9-24-17 “The Grown Up Church” 3rd in the "There Is UNITY in the CommUNITY" series
When I was a kid, in the 1960s and early 70s, I couldn’t wait to grow up. In elementary school I couldn’t wait to get to Junior High then High School.
When I was in 5th grade and we were signing up for band I wanted to play drums, but they wouldn’t start kids on drums until 7th grade and I didn’t want to wait to start band, so I played trumpet instead. I couldn’t wait to turn 13 so I would be a teenager, which meant I could date. I couldn’t wait to turn 15 so I could get my learner’s permit to learn to drive, and after that I couldn’t wait until I was 16 years, one month, and one day (the law in Indiana at the time) to get my driver’s license. And once I was in high school I couldn’t wait to graduate and go to college. I couldn’t wait to leave my podunk little home town and get away, on my own. I simply couldn’t wait to grow up! And now that I am - I just wish things would slow down!
But that was typical of kids back then, at least of the kids in my hometown, of my generation. We were anxious to grow up, to become adults, to have our independence, to make our own decisions. We looked forward to moving out of our parents’ home, having our own job and our own money, to gaining some degree of freedom, to experimenting with “adult beverages, substances, and activities.” But boy, have the times changed. In a study published in the journal Child Development that was released on Tuesday of this week, researchers found that “the percentage of adolescents in the U.S. who have a driver’s license, who have tried alcohol, who date, and who work for pay has plummeted since 1976, with the most precipitous decrease in the last decade.” And the study indicated that the decline appeared across racial, geographic, and socioeconomic lines, and in rural, urban, and suburban areas.
And the study, as reported in the Washington Post, said that “to be sure, more than half of teens still engage in these activities, but the majorities have slimmed considerably. Between 1976 and 1979, 86 percent of high school senior and had gone on a date; between 2010 and 2015 only 63 percent had, the study found. During the same period, the portion who had ever earned money from working plunged from 76 to 55 percent. And the portion who had tried alcohol plummeted from 93 percent between 1976 and 1979 to 67 percent between 2010 and 2016. And though not part of this study, teens have also reported a similar decline in sexual activity, dropping from 54% who reported having had sex in 1991 to 41% in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
So the gist of the study results are that kids are “growing up,” at least by those measures, more slowly than they used to. And one of the reasons cited for this is that kids today, for the most part, don’t have to do these things. In those earlier times, based on economics, college accessibility, and other factors, there was a “survival instinct” that drove kids to earlier development. The uncertainty of economics, the fear of war, nuclear annihilation, and other factors led young people to frame their life trajectory in a way that meant striving for independence amidst the uncertainty of what lay before them.
In earlier times, the article says, “the goal was survival, not violin lessons by age 5.” In that model, it suggests, “a teenage boy might be thinking more seriously about marriage, and driving a car and working for pay would be more important for establishing value as a potential mate based on procurement of resources,” the study said.
And the study goes on to say that researchers were able to eliminate what might seem like obvious answers to this slowing down - the internet, homework, extracurricular activities - suggesting instead that smaller family sizes and a sense of the importance of a more nurturing home environment contributed greatly. In addition, in many cities with greater availability of bike paths, buses, and ride sharing many teens don’t see the need to drive. With a greater emphasis on getting an education and exploring life before committing to a relationship and eventually children, dating seriously in high school seems much less important or even practical to many kids today. In effect, the study says, adolescents have “remodeled their brains” when it comes to what have been looked at historically as “rites of passage” activities among teenagers. So maybe it’s not that they’re growing up more slowly than many of us did, maybe it’s that they’re growing up differently.
Confirmation is a rite of passage within the church.
It’s that time in our spiritual growth progression when we begin to think independently of and beyond the Bible stories we learned in Sunday School as children. It is, for many young people, the time when their faith and beliefs begin to go through the same kinds of churning and questioning that all the other aspects of their lives, not unlike those mentioned earlier, are subject to as well. So, rather than coming out of the confirmation process as fully indoctrinated little Christians marching to an orthodox drummer, most youth come out of it, if it’s a healthy process, with as many or even more questions. Confirmation is more a process of helping the youth to understand how to think about their faith, how to apply their faith in their lives, than it is telling them what they must think or believe. And it’s done in an atmosphere of love and support, where all questions are fair game, and where uncertainty and differing ideas are welcomed and explored. And thinking back to the image I gave you about redwood groves a couple of weeks ago, and how these mighty trees survive with very shallow root systems because of how a grove of trees supports one another by “holding hands” underground, this process of discipleship growth that is Confirmation takes place within a community - this community - that covenants with the confirmands and with one another to hold each other up, to provide love, support, and nurture for one another as part of a church family.
