Followers of the Way

Currently in the United States demographers divide our population into five generations. There is the Greatest Generation, people born before 1928, who fought and won World War II, and then came home and birthed the Baby Boom generation. There is the Silent Generation, people born between 1928 and 1945, who were children during the Great Depression and World War II. They are sometimes portrayed as traditionalists who subscribe to the conventional norms of society. They came of age during the conformism of the1950’s. The Baby Boomers who were born between 1945 and 1965 came of age in the turbulent years of the 1960’s and were non-conformist in contrast to the Silent Generation. The boomers are the group getting ready to retire, who are likely to bankrupt Social Security and Medicare. The next demographic bubble, Generation X, was born between 1965 and 1980. Gen X’ers are depicted as entrepreneurial, and more socially conventional and religiously conservative than Baby Boomers. Sometimes Gen Xer’s are referred to as the Baby Bust generation, because there was a dip in births following the introduction of the birth control pill. The Millennial Generation, born between 1980 and 2000 is the first generation to come of age in the new millennium. They are highly social, and more technologically connected than any generation before them. They are also the least connected to institutional religion of any group.

Seven in 10 Protestants among the Millennials of both evangelical and mainline denominations, who reported going to church regularly in high school said they had dropped out by age 23. Only 13% of Millennials report religion or spirituality is important in their lives. They are especially resistant to traditional church doctrine. Among the principal complaints of young people who have dropped out of church is that church members are perceived as judgmental, hypocritical and insincere. In research for an upcoming book, unChristian, the Barna Research Group director David Kinnaman found that Christians in their 20s are “significantly less likely to believe a person’s faith in God is meant to be developed by involvement in a local church. And the Barna study asserts this life stage of spiritual disengagement is not going to fade away.”

The Millennial Generation poses a major challenge to churches of all denominations. But I believe churches that concentrate on following in the way of Jesus, rather than trying to teach orthodox doctrine, or the right things to believe about Jesus, have an opportunity to connect with this newest generation of young people. Harvey Cox anticipated the challenge of the Millennials, when he wrote his book The Future of Faith.

What does the future hold for religion, and Christianity in particular? At the beginning of the new millennium three qualities mark the world’s spiritual profile, all tracing trajectories that will reach into the coming decades. The first is the unanticipated resurgence of religion in both public and private life around the globe. The second is that fundamentalism, the bane of the twentieth century, is dying. But the third and most important, though often unnoticed, is a profound change in the elemental nature of religiousness.

As Christianity moves awkwardly but irreversibly into a new phase in its history, those who are pushing into this frontier often look to the earliest period of the church’s history. There are striking similarities between the earliest church and the emerging faith of the new millennium. Creeds did not exist then; they are fading in importance now. Hierarchies had not yet appeared then, they are wobbling today. Spirituality as a way of life, or guiding compass is supplanting doctrines as the definition of the faith. Living the way of Jesus, rather than believing the right things about Jesus is the future of Christian Faith. How we live our lives and treat other people, love God and love your neighbor is more important than the traditional creeds or statements of faith of the established churches.

I believe the shift from a focus on doctrines and belief statements to faith as a way of life is good news for United Church. We are non-doctrinal. There is nothing you have to say you believe to belong here. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. We also say on our website: your personal faith is respected. You are encouraged to seek your own understanding of the Bible. Science and faith are not mutually exclusive. And you are encouraged to live your faith by helping others. These are all important core values that should help us in connecting with the Millennial Generation.

There are some special challenges, however, in trying to connect with the Millennials. Conventional wisdom in the past claimed that when young people marry, have children and settle down, they will come back to church. Not necessarily so with this generation. While Millennials claim that a good marriage and being a good parent are more important than financial or career success, these young people are not rushing to the altar. Only 21% of Millennials are married now in contrast to 42% of the generations before them at the same age. Now they may all suddenly decide to get married in droves, but we should remember that only a little over 50% of this generation grew up with both original parents in the home. Another startling statistic is that over one third of women age 18 to 29 who have given birth have been married. And since teen pregnancy among the poor and minorities has dropped, this means that a large number of middle class young women are choosing to have children without being married.

Single parenthood is a difficult and lonely road, but given the maturity level of many twenty something males, and the postponement of marriage by this generation, the choices of these young women to forge ahead as single parents can be understandable. We may have to alter our image of nice young couples coming back to church to populate our Sunday School, and instead offer a non-judgmental reaching out to this population as a real ministry.

I am reminded of the story about when a young minister was still single, he preached a sermon he entitled, “Rules for Raising Children.” After he got married and had children of his own, he changed the title of the sermon to “Suggestions for Raising Children.” When his children got to be teenagers, he stopped preaching on the subject altogether.

Another potential ministry directed to the Millennial Generation is suggested by the fact that at the moment, 37% of 18- to 29-year-olds are unemployed or out of the workforce, the highest share among this age group in more than three decades. Unemployment will be a significant source of frustration and further postponement of marriage and beginning a family for the Millennial Generation.

It’s not what we believe about Jesus that counts it is our commitment to follow in the way of Jesus that constitutes living faith. We should remember that the very earliest Christians were not called Christians, they were called “followers of the way.” Matthew 7: 12 So whatever you wish that people would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.

13 “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.

14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. . .

21 “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

And the great challenge of following the way of Jesus, rather than simply claiming to believe things about Jesus is that Jesus asks us to do some pretty radical things. Give to the poor. Don’t let your left hand know what the right hand is giving. Care for the widow, the orphan and welcome the stranger, the alien. Forgive your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Welcome everyone to the table of fellowship. The way of Jesus is radical and difficult. It would be so much easier to pray the prayer and sign the pledge on page 6 of the “Four Spiritual Laws” booklet. As Jesus said, do not follow me unless you are willing to first sit down and count the cost, for the way of Jesus is the way of the cross.

Young people are seeking authenticity, role models who will walk the walk and not just talk the talk. They would really like to experience a community of faith that embraces the way of Jesus. I believe potentially United Church can connect with these young people. We have to let them know we are here. We have to welcome them in ways they can understand and to which they can relate. We have to authentically walk with them the Way of Christ.

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