Our sermon series has spent a lot of time exploring why people walk away from the Church. It has been pretty heavy on numbers and statistics, but not today. Because I would argue that the most depressing part is not numbers, but names. Not statistics, but stories. Because my guess is that for each of those statistics, we probably know someone who fits in that category.
Think about someone you know who went to Sunday school every week, to Vacation Bible School every summer, to church camp and gave their life to Jesus…who now thinks that the Church is pointless.
Think about someone who you can remember their face when they come up out of the waters of baptism…who now thinks it was all a mistake.
Think about someone in your family who is hurting and could use a place with people who care and support one another in grace…who will not look for it in a Christian church if their life depended on it.
And it cuts us to the heart.
For one final week, we revisit an article from Sam Eaton. Because he says it’s our fault. In his article explaining why Millennials no longer come to church, he gives 12 reasons:
- Nobody’s Listening to Us
- We’re Sick of Hearing About Values & Mission Statements
- Helping the Poor Isn’t a Priority
- We’re Tired of You Blaming the Culture
- Until the church finds a way to be radically kinder and more compassionatethan the world at large, we tell outsiders they’re better off on their own.
- Distrust & Misallocation of Resources
- We Want to Be Mentored, Not Preached At
- We Want to Feel Valued
- We Want You to Talk to Us About Controversial Issues (Because No One Is)
- It’s time to focus on changing the public perception of the church within the community.
- Stop Talking About Us (Unless You’re Actually Going to Do Something)
- You’re Failing to Adapt
I have referred to several over the weeks, but thought we should see them all at once. What does that list make you feel? Hurt? Guilty? Angry? Anyone tired of hearing about Sam Eaton and millennials?
Pretty quickly, a list like this will start folks pointing fingers:
- Conservatives will say “progressive Christianity is to blame…we have fallen away from our standards.”
- Or liberals will say “it’s those right-wing evangelicals…it’s the Republicans…it’s Trump! They are giving the church a bad name and running people out of the church with their hate!”
- Or younger generations will say “it’s the old people in church…they just don’t listen to us!”
- Or older generations will say, “young people today just need to quit being so oversensitive and lazy; if they would listen to us, they would know what life is all about!”
And we just spin our wheels.
Maybe Peter can be the one to get us out of the ditch. Today’s passage is from Acts 2, which you may recognize as the chapter where we find the story of the Pentecost. The lectionary gets weird this time of year. A few weeks ago, we celebrated Easter. In a couple more weeks, we will celebrate Pentecost. But in between, there is this kind of time warp where we read this passages about what happens after Pentecost, without having read the actual story of the coming of the Spirit.
So, we have to put ourselves in the right timeline. It is the Pentecost festival. The streets are jammed with pilgrims from around the world, coming to celebrate the harvest and thanksgiving for God’s bounty. The Holy Spirit has just come upon the disciples and they have spoken to these pilgrims in their own languages. And then Peter gets everyone’s attention and preaches this long sermon. His text is Joel and the Psalms. He preaches about Jesus and names him as the Messiah that they have been waiting for. He tells them that they are all complicit in the death of Christ.
And then, at the end, is his altar call:
36 Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah,[h] this Jesus whom you crucified.”
37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers,[i] what should we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.
Now that’s an altar call! Luke tells us that they were “cut to the heart.” The Greek implies emotional grief so deep it brings them to a place of physical pain. Out of that pain comes a heartfelt response: “what should we do?”
It’s the moment every preacher prays for!
And Peter is ready. He knows exactly what to say…“Repent and be baptized!” That word – repent – has been used on sandwich boards and billboards enough to become a joke. But the original Greek word is a profound and complex one. Let’s unpack it a little.
First, in this passage, it is plural. Repentance and salvation is rarely considered an individual event in the Bible…it is always shared in community. Sin is shared; our brokenness is caught up with one another. Repentance is shared; we seek transformation together. Salvation is shared; our saving grace is caught up with one another. The whole process is plural. In other words, Peter tells them, “Y’all repent.”
Secondly, “repentance” implies more than just acknowledging guilt. More than just feeling bad about something that happened. Repentance is about thinking in a new way, about reorienting oneself in mind and behavior. It is about a cognitive restructuring. I will reference Brian McLaren again, this time from a more recent book: The Great Spiritual Migration. He says, “As we all know, conversion involves repentance – a radical rethinking. It includes remorse – for harm done in the name of our faith. But conversion means more than being sorry; it means becoming different. That difference won’t change our essential identity; it’s not about erasing our hard drive and starting from scratch. But it will mean learning to live life in a new way.” Peter called them to a new way of thinking and a new way of living.
Finally, repentance means that you focus on the promise and not the failure. Remember who this is. This is the guy who failed Jesus personally, three times denying he even knew him. He now says this: “repent and be baptized so that your sins will be forgiven and you will receive the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away.” This promise of forgiveness and holy power is the restoration that the Pentecost listeners are looking for us. They are “cut to the heart” – broken and isolated. And the only thing that will bring them peace and healing is reconciliation with God and all of God’s children. But that is exactly what they will get, preaches Peter. For God is a God of forgiveness, of restarts, of “new every morning.” Of power. Of promise.
