Archives For Youth

Untitled101One of the things our youth have conveyed to our new youth director is their desire for catechesis before college. Training before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

Knowing most folks won’t read long boring books,  I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

Here are questions 18-21

I. The Father:

18. Is God Indifferent Towards Us?

Of course not.

A person’s act of being as well as every action done by a person is an act of God. So, if the creator is the reason for everything that is, there can be no actual being which does not have the creator as its center holding it in being always.

So God literally cares more for us than we can conceive. Our compassion is a feeble attempt to be what God is all the time.

“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” – Psalm 139

19. What Do We Mean that God is Love?

If everything is contingent such that its existence is not necessary but relies, at every moment, relies upon God for its existence, then everything in your life, at every second of your life, is a something that could be nothing. Without God.

So everything, everything in your life, every moment of your life- existence itself- is completely gratuitous.

It’s a gift. Grace.

“I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly.” – John 10.10

20. How Can God Possibly Love Us Creatures?

The gulf between Creator and creature is so great it would seem that God cannot love us in any meaningful way.

Yet Jesus affirms repeatedly that God loves him and through the Holy Spirit we are incorporated into the Father’s loving relationship with the Son.

So God can’t love us. God can only love us in the Son through the Spirit.

“Anyone who loves me my Father will love him…” – John 14.23

21. How has God Shown Love for Us?

Creation itself is a revelation of God’s love for it’s completely gratuitous. God reveals God’s love by giving us life, by responding to the crosses we build with resurrection and by taking us up into God’s own life through the Holy Spirit.

And if everything in existence is grace, then God, in his nature, is Love. Not: God is loving. God is Love.

And if God is Love, then the universe’s blueprint, its grain, its logic is Love.

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…” -John 1.1

 

 

Untitled101One of the things our youth have conveyed to our new youth director is their desire for catechesis before college. Training tobefore we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

Knowing most folks won’t read long boring books,  I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

Here are questions 15-17

I. The Father:

15. Does God Change?

No.

God is immutable, immune to change, for change implies that where was an absence or deficiency prior to the change. For something to change, in other words, there must be some potential in it which is not yet realized.

 

But in God there is no absence, for God is Being itself. God does not change (to be more loving, for example) because already in God is the perfection of Love itself.

 

Perfect Love is already eternally actual in God; therefore, there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and- good news- there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less.

 

“I the Lord your God I do not change.” – Malachi 3.6

 

16. Why Does Scripture So Often Speak of God Changing God’s Disposition?

Scripture speaks of God changing because scripture narrates not God’s essence but Israel’s experience of God in the world.

 

Scripture speaks of God with such human language because we have no way of comprehending or conveying God by any means but our words.

 

Likewise, since humans are ‘talking animals’ the infinite has no other means to reveal himself to us but finite words.

 

“Who is this that questions my work with such ignorant words?”

- Job 38.2

17. Does God Suffer?

No, the idea that God suffers (patripassianism) is an ancient heresy.

The Father does not suffer. For 3 reasons:

 

As Being itself in whom there is no potentiality but only actuality, the perfection of all emotions (Love) is already present eternally in God.

 

To suffer is to be affected by another outside you. To be changed.

But God does not change because there is no potentiality in God only actuality.

 

God subsists in all things that exist and holds all things in existence. God cannot be affected by anything outside God because there is nothing that is outside God.

 

“He is before all things and in him all things hold together.” – Colossians 1.17 

 

IMG_5884-300x200This weekend is confirmation in my church. After a year long process of catechesis, about 40 youth will make good on their baptismal promises to follow Christ in the way that leads to both death and life.

Since it’s confirmation weekend, it seems an appropriate for a student themed podcast.

Teer sat down with Dugan Sherbondy, the author of Sow What?, a few weeks ago while at a middle school youth retreat. They discussed current trends in youth ministry as well as what might just be the next BIG thing (if you can actually guess that). Dugan is a youth pastor and speaker who lives in Phoenix, AZ by way of Illinois. He is passionate about helping students articulate their faith, as well as obscure dinosaur facts.

You can check out more about Dugan on his website, www.dugansherbondy.com

DuganSherbondy-SowWhat-CoverMockUp-300x300You can listen to the interview below.

You can also download it in iTunes or, better yet, download the free mobile app, which you can use to listen to old installments of the podcast and look for future ones.

 

Parents: Echoing Back

Jason Micheli —  August 23, 2013 — 1 Comment

luthersockeLike I do every August, I’m busy preparing for the kick-off of our year long confirmation program for 6th graders and our nascent year long catechism for graduating seniors. Throw in there plans for a class on Mark I’ll be teaching.

Meanwhile our youth and children directors are getting ready for their years and the hundreds of kids who will come through the doors after Labor Day.

Throw in all the admin time such time requires.

And here’s the bitter, ironic but abiding reality:

NONE OF WHAT WE DO MATTERS

NONE OF IT MATTERS

NO SUNDAY SCHOOL CLASS, CONFIRMATION RETREAT, YOUTH GROUP SESSION CAN MAKE YOUR KID A CHRISTIAN IF NOTHING WE DO WITH THEM AT CHURCH IS ECHOED BACK AT HOME.

