aunt. But that means I’m pretty much the opposite of what most people would consider good Sunday schoolteacher material.

But I grew up in a much more evangelical tradition. My parents taught Sunday school at our Methodist church. I went to a Baptist school and a Nazarene youth group. It made me a mixed up mutt when it comes to religious dogma, but those experiences led me to a deeply held belief that the Holy Spirit is still calling us. I honestly believe God asks us to serve and grow not only in the ways that He needs us to, but also in the ways that we need. So when I got asked to teach Sunday school, I figured this might be one of those calls. God had asked me to work with the youngest members of our church, and therefore God must think we need each other.

Wait? Why am I still talking about Sunday school? Sunday school is not hard-hitting. Sunday school is not a hot button issue. Sunday school is something little old ladies talk about in their quilting circles. This supposed to be my grown up time. The kids are safely tucked back in their classroom. This is my chance to take a break from the repetitive singing of “Kum Bah Yah” and really meditate deeply on the major problems people of my generation are facing right now.

You see, I’m a Millennial. I am among the first born of the biggest generation American has ever had. Those of us born between 1982 and 2000 number even greater than the Baby Boomers, and despite what you hear on the news, we’re not all bad. When you get down to the numbers, Millennials are more like the WWII generation than any group that has come before or since. We are team workers, we are joiners, we are socially and environmentally conscious, and we build intense personal relationships with our families and friends and co-workers. I could go on and on, and I have a master’s degree worth of work to back up my assertions here, but that’s not the sermon I want to give, either. I don’t want to tell you all the ways we are great. I want to tell you the one thing about us that really scares me.

32 percent of Millenials have no religious affiliation, and they’re not looking for one. This trend is not new. It’s been on the rise since the turn of the last century, but for the first time in American history, more than a quarter of a generation has no desire to go to church.

Now please don’t conflate that lack of interest with a lack of exposure. Many of these people grew up going to church. Most of them grew up with religious family members and friends. A Gallup poll from 2014 found that 86% of unaffiliated people believe in God. These same people even understand Jesus’s teachings, with 68% of those same people saying they believe Jesus is divine.

Quick show of hands:  How many of you have a close friend or family member who was raised in the church, but no longer attends?  How many of you have close friends or family members who say they believe in God or Jesus but don’t want to attend church?

The heart of the problem does not lie with a misunderstanding of God or Jesus. Jesus and God still poll very high, but the church does not.

My generation is not lazy or apathetic when it comes to church. That 30% of people under the age of 30 aren’t even neutral toward the church; they actively don’t care for us.

When the Pew Institute did a massive generational survey in 2012:

  • 70% of them said the church was too concerned with money and power,
  • 67% said the church is too concerned with rules,
  • 67% percent said the church was hypocritical.

Another Pew study asked Millenials, both those affiliated with church and those not affiliated with church, to list the words or phrases that popped into their heads when they thought about church or church groups.  These are their top 10 answers: 1) Hates Gays 2) Judgemental 3) Hypocritical 4) Too Political 5) Out of touch with real life 6) Old-fashioned 7) Insensitive to the needs of others 8) Boring 9) Not accepting 10) Confusing

This is not just a simple image problem. This is a substance problem.

My generation knows God, they know Jesus, and they were raised in and around the church. They are our children, our grandchildren, our brothers and sister, nieces and nephews, and I’m sorry to say that we failed them. These young people who know us, who were raised by us, think that we, the collective church we form, are hateful, judgmental, out of touch, and insensitive.

Does that hurt you? Does it upset you to hear? It should upset all of us. It does me. These are my friends, my coworkers, the people who I share my life and experiences with. I am happy they still know God, I am happy most of them still find truth in at least the basic teachings of Christ, but I am devastated that they do not know the love of a congregation like this one. And I feel guilty for being part of the culture that turned them away.

I wish this was the part of the sermon where I tell you three simple steps to brining Millennials back to church. Sadly, it is not.   I don’t have three or five or ten simple steps. I don’t think that kind of reconciliation will be simple, I don’t think it will be a linear process, and I don’t think that the process will be the same for everyone.

I think we here at Fredonia Presbyterian Church have started making great strides in that area, and I love that we are continually seeking new ways to actively align the work of our church to the message of Jesus Christ. However, over the last two centuries, the church has gone wrong in a multitude of ways, and it will take at least that many ways of making amends to reverse the damage already done.