Paul’s message to the church at Ephesus in today’s reading is also about how we grow up, and the need for Christians and for the church to grow up.
And like the root network of the sequoia trees, he says that it takes all kinds of people and gifts and support for individual Christians and for the church as a whole to grow up in a healthy and sustainable way.
Just as a single redwood cannot exist outside of the grove because of the lack of support provided by its own roots, no Christian, no church can function as God intended it to on its own, using only its own gifts and skills, outside of community. Paul wrote in today’s reading,
11 [God] gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. 12 [God’s] purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ 13 until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ.
A church consisting of all apostles, or all prophets, or all evangelists, would be neither healthy nor sustainable. And you can’t begin to imagine what a church made up of all pastors would be like! No, God calls different people together into the body of Christ the church, as Paul said, “for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we reach the unity of faith…God’s goal is for us to become mature adults…” That is, God is calling us to grow up.
Often, when we think about “church” and “growth,” we focus on the numbers; what’s the worship attendance, how many members are there, how many baptisms, confirmands, professions of faith, etc. have there been. And while I’m not suggesting that those things aren’t important I am saying they’re not the most important. Why? Because boosting attendance can be done with gimmicks. I shared with you at Easter an advertisement I saw for a church that held a drawing to give away a flat screen TV during worship on Easter Sunday.
Now, I’m sure they had higher than normal attendance that Sunday, and maybe even a few of them liked what they saw and came back, but that is not, I think you would agree, a growth strategy built on a foundation of integrity. That’s a gimmick. If increasing average worship attendance is really important to a congregation, which it should be, there are two very easy things a congregation can do and the first is quite simple: invite someone to church. If every person in the congregation brought one other person, worship attendance would double, would it not? And the second thing that would increase average worship attendance, is for everyone who attends to attend more frequently. If a person attends worship on average, half the Sundays in a year and that person increased their rate of attendance to three fourths of the Sunday, the average worship attendance would increase. So, growth in numbers can be achieved with gimmicks, by inviting, or by attending more regularly, but that doesn’t equate to the spiritual growth that Paul is talking about here. I have a sign above my desk of a quote I read some time ago that reads, “Instead of focusing on getting BIGGER, focus on getting BETTER, then the community will demand that you get BIGGER!”
The kind of growth that makes us better at what we do is spiritual growth, growth in faith and discipleship.
And how do we grow in faith and discipleship?
How do we get better at anything? We practice.
By practicing spiritual disciplines such as prayer, studying scripture, meditation, serving others, and giving. In the membership vows that we all took and that Jon and Wesley just said for the first time, we promise to support the church - that is, one another - with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. That’s what we said we would do.
Have you ever gone to a gym to begin a workout regimen only to be intimidated by all the chiseled and sculpted bodies all around you? It’s a real challenge and very humbling to go into that situation and be surrounded by all those “beautiful bodies.” But those people worked hard to get to that point, they were disciplined, and even after they achieved that level of health and fitness that, honestly, most of us will never get to, they keep going, they keep investing their time and energy into it in order to maintain that level. If we want to grow bigger muscles then personal trainers will tell us that we must exercise those muscles, we must lift weights, feed the muscle tissues with protein, and then let them rest and recover. And then do it all over again. If we want to grow in our knowledge of something, we have to invest time and energy into reading and researching that subject. If we want to grow in our faith, we have to invest our time and our talents, our prayers and our gifts, into that growth, on an ongoing basis and for more than an hour or so on Sundays.
And it’s the church, the body of Christ, that surrounds us with people to support us in that journey, that quest.
But it’s not easy. Like most people who go to the gym, the enthusiasm lasts a little while but then we quit. Or like a new convert in the church, we’re into everything initially, but soon burn out. Or the opposite, we’ve been in the church a long time and take the attitude, “I’ve done my share, it’s somebody else’s turn.” And in the church, as in the gym or in life, we sometimes tend to focus on what we don’t like rather than what will make us stronger: “I don’t like lifting weights,” “I don’t like getting sweaty,” “I don’t like that music,” or “I didn’t like that sermon.” We can always find something, something that we don’t like or that isn’t our preference to justify not taking the steps needed to improve or to grow can’t we?
It’s more helpful, healthy, and holy to work alongside others toward creating a community that is becoming more Christlike, a body that is stronger, a people in love with God and one another. This is the necessary work for a maturing church. But getting there requires us to change how we do things sometimes, to shift our thinking, to take on new practices.
Shifting our way of thinking about our ministry in the church includes first adopting the conviction that the ministry belongs to all of us and not just a few.