WHERE THEY SPEND 98% OF THEIR LIVES.

Martin Luther, the Reformation theologian who spent his whole life embroiled in matters involving the institutional church, was convinced that Christian formation actually happened in the home not in the Church. It happened in the family.

If ever the People of God are to flourish, Luther believed, if ever people will be capable of believing in God’s love it will be because of what happens in the home, in the family, and not in the Church. For Luther, teaching about God’s love had less to do with the official words of the Church and more to do with the love shared in the home.

Luther called it ‘echoing back.’

It’s the kind of teaching that happens in families- around dinner tables and shared struggles, in conversations and in ordinary moments.

Echoing back: it’s where the words of scripture and the words Church are made visible in the lives of the people who love us. In other words, our ability to understand Christ’s love for us depends on whether we see that love, experience that love, through the lives of those who love us.

According to Luther, the words of the Church alone can’t do it because God invites us not just into believing in him but into a way of life. And for a way of life, we need more than words; we need guides, mentors, friends.

If it’s true that the laos have abdicated the ministry to the cleros, it’s also true in too many cases that families have abdicated Christianity to the Church, leaving it to pastors and badly paid staff to Christianize (or at least inoculate them against the corroding effects of secularism) them.

The one bright side is that if kids and youth don’t grow up in homes where the Church’s message is echoed back by their families, then they’re still ripe and vulnerable to an anti-family, fight-the-Man-renegade like Jesus of Nazareth.

 

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.”

As some of you may know, HE WHO MUST NOT BE NAMED is the moniker I sometimes use in sermons to protect the anonymity of a certain short-red-faced-bushy-eyebrowed-falls- asleep- before -the- doxology-generous- with- his- money- and- his- criticisms- parishioner (bless his heart).

Hilariously, now, one of YOU has taken this mantle and taken to emailing me cryptic, quasi-threatening emails from- yup- hewhomustnotbenamed@gmail.com

Here is an example:

Rev. Micheli,

In the most recent posting on your “website” I have found issue with your claim regarding church signs.  First of all, if you truly do no like these signs STOP going past them so frequently.  Second, these signs are EXACTLY what the church needs.  We need to show the godless generation (those young adults you want us to reach out to) that the church has a sense of humor.  
We cannot rely on our pastors to provide the comic relief needed during a boring service to attract this crowd that YOU say we need to attract.  These signs serve a purpose.  Maybe Aldersgate needs to reexamine our sign humor.  Do we really need to advertise for the youth group on them or our children’s activities.  
If they want to come to those programs people will figure out when it is, and if they can’t do it without a sign then its not MY problem.
Be careful young man, you never know, we might just put one of these signs in our pastors front yards!
In the Peace of Christ,
HeWhoMustNotBeNamed

Every day, two freaking times a day, I have to drive by one of those church signs with the individual letters you can move around like magnet poetry to create- supposedly- witty, catchy, thought-provoking, chicken-soup-for-the-vanilla-soul kind of messages. And on swim practice days, its 4x/day.

You’ve seen the ones.

‘Christianity: Some Assembly Required’  

‘Life is fragile, handle with prayer.’ 

’1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4Given’ 

 ‘America bless God’

 ‘One in the hand is worth two in the…just kidding. 

Call me cynical (if you haven’t already) but I hate these signs. I’m sure some of you love them and think I’m cold and callous, but I think they’re lame.

My problem isn’t that these don’t communicate.

My problem is that I fear they communicate very well.

They say to anyone who’s never wanted to go to church before: ‘Stay away. We’re exactly what you thought we were.’

They say:

We’re not going to challenge you.

Our religion is the sentimental kind that will have about zero application to your life.

You don’t need to be here because the paradoxical message of Christ can be summarized in this lame Christian koan.

And this isn’t just me being cranky. In the book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church, David Kinnaman notes that one of the most frequent reasons cited by young people is their impression that the Church is shallow.

So you see churches with lame signs only appeal to people inside churches not to the people who’ll be driving past your church come Sunday morning off to some other way to spend their time. Meanwhile, your sign conforms to all the impressions out there that Church isn’t a place of depth, unexpectedness or adventure.

Thus my plea…take down your lame sign.

And then there’s this sign, which has even more depressing suggestions of lameness (I mean…how did NO ONE in that church think that might be a double entendre).

A sermon for All Saints based on Ezra 3

On Thursday afternoon this week, I found myself in what you might describe as a ‘sour mood.’ Or, as my wife likes to put it, I was ‘man-strating.’

First, early on Thursday I received an email from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named here in the congregation, my own personal Caiphus. For some reason, he felt the need to email me to dispute Dennis’ sermon from last Sunday.

You know, the sermon that was written by and preached by NOT ME. I mean if I’m going to start getting blamed for Dennis’ sermons too then he’s got to step up his game. Specifically, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named wanted to dismiss the Pew Trust statistics Dennis shared with you, about the percentage of people in their 40’s and 30’s and 20’s for whom church is not relevant to their lives at all.