Still, do not despair: This sermon is at least two-thirds of the way over and I promise we’ve hit the low point. It’s going to be more positive and more constructive from here on out, because while we do not get a do over with my generation, another generation has already arrived.

That’s the great thing about generations, unless we somehow make the biggest mistake ever, there will always be another generation to come. And from the dawn of time, the promise of each generation has been to do a little better than was done before. Every generation gets to look around, assess where things went wrong, and promise to do better for those who come after them.

I feel that way every time I sit down with the Sunday school kids. I carry the weight of my generation that’s turned from the church. I think about all the reasons they list for not liking this place, and I pray for guidance to show our kids something different.

When someone tells me the church taught them to be ashamed of their flaws, I go in and make a special effort to tell our kids God made them in Her own image and loves them for who they are. When someone tells me they felt judged by hypocrites in church, I remind our kids that everyone has sinned, even me. Especially me. When someone tells me they left church because it’s irrelevant to the struggles in their life, I make an extra effort to ask our kids what’s going on at school, or on their sports teams, and I pray for their concerns using their own words. And when someone tells me they left church because it was boring or mind numbing to be lectured at constantly, I give into my silly, inappropriate aunt side and encourage them to blow bubbles in their juice boxes while talking to them about how much joy Jesus can bring to their lives.

That has been my call as I understand it for the past 8 months, to try to teach them what it really means to be part of a church. And now that we’ve had this talk, it’s your call, too. You thought that earlier bit about the hazards of teaching Sunday school was a tangent, didn’t you? It wasn’t. Starting June 28Sunday school will recess for the summer. The kids will no longer be leaving the sanctuary after the scripture reading. They’re going to stay in church where all of us, and I do mean all of us, will be charged with teaching them what it means to be part of this congregation on any given Sunday.

I have taught them the Lord’s prayer, the Doxology, and several hymns. We have ordered special children’s bulletins for them to read and color during the sermon. I have explained where the offering goes and why the confession of sins matters, but ultimately it will be up to all of YOU to teach them they are valued and welcomed and loved in this space.

It will not be easy for them at first, and it may, at times, be even harder for you. They will squirm, they will giggle, they will drop things and crawl under the pews to get them. They will whisper to one another, and they will appear to pay no attention to anyone in front of or around them. They will likely not remember what the sermon was about. They will not remember the songs we sang and they most certainly will not remember the things we tell them about appropriate behavior from one week to the next, but I promise you this: They will remember how they felt. They will remember how they were treated. They will remember the difference between a stern look and a gentle hand on their shoulder. They will remember the difference between a sharp word and loving guidance.

There have been times when the church as whole, and maybe even us as individuals, have been everything those unaffiliated individuals think we are. We have been judgmental and hypocritical and too caught up in money and power. We have been boring and out of touch and insensitive to the most sensitive hearts and minds among us. And because of that we have lost a large portion of my generation for good. But we have a second chance to do better.

There is a new generation among us now, and they will be in the pews beside us this summer. I am asking you now to please take some time to let the gravity of that sink in. Every single time you interact with these kids over those 10 weeks, you are being called to secure the future of the church of Jesus Christ . You are being called to be the hands and voice of God to them in God’s own house. I hope each and every one of us will open our hearts to the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that we can accept this call with joy, understanding, and a great deal of patience.

Amen

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May 26, 2015 - Posted by | Uncategorized

10 Comments »

  1. Wow. This is a great sermon on Orthopraxy (right action) (as compared to orthodoxy in terms of right belief). Millennials and even my generation, the end of the baby boomers have left the church for the reasons you mention which often have to do with beliefs and actions, but it is the actions that bring us back. I know my little home church is flooded withe millennial “kids” who grew up there and their actual kids every time we do a hands on service project. They want their children to experience being the church. You have captured the essence of this very well. I love the twist at the end. “Oh and by the way, they will be sitting next to you in the pew, so don’t screw up what we’ve done in Sunday School.” Grin. Okay maybe not exactly that, but that’s what it made me think of. You have done such a lovely job at your book readings that I’ve attended that I can picture you giving this sermon and I think you must have done a smashing job!

    Comment by onamarae | May 26, 2015 | Reply

    • Thank you Ona. You always say such wonderfully thoughtful things.