Christians have a horrible track record on this, because they have ever since focused on the failure. Peter’s sermon has been the ammunition for generations of anti-Semitism, including the Holocaust. After all, if the Jews were the ones that killed Jesus, the rationale goes, then they get what they deserve. But, of course, besides being horrible logic, it also completely misses the point. Peter was blaming the Jews – and the Romans who were just as complicit – as a Jew. He was not blaming another group, especially a minority group. He was a Jew, speaking to Jews. This was in-house communication. This was Martin Luther, calling the Church to account by nailing the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Door. This was Sam Eaton, a life-long Christian who compares himself to Ned Flanders, begging the Church to change its ways. Peter was talking to those who had taught him and loved him and cared for him, pleading with them to see that the Jesus that they rejected was actually the fulfillment of everything that they had been looking for.
So Peter delivers this heartfelt sermon about the Jesus that he loved to the people who he wanted to share that love. He calls them to repent…to a plural repentance, to a racial re-thinking, to focus on the promise, and not the failure.
May his sermon reach our hears, as well! I think we could take Peter’s sermon and drop it into our context today.
First, we need to hear a “Y’all repent.” In the plural. We are in this together. It is absolutely ridiculous to try and blame and pick at each other. To blame the younger generation or the older generation…or the conservatives or the liberals…or the Baptists or the Methodists or the Catholics…doesn’t make much sense. We are all in this together. For we must repent as the universal Church for the ways that we have made Church about us and not about the people that God wants to reach. We must repent for the ways that we roll our eyes at people like Eaton and tell him, “listen here, kid, this is my Church…love it or leave it.” We must be “cut to the heart” for those who have been hurt by the Church. And we must cry aloud to God, “what should we do?”
Second, our repentance must be a new way of thinking. McLaren calls the church of today to repent. He calls us to a migration – a plural and radical transformation of the Church that moves us from rigid defenders of a set of abstract principles to what he calls “Church as a school of love.” We migrate from “teaching correct beliefs to practicing the way of love that Jesus taught.” In this migration, Church becomes the place where our minds and our lives are transformed to learn and teach love. Our minds are transformed in repentance. We learn a new way to think. A new way to be.
And finally, we focus on the promise and not the failure. We have used this line from Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.” Sometimes, it’s necessary to use words! Sometimes, the words that we use make all the difference. Even Eaton, who borders on pretty blame-y in his article, goes out of his way to suggest constructive remedies for each of these. He knows that he can be part of the solution instead of just whining about the problem:
- Create regular outlets to discover the needs of young adults both inside AND outside the church.
- We’re not impressed with the hours you brag about spending behind closed doors wrestling with Christianese words on a paper. We’re impressed with actions and service.
- Create group serve dates once a month where anyone can show up and make a difference (and, oh yeah, they’ll also meet new people).
- Put the end times rhetoric to rest and focus on real solutions and real impact in our immediate community.
- Stop placing blame on individuals who struggle to get connected. For some people, especially those that are shy or struggle with anxiety, putting yourself out there even just once might be an overwhelming task. We have to find ways to bridge that gap.
- Go out of your way to make all financial records readily accessible. Earn our trust so we can give with confidence.
- Ask the older generation to be intentional with the millennials in your church.
- Go out of your way to thank the people who are giving so much of their life to the church.
- Create real and relevant space for young adults to learn, grow and be vulnerable.
- Call the local government and schools to ask what their needs are.
- Stop speaking in abstract sound bites and make a tangible plan for how to reach millennials.
- Look at the data and take a risk for goodness sake. We can’t keep trying the same things and just wish that millennials magically wander through the door.
We have to focus on the promise and not the failure. On God’s forgiveness and not our sins.
And that is why I am here. Not just here in this congregation, but here…in the (“Big-C”) Church. I think I connect with Eaton because I have seen the dark underbelly of the Church. Many of you know that when I was in college, my father was asked to resign his position as pastor by a congregation that was run by one family who simply decided he had to go. I saw my father and my family ravaged by the Church, and believe that no one would have blamed me if I walked away and never came back. Yet, here I am. And I even signed up for the same tour of duty that ravaged my family.
- It was here that I was born, and here that I was born again.
- It was here that I was dedicated, and here that we dedicated our children.
- It was here that I was baptized, and here that I baptized my children.
- It was here that I was married, here that I came back to, and here that I chose to stay.
- It is here that I give my life and time and money.
- It is here that I am cut to the heart, because I know that so many of all generations do not find this place to be a place and a people of love and forgiveness as I have.
- And it is here that I cry aloud, “what should we do?” as I repent with sisters and brothers.
- It is here that I receive God’s forgiveness once again.
A promise of holy power. And a promise of wide-ranging scope: “for you, for your children, and for those who are far away.” I wrote my first draft of the sermon on the day that I said goodbye to our Johnnie Appleseed children. It was graduation week this week, so I went in to say goodbye. On their last day, I read Scuffy the Little Tugboat to them – one of my favorites when I was their age – and we made designs with little plastic buttons on little plastic squares. One of them had a pretty white and green pattern. Another said that she had a Jayhawk with red and blue. I started a pattern with my two favorite colors: orange and blue, but realized that I would not have enough buttons to fill my square. That’s when the children started digging in the box for more. “Here, I found an orange. Here’s a blue!” But it still wasn’t enough. So they began to take buttons off of their squares – “Here, you can have my blues. I’ll share my orange with you!” They filled my square and filled my heart. And I was reminded once again that Church can be a school of love.
“The promise is for you, for your children, and for those far away.”
May it be so.