Predicting the future is an effort best left to those who claim to have special powers. That would not be me. Looking out beyond the present seems to be a relative waste of time to me. Perhaps if someone actually had a crystal ball or the ability to see beyond this moment, life might have a different meaning. Things that are at the present assumptions might be proven to be frivolous or maybe a realized certainty. The very best any of us can do is guess, and that is what I will do concerning a specific happening within organized religion.
With the current trend within the millennial generation, there is a growing absence of young people in many congregations. That in itself is bothersome. Sunday after Sunday as I travel between mainline churches for my work, my shoulders sink as I look around and see so few young adults or youth in these faithful congregations. As a senior adult myself, I join the majority of parishioners who make up the participants, more or less following worship as we have known it for decades. We sing the old familiar hymns or songs, we stick to the rites and rituals that we have clung to most of our lives, and we follow along the order of service that in many cases has not changed in years – only the hymn numbers.
This past Sunday as I sat in one of those congregations as a part of worship with a truly delightful group of mostly older adults, an interesting question popped into my head. “If there aren’t any young people here to take on leadership roles, who will be the pastors and ministers and rabbis of the future?” Even a feeble attempt to look into that future circumstance was like peering through murky water. There was no way to see it clearly.
That question led me back to my own calling into the ministry. As a part of an active and vibrant youth group in my local church, my high school years were spent under the patient guidance of Sunday School teachers who faithfully taught about the Scriptures that were reinforced in sermons each worship service. They hoped that something, however small might make it into the brains of impatient teenagers. Sunday evenings were spent with the same youth group in what was called many years ago, Training Union. Church history, policy, polity and doctrine were the subject of those classes and my peers and I were taught the things that made committed followers loyal to that denomination. Though it was a royal pain for me at the time, I credit my love for the church and the Scriptures to those classes and those teenagers who suffered through those days with me. So the question of the day is, “Where is this education and training today?” I seldom see anything like that in the Church of the 21st century.
There was that Sunday morning when I was an 18-year-old when the lesson for the morning was about the prophet Isaiah. As I sat there waiting anxiously for the class to be over, a verse being read aloud slapped me hard against my head. It haunts me to this day, and goes like this, “Also I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send and who will go for us?’ Then said I, Here am I; send me.” (Isaiah 6:8) That verse consumed me and when it was again the passage used for the morning sermon, there was no doubt that it was aimed at me. I could hardly sit still during the service, waiting for the morning altar call. Jumping to my feet, I nearly ran down the aisle eager to answer the question of who would go. I raised my hand and volunteered. That was 52 years ago and I have been on the most incredible spiritual journey since that morning. There has been no end to the opportunities to serve.
That’s all well and good for the church of more than half a century ago. But what about the church today? If the same call from Isaiah was sent out today, where would be the youth who answer? The reality is that fewer young adults are going into ministry, and those who do choose an option other than as a parish minister. Seminaries, short of students, are closing or merging, older clergy are coming into staff positions as a second career after either retiring or looking for “something new.” One friend was a lawyer for 30 years before hearing the call and another was a midwife for 26 years before a brief pastorate. They are not the exception, but part of the new norm.
All of this begs the question: What is the church going to do about it? And an even more depressing question is this: Is there anything that can be done? My crystal ball doesn’t work, so I am unable to see what the future holds. My hope, however, is that someday, and sooner rather than later, the call to the work of the Church will again be loud and clear. While I peer into the dark glass, I will strain my ear to see if there is someone who, hand raised high, is saying “Here am I, send me!” If you hear it before I do, please let me know. I’m waiting anxiously.
Rev. Vincent Lachina has served as Planned Parenthood Regional Chaplain for the last 13 years, providing support to patients and community members in Washington, Alaska, Idaho and Hawaii. Additionally, Lachina works to create an active network of progressive congregations in the Northwest who support reproductive justice for women. He is an adjunct member of Planned Parenthood’s Clergy Advocacy Board, which provides guidance and advocacy on reproductive health and justice issues nationwide, and has served on the Board of Directors of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
As always, great questions Vincent.
I penned a blog post once and a phrase from it bubbled up while reading: churches die, the Church does not. The Gospel has survived Roman scorn and then oppression… it thrived in Communist China, and continues to reach ever new waves of the disinherited. God’s word is what is eternal… not the form of our churches. What fails now is not God’s word, its quite good at “doing a new thing.” What fails is the form in which we have previously experienced it, lived it, and passed it on.
Two of the great challenges (impediments) of the Church? Imperial blessing (thanks a lot Constantine) and lukewarmish fandom of Jesus rather than following/discipleship (hello mainline American church). So while there is much pondering about our future in which fear for our future selves, and proactive discernment of “what is the church going to do about it?” makes sense and are good questions. I also think we need to put those in tension with the simultaneous truth that God will do something about it, as God through God’s people always has, and that not all the death is bad. Institutional structures that supported patriarchy, racism, and corporate greed will also be what is dying… and from the other side of that cross? Life will rise. While we may mourn the form, I have no less hope for the future of communities of faith formation and following in the way of Jesus… I just don’t know what they will look like because I lost my crystal ball too! 🙂
So Amen… and keep hope!
My main thought regarding this is that it’s probably a good thing. The theology to which I clung in my youth and early adulthood I have now come to see as extremely toxic and shallow, and those failings are a function of the fact that I didn’t have the maturity and depth of experience to embody meaningful compassion. Dwelling in the real world, with real people facing real challenges and suffering was the only cure for the blind, angry dogmatism of my youth, and for my wholly unearned sense of exceptionalism. Indeed, as best I can tell our greatest faith leaders have always been fighters first and foremost–King was an activist, Gandhi was a lawyer, Kolbe was a journalist, Francis and Ignatius were soldiers. I think there’s something about dwelling in the world, in all its demanding glory, that prepares a person for the hard work of mediating God’s love and justice to a fallen world. I think if anything, having the preachers of the future come to the pulpit as a second or third career will be a tremendous boon for the faith and the faithful.