      Comment by rachelspangler | May 26, 2015 | Reply

  2. This was great! I must admit, I fall into the category of growing up in the church, but I do not go anymore. I stopped going after high school, because I couldn’t find a church when I went away to college, but before that, was very involved with the church. The older I got, the more I started noticing things. Noticing people and how they acted, and it was totally different from what we’re taught in church. How can someone be all smiles, hugs, and love during church, but then spend the next hour badmouthing the same people you were just buddy buddy with? I tried, and sometimes succeeded, in ignoring that, and paying attention to the message. And then I had my own realization. That being me was not accepted by the church. Actually, the last time I voluntarily went to my church, the message was against gay people. Plus seeing everything that’s going on in the world, people using the church to justify their hate, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. I go back to church once in a while when my mom specifically asks me to attend, but I do not attend on a regular basis. I think people think that just because I don’t go to church, I don’t believe, and that can’t be farther from the truth. I haven’t forgotten or turned my back on the teachings of Christ, not at all. But like I said, this was a great sermon. I enjoyed it very much. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    Comment by Janna | May 26, 2015 | Reply

    • Oh Janna, I am so sorry for the way the church treated you. I am glad you haven’t lost your faith though. I do hope that you will someday find a fellowship of believers who will welcome you and love you for the gift you are. I honestly believe congregations like ours are on the rebound, and I am sure so many loving congregations would be honored to count you among them.

      Comment by rachelspangler | May 26, 2015 | Reply

      • Thanks, Rachel. It’s rough, but I have not and will not lose my faith. That is not an option. I’ve enjoyed reading your blogs and Facebook posts about your church and what you all do, and it makes me glad that you have that. I hope there are congregations like yours near me but I haven’t found any yet. My sister is so supportive and it’s wonderful, so that helps a lot.

        Comment by Janna | May 27, 2015

  3. I’m part of Gen X and my son is a Millennial. I grew up Roman Catholic in a church that was regimented, staid, boring and all of the other things that you described. I married in the Lutheran church and converted. We attended a church that was only slightly less regimented and boring than the church of my youth and we attempted to bring our son up in that church. It didn’t stick to him just as it wasn’t sticking to me.

    My husband and I divorced amicably and I came out as a lesbian when my son was 10 (he’s nearly 20). For a long time I was unchurched and so was our son. We’d all given up on God. A few years ago, in need of some additional part time employment, I found myself in the role of church secretary for an open and accepting UCC church. That little congregation of mixed race young and old, gay and straight and every other conceivable variation under the sun was completely different from any church I have ever known and believe me when I say that I’ve had experiences with plenty. I’d found a church home and my son was starting to take a liking to it too.

    About a year and a half ago, my wife and I moved to a rural area well over an hour drive time from that little church. I rarely get back there. There are churches here of course but, in the rural heartland, even though the members of their congregations that I know in this tiny village are accepting of us, the churches as institutions tend to not be and they also tend to cling to the old, staid, boring doctrine. I’m back to square one in my walk with God.

    Your sermon really hits home. I wish more people could hear it. Keep spreading the word!

    Comment by Anne Hagan | May 26, 2015 | Reply

  4. Rachel! God Bless You! That was the best sermon I have heard in almost 40 years!. I wish I lived where you live. I would even attend church again! We have no church like that here where I live. I know your children and young people will flourish under yours and other voices over this next 10 weeks. I am glad I subscribe to your blog.
    Thank you. LD Mills

    Comment by Linda D. Mills | May 26, 2015 | Reply

  5. Very good space to be Sunday School. That is where the kidos first learn that the Divine loves us and them, that mistakes are OK and that love is what matters most. Good for you for answering that call.

    Comment by dgm1952 | May 26, 2015 | Reply

  6. This is wonderful, Rachel. We attend a welcoming and affirming Episcopal church here in my hometown. I never thought I’d be back here, but we are. I could write a book about leaving my parent’s evangelical church at 13, my becoming involved in an even more extreme evangelical church, moving to Tulsa to go to bible school, becoming ordained, my fall from grace ( in their eyes), my finally coming out, meeting Jude and 18 years later – moving back to my hometown and finding an amazing church that accepts us and loves us. See how I packed 40 years in that incredibly long ridiculous sentence. I’m considered a baby boomer by two years. My sister is in the next generation whatever. My kids are millennials and no longer attend church.

    I loved your sermon. It’s spot on. Thank you for sharing.

    Comment by Kim Johnson | May 26, 2015 | Reply

  7. Wonderful sermon, Rachel.Sorry we were not there to hear it. You are right on as far as the children go. Thank you for reminding me that they need our attention and to know they are a blessing in our church.

    Comment by Carol Calarco | June 21, 2015 | Reply


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