His email was succinct: “I come to church every Sunday. If other people don’t that’s not my problem.”

That’s when I started manstrating.

Right after reading his email, I got in my car where I discovered that every single radio station was playing a campaign commercial, the kind explaining how this Tuesday is the most critical date in the history of human civilization and unless Barack Obama/Mitt Romney wins the earth will stop spinning, America will cease to exist, and the Death Star will reach full operational capacity.

Driving in my car, my mood worsened.

When I got home Thursday afternoon, my phone rang. And rang. And rang…don’t you love phone calls this time of year? Barack Obama’s campaign called me 3 times, asking for my vote and my money. Mitt Romney’s campaign called me 2 times, asking for my vote and my money. George Allen and Tim Kaine followed with robo-calls of their own, asking for my vote and my money.

So when my phone rang for the 8th time, I was full-on manstrating.

 

‘Is Jason Micheli there?’ the voice on the other end inquired.

 

‘No, he’s not here,’ I lied, ‘can I take a message?’

 

‘My name’s Matt. I’m calling from Princeton Seminary.’

 

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘this is Jason.’

 

‘But I thought you said…’

 

‘Never mind what I said. How can I help you?’

He then explained that he was a seminary student and that he was calling on behalf of the Bicentennial Campaign, soliciting gifts…and testimonials from alumni.

He tried to grease the sale by telling me all the new things going on at my alma mater, and then he asked if I would make a gift to the campaign.

I said sure. He said great. I said okay. He asked how much.  I told him.

And he said: ‘Times are tough, huh?’

That’s when my mood turned truly foul.

‘Look kid, maybe no one’s told you yet what you can expect to make as a pastor but I’m not Bill Gates. Besides, you should’ve called earlier. I’ve already given money to Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, George Allen, Tim Kaine, NPR and the Rebel Alliance.’

He sounded confused.

‘Well, um, would you like to share any thoughts about how your seminary education prepared you for ministry? We’d like to compile these and publish them in the alumni magazine.’

And instantly my mind went to that email from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, sitting in my inbox, still waiting for a reply.

And I knew this was one of those moments where a grown-up could choose to bite his tongue and not resort to petty sarcasm. But I’m not one of those grown-ups.

‘Sure, Matt, I’d love to share my thoughts. Here goes: Princeton Seminary prepared me exceedingly well…to maintain a church for church people.’

I could hear him typing my response.

‘In fact, Matt, why don’t you suggest to the trustees that they can slow down, delay the Bicentennial for several decades, because based on how Princeton taught me to do ministry it must still be 1950.’

‘That’s not the kind of feedback we were looking for’ Matt said.

‘Of course not, but its what you need to hear.

Princeton Seminary taught me to pray the kinds of prayers church people like, to preach the kinds of sermons church people like, to plan the kind worship services that church people like, to manage the kind of church that church people like.

 

But seminary didn’t teach me how to do any of those things in a way that makes church relevant and life-changing to an unchurched person.

 

And that’s the future, Matt. And the clock’s ticking. It’s ticking faster than any one in church wants to believe.’

 

Those Pew statistics Dennis shared with you last week- about how with each new generation the church plays an ever-shrinking role- those aren’t just numbers.

They’re people with names and stories. People God loves.

 

That’s why this week I sent our youth director, Teer Hardy, out into Alexandria and DC, to find some those people behind the numbers and hear their side of the story.

 

I wish I could show you the video he shot. If we were in the National Cathedral, I could show you the video. But since we’re in this sanctuary, you’re just going to have to listen. Here’s one of the responses (Cue Audio)

 

My name is ___________________. 

I’m 33. I’m married and have a 1 year old boy. I work full-time.  

As a 30-something, how relevant is the Church to you in your life? 

At this moment, not very much. I guess it’s been almost five years since I worshipped in a church, besides a few weddings. Some of my earliest memories are of going to church during Advent. 

I miss that element in my weekly life, of worshiping and belonging to a community. Part of me would like to have that resonance of faith in my daily life, but most churches don’t seem to have someone like me, someone my age, in mind. Your question could easily be turned around, couldn’t it? How relevant is someone like me to your church? 

When you hear the word ‘worship’ what comes to your mind? 

The word ‘worship’ doesn’t immediately lead me to think of institutional religious practices. 

To worship, to me, is to reframe my attention away from everything I typically pay attention to as a full-time working mother, and turn to God, experience awe, gratitude, connection to other humans. I could attend a formal church service and never experience any of those things, but I do experience them in other ways and places.  

What assumptions or habits do churches have that are an obstacle to someone your age? 

I think there is a risk of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction. I think churches sometimes try to pander and make themselves appear relevant to a young audience. People my age and younger are a lot savvier now. We’re marketed to all the time; we can tell the difference between a sales pitch and a genuine interest in us.

 

This is someone who grew up in church and is open to being a part of another one.

 

But did you hear what she said?

 

People like her won’t return to what they left if it’s the same exact thing they left before.

 

Now it’s easy to write people like her off. You can say ‘it’s not my problem.’

I could steer you towards plenty of people who would agree with you.

 

You know where they’re all at this morning? That’s right, in dying churches.

