Monday, November 12, 2007

Reaching Young Adults

In 1994, a commission convened by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, with Joseph A. Califano, Jr. as chair, issued a rather alarmist report, "Rethinking Rites of Passage: Substance Abuse on America's Campuses." The report invented the phrase “binge drinking.” It noted that one in three college students drinks primarily to get drunk. In a curious perversion of the Women's Movement, the number of women who reported drinking to get drunk more than tripled between 1977 and 1993, a rate now equal to that of men. The Califano report noted that college students spend 5.5 billion dollars a year on alcohol, more than on all other beverages and their books combined. The average student spends $446 per student on alcohol per year, far exceeding the per capita expenditure for the college library. Not surprisingly, the beer industry targets young adults as its best hope for increasing sales. These trends have continued unabated. Thus NCAA basketball is brought to us by Anheuser Busch.

For youth off campus, the picture is equally disturbing. The rate of violent crimes by youth in the United States rose by 25 percent over the past decade. The teen-age suicide rate has tripled over the past three decades. Suicide is the second leading cause of death of 15-to-19-year-olds. The image of our nation's best and brightest, mindlessly consuming large amounts of alcohol, is not an attractive one, yet it is an image which accurately portrays an important aspect of today's young adults.

I have sometimes called today's Twenty-Something crowd "The Abandoned Generation". Today's young adults have the dubious distinction of being our nation's most aborted generation. After scores of interviews with them, Susan Litwin called them "The Postponed Generation," those children of the children of the Sixties who were raised by parents so uncertain of their own values that they dared not attempt to pass on values to their young.

Here is the way in which Yale's Allan Bloom put the problem:

... the souls of young people are in a condition like that of the first men in
the state of nature -- spiritually unclad, unconnected, isolated, with no
inherited or unconditional connection with anything or anyone. They can be
anything they want to be, but they have no particular reason to want to be
anything in particular.

We have therefore made “reaching a new generation of Christians” one of our Conference priorities. The good news is that many of these young people are willing to listen, amazingly willing to sit still and to focus if we are bold enough to speak. For what could a preacher ask but that? My student generation of the Sixties was unable to hear words spoken by anyone over Thirty. Our parents lied to us about Vietnam; they failed to be straight with us about Civil Rights.

I have found that today's "Abandoned Generation" brings a new curiosity and openness to the gospel as well as a willingness to hear what their elders have to say, if we will speak directly to them. Therefore leaders of the church need to revise some of our conventional wisdom about the imperviousness of young adult hearts to the gospel. Thomas G. Long, who led this year’s Bishop’s Convocation, says it well:

...There is a growing recognition that it is not enough for the community of
faith to wait around for the "boomers" to drift back. ....Conventional wisdom
holds that there are three broad phases in religious commitment: There is
childhood, a pliable and receptive age religious instruction can and should be
given; there is mature adulthood, when people, given the right incentives, can
be persuaded to take on the responsibilities of institutional church life. In
between childhood and adulthood, there is the vast wasteland of adolescence and
young adulthood, a time when most people wander, or run away from their
religious roots. The most that a community of faith can do in this middle period
is to wait patiently, to leave people alone in their season of rebellion,
smiling with the knowledge that, by the time these rebels arrive at their
thirties, they will probably be back in the pews and may well be heading up the
Christian education committee.

This conventional wisdom is wrong....

Long feels that the contemporary church must take the religious wanderings of young adults with new seriousness, that the time is ripe for new strategies of evangelization and Christian education of a generation who, having been left to their own devices, religiously speaking, now needs to be addressed by the church.

Can we see the needs and problems of this generation of young adults as an invitation to proclaim the gospel with boldness, to beckon them toward a new world named the Kingdom of God? If we can, we shall discover this generation as a marvelous opportunity for gospel proclamation.

William H. Willimon

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

On NOT Reaching Our Culture Through Our Preaching

Recently I led a group of pastors in a discussion about our preaching. When I asked the pastors, "What areas would you like help with in your preaching?" most of them responded with, "I want help in making connection with my listeners, relating the gospel to their everyday lives."

"I want to preach sermons which really hit my people where they live."

In sum, these pastors wanted to preach in a way that addressed their culture. There was a time when I would have agreed that this was one of the primary purposes of Christian preaching--to relate the gospel to contemporary culture. However, I have come to question this way of construing the task of Christian preaching.

Sometimes in leaning over to speak to the modern world, I fear that we may have fallen in! When, in our sermons, we sought to use our sermons to build a bridge from the old world of the Bible to the new modern world, the traffic was only moving in one direction on that interpretive bridge. It was always the modern world rummaging about in Scripture, saying things like "This relates to me," or, "I'm sorry, this is really impractical," or, "I really can't make sense out of that." It was always the modern world telling the Bible what's what.

I don't believe that the Bible wants to "speak to the modern world." Rather, I think the Bible wants to change, convert the modern world.

The modern world is not only the realm of the telephone, the telegraph, and allegedly "critical thinking," this world is also the habitat of Auschwitz, two of the bloodiest wars of history, and assorted totalitarian schemes which have consumed the lives of millions. Why would our preaching want to be comprehensible to that world?

Too often Christians have treated the modern world as if it is an unalterable fact, a reality to which we were obligated to adjust and adapt, rather than a point of view with which we might argue.

Fortunately, modern ways of knowing and thinking are gradually losing their privileged status in Western thought. We are realizing that modernity is only one way of describing what is going on in the world. Humanity has received many gifts from modern, scientific, technological ways of thinking. However, as we ended the twentieth century, we realized that modernity was not without its loses.

Rather than reaching out to speak to our culture, I think our time as preachers is better spent inculturating Twenty First Century Americans into that culture which is called church. There is no way that I can crank the gospel down to the level where any American can walk in off the street and know what it is all about within fifteen minutes. One can't even do that with baseball! You have to learn the vocabulary, the rules, and the culture in order to understand it. Being in church is something at least as different as baseball.

Forming the church through our speech, laying on contemporary Christians the stories, images, and practices which make us disciples is our most challenging task as preachers.

The point is not to speak to the culture. The point is to change it. God's appointed means of producing change is called church. God's typical way of producing church is called preaching.

William H. Willimon