Where are the young people?
That’s a question that’s been troubling churches for years now. For a while many congregations thought that if they could just call a young pastor with an attractive wife and the national average of 2.3 kids – and even better, if he could play the guitar – then the youth would come flocking back. Eventually, social scientists picked up the question of the missing millennials and tried to answer it using data rather than hunches. So over the last few years, a number of studies have been done trying to figure out just what is going on with religion in America. Why is church membership declining and, more particularly, where are all the young people? Why is it that just one third of millennials who grew up in main-line Protestant churches are still involved?
Robert Putnam and David Campbell did a comprehensive study of the state of religion in America and published it in a book called American Grace. One of the main reasons they discovered for millennials staying away from church is their perception that church is intolerant and rigid. That doesn’t mean they’ve given up on faith. Most still claim that they believe that the life of the spirit is important. But a lot of what they see among God’s people isn’t what scripture calls the fruit of the Spirit – love, peace, kindness, generosity, gentleness – but what scripture calls works of the flesh – enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, factions.
Now, a lot of that strife has come about because of good intentions, a desire to live holy and upright lives that follow the law of God. Laws and rules are good. We can’t live without them. Anyone who thinks we can live without laws should look at Somalia or Libya or other failed states where life and property are at the mercy of whoever is the strongest and most ruthless. Without laws, rules and guidelines we’d live in chaos. When God led the Hebrews out of Egypt, their first stop was at Mount Sinai where God gave them the law. The law that God gave is complex. It goes into great detail about how the Hebrews were supposed to live when they entered the Promised Land. It told them how to harvest their barley fields, what to do if their ox fell into a well, how to deal with those who didn’t observe the Sabbath as a day of rest. The law is condensed in the Ten Commandments and summarized in Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s the verse that Paul quoted in today’s scripture lesson, and it is what Jesus said when he was asked what is the most important of all God’s commandments. Everything about God’s law is intended to show us how to treat our neighbors with love. When we try to follow God’s law without remembering why God gave it, then we pervert it and the law becomes harmful to us. In fact, apart from love the law can actually lead us away from God.
Let me give you an example of what happens when we try to follow God’s law to the letter without remembering its spirit. In the last presidential campaign, one of the candidates was asked, “What is your favorite Bible verse?” Wanting to show how tough he was, he answered, “An eye for an eye.” The way many people see it, that verse is a command that whenever someone harms us, we have a moral obligation to retaliate. If we don’t seek revenge when someone has done us wrong, then we are disobeying the Bible. But look what happens when we read that verse, not as an isolated command to seek vengeance, but in light of the greatest commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” “An eye for an eye” appears three times in the Old Testament. In Leviticus it reads: “Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.” (Lev. 24:19-20) This law is actually given to limit retaliation. If someone takes out your eye, you can take out that person’s eye, but you can’t take their eye and their tooth. “An eye for an eye” isn’t a demand for retribution. Human nature doesn’t need any law to encourage us to get even. It’s a restraint on what we can do to those who harm us so that even when we carry out justice, it’s tempered by love.
One of the reasons the religious leaders had Jesus killed was that they thought he was trying to overthrow God’s law. But Jesus was clear that God did not send him to do away with God’s law but to fulfill it. His Sermon on the Mount describes what it looks like when we truly follow God’s law which God gave so we can love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In Matthew 5:38 Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
Jesus not only shows us the true meaning of God’s law, he shows us how hard it is to live by it. In fact, when he teaches the true meaning of the law, he shows that we can’t follow it. When I try to follow God’s law, I realize I just don’t have it in me to love even my family as I should let alone my enemies as the law commands. But instead of changing God’s law, Jesus changes us. On the cross, he puts to death the old person who tries so hard to follow each and every demand of the law, and he transforms us into new persons who live by the spirit of that law. We don’t throw out the rules. In Christ, we use those rules as a way to help us love our neighbors as ourselves. He gives us the Holy Spirit that lives within us, guiding us and emboldening us so we can be that new person who is free to love others the way Christ loves us.