 

And Methodism’s got plenty of those. Churches who love their way of doing things more than they love their mission to reach new people.

 

Churches where perpetuating how they do things is their mission. Churches who feel no urgency until the day comes they can no longer pay the bills.

 

But, just in case there’s still some of you who want to dismiss the statistics and not be bothered about the strangers in the street who don’t think Jesus can change their lives, we solicited some other interviews too.

 

Cue Audio:

My name’s _____________________. I’m 24 and work full-time.

 

What about how churches do worship fails to resonate with you? 

 

I think everyone is at a different place in their lives and everyone has a different perspective. I know that my ideas and opinions about things have changed, and I would be amazed if they didn’t change again. Sometimes it feels like churches want new and younger people so long as we don’t come with our own opinions and needs. We’re expected to sign on to exactly how they like to do worship. In that sense, it’s not much different than children’s church when I was a kid.

 

It’s difficult for me to accept someone else’s preferences if I don’t get the feeling that they’re open to someone else’s way of doing things too. 

 

This other response come to me by way of Facebook:

 

My name’s ____________________. I’m a Graduate Student.

 

I think my faith is in a transitional phase. In college, I found Christian groups to be radical and extreme and it made me doubt the beliefs I had learned my whole life in church and youth group. It left me feeling that the Church just isn’t all that relevant to real life. 

 

Worship sometimes feels like a passive ritual to me. You show up, listen, then go home.  It doesn’t impact my day to day life. 

 

 

Those two people. Guess where they came from?

They grew up here at Aldersgate. They’re ours. Yours.

So, even if you think we don’t have a responsibility to reach as many new people as we can, at the very least you should agree that we have an obligation to people like these two.

After all, you’ve made promises to them.

Remember? When they were baptized- you promised to do whatever it takes to nurture their faith.

 

If we’re not willing to create the kind of church that will be relevant to them when they grow up, then, frankly, we should stop baptizing them when they’re babies.

 

If we’re not willing to adapt how we do church, we should stop baptizing children.

 

Because every time we baptize, we vow to do everything it takes to make them a saint.

 

Shirley Pitts can tell you- John Wesley understood this.

Remembering the saints is something we do. Once a year.

 

Producing saints, Sunday after Sunday, day in and day out- that’s our Christ-given great commission.

 

 

This is what you need to remember.

 

Dennis and I- one of our three goals for the coming 18 months is to raise the number of people in worship by 10%.

 

Round it up to 100 people if you want.

 

Before you nod your heads and say ‘that’s a great idea!’ remember the Ezra chapter 3 catch:

 

We can’t say we’re going to build a new temple and think we can do so by replicating how we’ve always done things before.

 

Because how we do things now will net us what we have.

Now.

 

We’re making worship our number one focus this year and our goal is 10% more people worshipping God with us.

 

To get to that goal, we’re going to have to be creative, take risks, value people over preferences, we’re going to have to examine all our assumptions, we’re going to have to get more basic/more essential, and change.

 

And if you think I’m talking about worship style or music style, you’re missing the point. For example:

 

Most of you would be very reluctant to invite an unchurched friend to worship with you. I understand that reluctance, but it’s got to change.

 

Many of you can’t talk about Jesus or use religious language in a normal conversation with your peers. I was like that; I understand that, and we’ve got to change that.

 

Many of our members are involved in all kinds of activities in the church without ever worshipping with us. I understand that’s an ingrained part of the church culture, but it’s a part of the culture that’s got to change.

 

Other than acolytes, we don’t have our children or youth involved in worship, serving communion, reading scripture, helping to plan, leading prayer or ushering. I understand that might sound chaotic. It’s still gotta change.

 

Many of you don’t know the names of the people you sit near in church every Sunday. I DON’T understand that and it’s definitely got to change.

 

Many of you think worship is something Dennis or I or Andreas or Jason or the band or the choir offer you, and you receive- rather than something we collectively offer our larger community on behalf of God.

 

And more than anything, that mindset has to change.

 

Look, I know change bothers people.

I’ve been at this long enough to have habits I’m afraid to change.

I understand.

 

But what I want to bother you more, what I wish I got emails complaining about, what I wish I got emails complaining about, is how our community is filled with lost coins, lost sheep, lost children and how we’re not laser-beam focused on getting them here so they can embrace a Father who’s waiting for them.

 

I want that to bother you because Jesus made it very clear: it bothers God.

 

I was still on the phone with Matt from Princeton when another call beeped in.

It was probably another campaign calling me for my vote and my money.

 

But at least it snapped me out of my rant and Matt said:

‘That’s a good point Mr Micheli, but transitioning a church into the future- don’t you think that’s your congregation’s responsibility too? Don’t you trust that God can equip your people with the necessary gifts?’

 

I told him he must get very good grades in seminary, and he chuckled gently.

 

And then the little jerk asked me for more money.

 

But he was right.

 

Building on our foundation for a new future is a gigantic, God-sized calling. And it belongs to all of us. Together.

 

Ezra says the leaders who build the new Temple after the exile are the grandkids of the ones who remember how things used to be.

