People were bringing little children to him in order that he might bless them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
The latest in a long list of blog posts and feature articles how the church could attract more millennials came to me this week from Christian Chiakulas, a writer and musician from Chicago, courtesy of the Huffington Post. The profound skepticism with which I approach such articles was not greatly altered by my reading it.
The ambitious title proclaims, “Churches Could Fill Their Pews with Millenials If They Just Did This.” The answer is that we should tell people about the concrete demands of the gospel to make the world a better place and then actually get to work doing it.
Of course. That’s true. Why didn’t I think of that?
The fact that the answer is basically a cliché does not mean we shouldn’t pay attention.
A century ago Walter Rauschenbusch wrote an impassioned plea to pastors and leaders to embrace the Social Gospel, to combat the poverty of cities and rural areas, to stand up against the exploitation of workers, support the rights of women, promote universal education, and join in building the Kingdom of God. If churches want to save souls, he argued, then they must also save bodies.
Young people, he said, already understand this. They are already committed. And if the churches do not join with young people in this struggle, then they will lose a whole generation.
A great deal has changed in the past hundred years. Women can vote. Workers are protected. We have Social Security and Medicare. We have made great advances in combating racism and sexism. We protect people with disabilities and we treat mental illness with more humanity. We have made great progress.
And the churches can take credit for playing a major role in this transformation. In the Methodist Church we created a new liturgical season between Pentecost and Advent, called Kingdomtide and devoted to studying and celebrating the biblical foundation for building the Kingdom of God. This was never a unanimous effort. There were always individual churches, and sometimes whole denominations, on both sides of every major issue. But overall, there was a shared commitment to advancing equality and justice.
Unfortunately, today much of that commitment can only be described in the past tense, and in many ways, we are in the same place we were a century ago.
Half a century ago, when the churches were at the height of their institutional power, one of the great leaders (I think it might have been Harold Bosley, but I cannot find the reference) said that in the future our greatest challenge will be keeping a vision of the Kingdom of God alive in the human heart. Today, when we have a widening gap between rich and poor, and a reluctance to do anything about it; when we are willing to cut food stamps rather than increase taxes, we seem to act as if Jesus was only kidding when he talked about economic justice. Our vision of the Kingdom of God is faded and distorted by self-interest.
Today Christians are better known for gay bashing than for social justice.
George Barna, a Christian Evangelical and social researcher, reported that among young people ages 16-29, the most common perception of Christianity was that it was “anti-homosexual.” This was true for 91 percent of those who identified themselves as non-Christian, and for 80 percent of those who called themselves Christian. This same age group is overwhelmingly accepting of gay people, and approximately two-thirds of them support gay marriage.
The anti-homosexual agenda is wrong. And it is self-defeating. It is pushing young people away.
This doesn’t just damage the individual churches or denominations that pursue an anti-gay agenda, it hurts all churches. When J.P. Morgan lost $2.8 billion in a misguided trading scheme, it wasn’t just J.P. Morgan whose stock went down the next day, bank stocks were down across the board. When people see a video of a pastor telling his congregation that they should smack a son who isn’t acting like a real man, or another pastor saying that gays and lesbians should be kept behind an electrified fence, it doesn’t just hurt those individual churches.
No one who knows anything about the Gospel accounts would believe for a nano-second that either of those ideas would pass the Jesus test. We might not always know what Jesus would do, but we can be fairly sure of some things that he would never do. Unfortunately, for millions of people those pastors and their congregations are defining Christianity.
If we want to bring young people into the church, we first need to bring the church back to Jesus.
*This post borrows heavily from one written in May of 2012