And second, it requires the understanding that our focus is most helpfully placed on growth and maturity. But a third essential concept from Ephesians 4 is our continuing need for conversion, that is, our continued growing up. Whether your initial conversion to Christianity came in what is often called a “Road to Damascus” moment, that is, a sudden all at once conversion moment that you can pin to a specific day in your life, or whether it was more of a “Road to Emmaus” process, a gradual conversion over time as suggested by the story of two disciples who came to gradually understand who Jesus was while walking on the road to Emmaus following the crucifixion, either way it was a conversion.
And a conversion is, by definition, a call to leave the old life behind, and to enter into a new world. It’s the same idea expressed in the idea of repentance, of turning our life in a new direction. In fact, we need to repent, to convert, on a regular basis because it’s very difficult to leave the old life behind in its entirety.
Conversion is work God does within us, and we resist it! The grace of God that comes to us by faith is a work of continuing, ongoing conversion. This new life is described in all too specific language near the end of the fourth chapter of Ephesians: “put away your former way of life, your obsessions with sex and money; be renewed, live faithfully, be holy, that is, live differently from the world; speak the truth in love in a way that shows your love for others; be honest, don’t steal, work hard, so that you will have resources to help others; forgive others, because after all Christ has forgiven you.”
This is a rich description of a new life, and a vivid reminder of our need for ongoing conversion. So when Paul calls us to grow up, he’s inviting us to a lifelong conversion process of growth, of investment of ourselves and our lives into becoming more Christ-like in how we are, how we think, how we act. Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, by feeding all God’s children, body, mind, and soul. And the first discipleship conversion we’re called to make is our own, surrounded by other disciples who are on the same journey - those other redwoods in our grove whose underground roots “hold hands” with our own for mutual support.
And to do that we have to give up something, something near and dear to us: our pride. And you thought I was going to say your money didn’t you? No, our love of money is just a symptom - pride is the ultimate sin that keeps us from fully converting. In the Christian tradition, pride is considered the deadliest sin.
Pride is our inability to ask for help. Pride is our refusal to accept a gift. Pride is our rejection of God. Like idolatry, it’s placing something else - ego, fear, money, possessions - ahead of God. And to overcome pride requires our surrender: surrender to God, to God’s grace, to God’s promises, to God’s love.
The removal of pride makes a space for something else, something greater: “I pray,” Paul said, “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” Christ takes the place of pride in our lives. The love of self gives way to the cross-shaped love of God and neighbor. The illusion of wanting to be in control, or of thinking we’re in control, is replaced by the image of the One “who loved [us] and gave himself for [us]” (Galatians 2:20). The arrogance of desiring first place is corrected by the great reversal of the gospel, where the last are now first.
In my pride, I reject the natural limits and boundaries that shape my life.
In love, I give thanks for circumstances that ground me. In love, I praise God for creation and my place in it. In pride, we claim more knowledge than we actually possess. In humility, we stand before a mystery. And Paul continues, “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” We bow, finally, before a mystery. God creates, redeems, sustains, and sanctifies the world, that we might all be united in one faith, one hope, and one Lord.
As we become more grounded, more humble, more Christ-like in how we love and care for one another, God draws near us. We come before God in prayer and in worship, in adoration and praise. And we pray for the gift of love. We love, because God first loved us.
The mission God gives belongs to all of us, and effective participation in the mission will require the God-given gifts that each one of us have been granted. God is calling us to grow up, to become more like Christ, as we are strengthened to be his body, the church. We do that with prayer, for one another, for our mission and ministries, and for our community. We do that through our presence, by being here “in the grove” where our roots provide support for others when they need it and where their roots support us. We do it with our gifts, when we give not out of what is left over but when we, out of an understanding of and appreciation for all that God has done for us, seek to give back ten percent of our income from the first fruits to support the church and its work as the hands and feet of Christ. We do that with our service, when we give of our time serving to those ministries that align with the vision that God has given us. And we do that with our witness, when our cross-shaped lives serve as a testimony to the presence of God and the growth in our faith, and when we invite others into the same relationship and growth that have shaped and guided us. That is what Paul means when he calls us to grow up, to be the grown up church.
The Christian life is a process of ongoing lifelong conversion. We’re invited to leave the old life behind and enter a new world. God gives us everything we need to not only survive but to thrive in that new world. And God surrounds us with a grove of redwoods who support us on the journey just as we support them. The commitments we make today, much like the commitments to the faith that these two young men have made in our presence today, bear witness to the covenant we make with God and with one another, to grow in our faith, and to grow in our hope, as we seek to grow with our Lord. Amen.