 

Ezra says, at first, everyone thinks their idea to build a new Temple is a great idea.

But Ezra says some have a change of heart when they realize the new Temple won’t be the same as the old.

 

Some refuse to give their money to it, Ezra says.

 

Others opt out Ezra says.

 

But others, those who are old enough to remember what was 50 years ago, Ezra says they weep.

 

They weep, but they’re still there. They’re still there when the new Temple is dedicated.  They’re still committed. They’re still contributing. Because of what God did for them in the past, they’re still invested in the future of what God’s doing.

 

And sure when the new Temple is dedicated, Ezra says you can’t distinguish the sound of celebration from the sound of grief.

 

But that’s okay.

 

Because as messy as it is, that’s what it sounds like- celebration and grief, that’s what it sounds like- when God’s People take the next faithful step.

 

 

 

 

 

What does scripture say about homosexuality?

Does scripture condemn loving, monogamous gay relationships? Does it? Are you sure?

The NY Times ran a story on Sunday about Matthew Vines a young gay Christian whose lifelong church, and many lifelong friends, couldn’t abide his sexuality nor his insistence that he was still in the parameters of scripture.

I’ve written here before that Christians of good will can and do disagree over this issue, but here’s what I have no patience for: Christians- on either side- who make their arguments and pronouncements pro or con but have no actual knowledge of what scripture says. I hear a lot of ‘the bible teaches…’ by people who don’t seem to really know what in fact the bible teaches.

And that’s what I admire about Matthew Vines’ story. Rejected by his church and many friends, he’s responded A) not in anger or despair and B) not by giving up on the faith. Instead he’s taken on a teaching mission to unpack just what scripture says on these thorny issues. Disagree with him if you like; however, his drive and zeal to be counted among God’s People is to be admired.

Here’s the story. And just below is Matthew’s presentation on You Tube. It’s worth a full watch.

Tony Jones has a post today reviewing the beginning of the Democratic National Convention and celebrating how the Democratic Party appears to have transitioned to full-throated support of homosexual relationships and marriage equality. It’s received little comment in the media- maybe because the media arrived at such support long ago?- but such support seemed unthinkable just a few cycles ago.

Tony concludes with this thought: This is just another sign that the tipping point has been reached. And it is yet again up to congregations and denominations and plain old Christians to decide whether they want to be on the right side or the wrong side of history

Now I know a lot of you have a lot of different feelings when it comes same-sex relationships. I realize how sincere Christians can arrive at two very divergent points of view on the question. Christians can debate the question from a variety of scriptural and theological perspectives; indeed, Christians have been doing just that (to the overall detriment of the Church) for decades. The issue threatens Church unity in my denomination (Methodism) and has torn several other denominations asunder.

Pushing the scriptural and theological concerns aside for just one moment, on one level Tony’s point is absolutely rock-solid: demographics.

No matter the supposed scriptural or theological ‘correctness’ of those who oppose same-sex relationships, long-term it’s a losing issue for the Church.

I’ll put it stronger, long-term the Church has an image problem when it comes to how we deal with the gay issue. 

Why? Because, like it or not, young people think Christians are homophobic and, overwhelmingly, young people do not share that phobia.

In his book, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church, David Kinnaman cites the perceived intolerance of Christians as one of the primary reasons those in their teens and twenties leave the faith.

It’s a generational difference. Kinnaman points out how in 1960 9 of 10 young adults identified themselves as Christian. Today it’s 60%. In 1960 only 1 of every 20 births was to an unwed mother. Today it’s nearly 50%.

Young people today have grown up with a diversity (religious, ethnic, relational) unthinkable 50 years ago. Diversity is an assumed norm in their lives and they bring it to bear on the topic of homosexuality. Young people favor egalitarianism in their relationships: fairness over rightness, inclusion over exclusion, relationships over opinions and, as a result, young people simply assume the participation of homosexuals in any meaningful cultural conversation.

And there’s the demographic rub. An institution that behaves as though it values the polar opposite, the Church, seems strange, antiquated and even mean-spirited to a majority of young people.

I’m not suggesting that churches should capitulate to the cultural mores of the empire. Neither am I suggesting churches should abandon teachings they sincerely believe are given by the Holy Spirit.

I am suggesting that the demographics make it even more imperative Christians engage this conversation gently and with compassion, as though all the eyes of young people are watching.

I am suggesting that the demographic realities force Christians to consider whether being ‘right’ on this issue is more important than persuading others to the love of Christ. Or, as Tony puts it again: This is just another sign that the tipping point has been reached. And it is yet again up to congregations and denominations and plain old Christians to decide whether they want to be on the right side or the wrong side of history.

Many friends are in the midst of resuming or beginning their college and graduate schools. And many of their parents are suffering a mixture of joy and sadness.
Too often we in the church have a sort of empty nest mentality about our youth who leave for school, thinking that our job- like their parents’- is to get them to graduation. We neglect our calling if we no longer attempt to shape and minster to students after they’ve left for study. What’s more, we do students a profound disservice if fail to convey to them how their study is but the next step in their Christian calling. To learn and glean wisdom from those who’ve come before could not be a more Christian discipline.

Here’s a letter from First Things by one of my intellectual heroes, Stanley Hauerwas. For the last couple of years, I’ve copied it and mailed to some students with whom I’m close. I think it’s a wise piece that any student, or even their parents, could appreciate.

“The Christian religion,” wrote Robert Louis Wilken, “is inescapably ritualistic (one is received into the Church by a solemn washing with water), uncompromisingly moral (‘be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,’ said Jesus), and unapologetically intellectual (be ready to give a ‘reason for the hope that is in you,’ in the words of 1 Peter). Like all the major religions of the world, Christianity is more than a set of devotional practices and a moral code: it is also a way of thinking about God, about human beings, about the world and history.”

Ritualistic, moral, and intellectual: May these words, ones that Wilken uses to begin his beautiful book, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, be written on your soul as you begin college and mark your life—characterize and distinguish your life—for the next four years. Be faithful in worship. In America, going to college is one of those heavily mythologized events that everybody tells you will “change your life,” which is probably at least half true. So don’t be foolish and imagine that you can take a vacation from church.

Be uncompromisingly moral. Undergraduate life on college campuses tends in the direction of neopagan excess. Good kids from good families too often end up using their four years at college to get drunk and throw up on one another. Too often they do so on their way to the condom dispensers. What a waste! Not only because such behavior is self-destructive but also because living this way will prevent you from doing the intellectual work the Christian faith demands. Be deeply intellectual. We—that is, the Church—need you to do well in school. That may sound strange, because many who represent Christian values seem concerned primarily with how you conduct yourself while you are in college; they relegate the Christian part of being in college to what is done outside the classroom.

The Christian fact is very straightforward: To be a student is a calling. Your parents are setting up accounts to pay the bills, or you are scraping together your own resources and taking out loans, or a scholarship is making college possible. Whatever the practical source, the end result is the same. You are privileged to enter a time—four years!—during which your main job is to listen to lectures, attend seminars, go to labs, and read books.

It is an extraordinary gift. In a world of deep injustice and violence, a people exists that thinks some can be given time to study. We need you to take seriously the calling that is yours by virtue of going to college. You may well be thinking, “What ishe thinking? I’m just beginning my freshman year. I’m not being called to be a student. None of my peers thinks he or she is called to be a student. They’re going to college because it prepares you for life. I’m going to college so I can get a better job and have a better life than I’d have if I didn’t go to college. It’s not a calling.”

But you are a Christian. This means you cannot go to college just to get a better job. These days, people talk about college as an investment because they think of education as a bank account: You deposit the knowledge and expertise you’ve earned, and when it comes time to get a job, you make a withdrawal, putting all that stuff on a résumé and making money off the investment of your four years. Christians need jobs just like anybody else, but the years you spend as an undergraduate are like everything else in your life. They’re not yours to do with as you please. They’re Christ’s.

Christ’s call on you as a student is a calling to meet the needs of the Church, both for its own life and the life of the world. The Resurrection of Jesus, Wilken suggests, is not only the central fact of Christian worship but also the ground of all Christian thinking “about God, about human beings, about the world and history.” Somebody needs to do that thinking—and that means you.

Don’t underestimate how much the Church needs your mind. Remember your Bible-study class? Christians read Isaiah’s prophecy of a suffering servant as pointing to Christ. That seems obvious, but it’s not; or at least it wasn’t obvious to the Ethiopian eunuch to whom the Lord sent Philip to explain things. Christ is written everywhere, not only in the prophecies of the Old Testament but also in the pages of history and in the book of nature. The Church has been explaining, interpreting, and illuminating ever since it began. It takes an educated mind to do the Church’s work of thinking about and interpreting the world in light of Christ. Physics, sociology, French literary theory: All these and more—in fact, everything you study in college—is bathed in the light of Christ. It takes the eyes of faith to see that light, and it takes an educated mind to understand and articulate it.

There’s another dimension to the call of intellectual work. In the First Letter of Peter we read, “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (3:15). Not everybody believes. In fact, the contemporary American secular university is largely a place of unbelief. Thus, the Church has a job to do: to explain why belief in the risen Lord actually makes sense. There’s no one formula, no one argument, so don’t imagine you will find the magic defense against all objections. You can, however, offer the reasonable defense Peter asks for. You may at least make someone think twice before he rejects the risen Lord.

Anyway, defense isn’t the point. Lots of people feel lost because they imagine being a sophisticated, contemporary intellectual makes faith impossible. The Church wants to reach these people, but to do so requires an ambassador at home in the intellectual world. That’s you—or at least that’s what you can become if you do your work with enthusiasm. Share in a love of learning. It’s a worthy love in its own right, and it will allow you to be the leaven in the lump of academia.

So, yes, to be a student is to be called to serve the Church and the world. But always remember who serves what. Colleges focus on learning; as they do so, they can create the illusion that being smart and well educated is the be-all and end-all of life. You do not need to be educated to be a Christian. That’s obvious. After all, Christ is most visible to the world in the person who responds to his call of “Come, follow me.” I daresay St. Francis of Assisi was more important to the medieval Church than any intellectual. One of the most brilliant men in the history of the Church, St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan, said as much. But the Church needs some Christians to be educated, as St. Bonaventure also knew; this is why he taught at the University of Paris and ensured that, in their enthusiasm for the example of St. Francis, his brother Franciscans didn’t give up on education.

The best way to think about the relation between your calling as a student and the many other callings of Christians can be found in 1 Corinthians 12. In this letter Paul is dealing with a community in turmoil as various factions claim priority. It’s the same situation today. Pastors consider preaching and evangelizing the most important thing. Teachers consider education the most important thing. Social activists argue for the priority of making the world more just. Still others insist that internal spiritual renewal is the key to everything. St. Paul, however, reminds the Church at Corinth that it comprises a variety of gifts that serve to build up the Church’s common good. To one person is given wisdom, to others knowledge, to still others the work of healing, prophecy, and the discernment of the spirits. By all means honor those who are serving the Church in the ordained ministry, or through social action, or through spiritual direction. But remember: You are about to become a student—not a pastor, a social worker, or a spiritual director. Whatever you end up doing with your life, now is the time when you develop the intellectual skills the Church needs for the sake of building up the Body of Christ.

Your Christian calling as a student does not require you to become a theologian, at least not in the official sense of the word. Speaking as one whose job title is Professor of Theology, I certainly hope you will be attracted to the work of theology. These days—at least in the West, where the dominant intellectual trends have detached themselves from Christianity—the discipline of theology is in a world of hurt, often tempted by silly efforts to dress up the gospel in the latest academic fashions. So God knows we need all the help we can get.

But there is a wider sense of being a theologian, one that simply means thinking about what you are learning in light of Christ. This does not happen by making everything fit into Church doctrine or biblical preaching—that’s theology in the strict, official sense. Instead, to become a Christian scholar is more a matter of intention and desire, of bearing witness to Christ in the contemporary world of science, literature, and so forth.

You can’t do this on your own. You’ll need friends who major in physics and biology as well as in economics, psychology, philosophy, literature, and every other discipline. These friends can be teachers and fellow students, of course, but, for the most part, our intellectual friendships are channeled through books. C.S. Lewis has remained popular with Christian students for many good reasons, not the least of which is that he makes himself available to his readers as a trusted friend in Christ. That’s true for many other authors too. Get to know them.

Books, moreover, are often the way in which our friendships with our fellow students and teachers begin and in which these friendships become cemented. I’m not a big fan of Francis Schaeffer, but he can be a point of contact—something to agree with or argue about. The same is true for all writers who tackle big questions. Read Plato, Aristotle, Hume, and John Stuart Mill, and not just because you might learn something. Read them because doing so will provide a sharpness and depth to your conversations. To a great extent, becoming an educated person means adding lots of layers to your relationships. Sure, going to the big football game or having a beer (legally) with your buddies should be fun on its own terms, but it’s also a reality ripe for analysis, discussion, and conversation. If you read Mary Douglas or Claude Levi-Strauss, you’ll have something to say about the rituals of American sports. And if you read Jane Austen or T.S. Eliot, you’ll find you see conversations with friends, particularly while sharing a meal, in new ways. And, of course, you cannot read enough Trollope. Think of books as the fine threads of a spider’s web. They link and connect.

This is especially true for your relationships with your teachers. You are not likely to become buddies with your teachers. They tend to be intimidating. But you can become intellectual friends, and this will most likely happen if you’ve read some of the same books. This is even true for science professors. You’re unlikely to engage a physics professor in an interesting conversation about subatomic particles. As a freshman you don’t know enough. But read C.P. Snow’s book The Two Cultures, and I’ll bet your physics teacher will want to know what you’re thinking. Books are touchstones, common points of reference. They are the water in which our minds swim.

You cannot and should not try to avoid being identified as an intellectual. I confess I am not altogether happy with the word intellectual as a descriptor for those who are committed to the work of the university. The word is often associated with people who betray a kind of self-indulgence, an air that they do not need to justify why they do what they do. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is the dogma used to justify such an understanding of what it means to be an intellectual. But if you’re clear about your calling as a student, you can avoid this temptation. You are called to the life of the mind to be of service to the gospel and the Church. Don’t resist this call just because others are misusing it.

Fulfilling your calling as a Christian student won’t be easy. It’s not easy for anyone who is serious about the intellectual life, Christian or not. The curricula of many colleges and universities may seem, and in fact may be, chaotic. Many schools have no particular expectations. You check a few general-education boxes—a writing course, perhaps, and some general distributional requirements—and then do as you please. Moreover, there is no guarantee that you will be encouraged to read. Some classes, even in the humanities, are based on textbooks that chop up classic texts into little snippets. You cannot become friends with an author by reading half a dozen pages. Finally, and perhaps worse because insidious, there is a strange anti-intellectualism abroad in academia. Some professors have convinced themselves that all knowledge is just political power dressed up in fancy language, or that books and ideas are simply ideological weapons in the quest for domination. Christians, of all people, should recognize that what is known and how it is known produce and reproduce power relations that are unjust, but this does not mean all questions of truth must be abandoned. As I said, it won’t be easy.

You owe it to yourself and to the Church not to let the incoherence, laziness, and self-critical excesses of the contemporary university demoralize you. Be sure not to let these failures become an excuse for you to avoid an education—a Christian education. Although some universities make it quite easy to avoid being well educated, I think you will find that every university or college has teachers who deserve the titles they’ve been given. Your task is to find them.

But how can you find the best teachers? There are no set principles, but I can suggest some guidelines. First, ask around. Are there professors who have reputations as intellectual mentors of Christian students? You’re eighteen. You don’t need substitute parents—or, at least, you don’t need parents who think you are still twelve. But you do need reliable guides. So rearrange your schedule to take the professor who teaches Dante with sensitivity to the profound theological vision of that great poet. You may end up disagreeing, both with the professor and with Dante, but you’ll learn how to think as a Christian.

Also, go to the bookstore at the beginning of the term to see which professors assign books—and I mean real books, not textbooks. Textbooks can play a legitimate role in some disciplines, but not in all, and never at all levels. You want to find the teachers who have intellectual friends, as it were, and who want to share those friends with their students. If a professor has a course outline that gives two or three weeks to reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, you can reasonably hope that he thinks of St. Augustine as someone he knows (or wants to know) and as someone he wants to share with students.

The best teachers for a Christian student aren’t always Christians. In fact, a certain kind of Christian teacher can lead you astray. It’s not easy to see the truth of Christ in modern science or contemporary critical theory, for example. The temptation is to compartmentalize, to assign your faith to the heart, perhaps, and then carry on with your academic work. Some professors have become very comfortable with this compartmentalization, so be careful. By all means take spiritual encouragement wherever you can get it; these sorts of professors can be helpful in that regard. But don’t compartmentalize, because that’s basically putting your Christian faith outside of your work as a student.

Your calling is to be a Christian student. The Christian part and the student part are inseparable. It will be hard and frustrating because you won’t see how the two go together. Nobody does, at least not in the sense of having worked it all out. But you need to remember what Christ said: “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” However uncertain we are about how, we know that being a Christian goes with being a student (and a teacher).

Although many professors are not Christians (at some schools, most aren’t), many professors have a piety especially relevant to the academic life. One, for example, might be committed to the intrinsic importance of knowing Wordsworth’s poetry, while another works at getting the chemistry experiment right. These professors convey a spirit of devotion. Their intellectual lives serve the subject matter rather than treating it as information to be mastered or, worse, a dead body of knowledge to be conveyed to students. English literature and modern science do not exist for their own sakes, and the university doesn’t raise money for the sake of professors’ careers. For these professors, the educational system exists for the sake of their disciplines, which they willingly serve. This spirit of devotion is not the same as Christian faith, but it can help shape your young intellectual desires and impulses in the right way by reminding you that your job as a student is to serve and not to be served. College isn’t for you; it’s for your Christian calling as an intellectual.

Eventually, you will no longer be a freshman, and American undergraduate education will force you to begin to specialize. This will present dangers as well as opportunities. You will be tempted to choose a major that will give you a sense of coherence. But be careful your major does not narrow you in the wrong way. It’s true, for example, that modern psychology provides powerful insights into the human condition, but don’t allow your increasing expertise to lure you into illusions of mastery. Continue reading broadly. It may seem that the more you know about less and less, the smarter you’ve become; after all, you now know so much more about psychology! But, in truth, the more you know about less and less should teach you humility. After a couple of years spent taking advanced courses in modern European history, you’ll know more about the French Revolution, but, if you’re self-reflective, you’ll also know how much work it takes to know anything well. And there’s so much more to know about reality than modern European history.

To combat a tendency toward the complacency that comes from mastering a discipline, it is particularly important that you gain historical insight into the practice of your discipline. For example, I have nothing but high regard for those disciplines we group under the somewhat misleading category “the sciences.” Too often, though, students have no idea how and why the scientific fields’ research agendas developed into their current form of practice. To go back and read Isaac Newton can be a bit of a shock, because he interwove his scientific analysis with theological arguments. You shouldn’t take this as a mandate for doing the same thing in the twenty-first century. It should, however, make you realize that modern science has profound metaphysical and theological dimensions that have to be cordoned off, perhaps for good reasons. Or perhaps not. The point is that knowing the history of your discipline will, inevitably, broaden the kinds of questions you ask and force you to read to be an intellectual rather than just a specialist.

It is also important that you not accept as a given the categorizations that dominate the contemporary university. For example, if you read Dante, you probably will do so in the English department. The English department has claimed Dante because it considers the Inferno “literature.” Dante obviously was a poet, and one of the most influential, but he also was a theologian, and we fail to do him justice if we ignore that quite specific theological convictions, some controversial in his own day and in ours as well, were at the center of his life and work. The same can be said for the theology department, which often imagines that a particular form of scholastic and philosophically shaped reflection defines the discipline even as the departmental theologians ignore the mystical traditions as well as the traditions of biblical commentary.

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Stanley Hauerwas is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School.