When we try to be good and righteous and holy without the power of the Holy Spirit, then we are constrained by the flesh. And it shows in our life together, which is one of the reasons so many millennials are turned off to church. We often make the mistake of equating the flesh with sex, and when we talk about sin, sometimes the first thing we think about is sex. Just look at how many of the church’s divisions have to do with sexuality and reproductive issues. Sex matters. It is one of the most powerful human drives. But when the apostle Paul refers to the flesh he is talking about anything that is passing. It is shorthand for what dies with us and comes to an end once we are put in the grave. In the passage we read today, Paul spells out some of what he calls the works of the flesh. Only three of those works are related to sex – fornication, impurity and licentiousness. Two have to do with false worship – sorcery and idolatry. Two have to do with unruly behavior – drunkenness and carousing. Eight, the majority of the works of the flesh he lists, have to do with life within the community – enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions and envy. Paul is telling communities of faith – congregations, presbyteries, denominations – that if we try to focus on living perfect lives without loving our neighbor, then we produce the works of the flesh. And that is what has turned off so many young people to the church. They have enough spiritual savvy to recognize the works of the flesh when they see them.
On the other hand, when we have put the flesh to death on the cross, we aren’t preoccupied with dissension and factions and quarrels. We become like a garden where the fruit of the Spirit is cultivated. Jesus said “the tree is known by its fruit,” (Mt. 12:33) and Paul lists some of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Those are the things you’ll see in a church that is emboldened by the Holy Spirit.
That doesn’t mean we don’t disagree or that we don’t have principles that we stand on. What it means is that as we try to figure out what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves in a world that is always changing, our disagreements will be guided by the Spirit, not by the flesh. Acts 15 describes one of the early church conflicts, when Paul made the case to the leaders of the church that the gospel of Jesus was for all people. Peter and the other apostles assumed that before you could follow Christ you first had to be a good Jew and follow all the details of the law of Torah like circumcision and eating kosher. They argued. They disagreed. But their disagreement was guided by respect and by love, and when it was resolved everyone respected each other.
I saw an example of that kind of Spirit filled disagreement at a church in Lancaster. The church’s music director asked to marry his same sex partner at a wedding in the church sanctuary. The senior pastor of the church was opposed to same sex marriage. He spoke against it forcefully when the issue was debated on the floor of presbytery. But when the music director made his request, rather than make it into a divisive issue, the session and the pastor allowed the wedding to take place and one of the associate pastors, who is OK with same sex marriage, officiated. I don’t know what went on behind the scenes, but to the public the message was: This is a community of faith that respects differences of opinion and strives to cultivate the spiritual gifts that show Christ’s love.
Don’t misunderstand. It takes work to tend a thriving spiritual garden. You have to cultivate, prune and weed. Paul speaks of being free in Christ, and freedom takes discipline. A running back subjects himself to hours of rigorous training every day so that once he is on the football field he can run freely to advance the ball. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, writes about how those of us who are older can make the most out of the second half of our lives. He notes that we devote the first half of life to working hard, proving our worth, defining our values. If we’ve done a good job at building that structure, then the second half of life is devoted to living in our true selves. We know the rules, but we also know which ones matter and which ones don’t. We are less concerned about getting every little thing just right than we are about being true to ourselves, to our neighbors and to God.
One of the great things about the heritage of Eastminster Church is that you have a history of providing that kind of solid background in biblical knowledge and ethical thinking. You have a legacy of giving kids the kind of structure where the fruit of the Spirit can grow. The bitterness that turns off so many young people doesn’t have a place here, but because a religion of divisiveness is what has the loudest voice in today’s culture, you have to work harder to show that there is an alternative. You have older saints to be models of why we cultivate that knowledge of God’s Word and why we pursue a holy and upright life., people who have lived a life filled with the Spirit, who have been models of peace, patience, kindness and generosity. That’s where the future of the church lies, in cultivating the fruit of the spirit that permeates Eastminster so young and old alike can see that there’s another way to live together than to fight for power and demean each other. It used to sound trite, but now it almost sounds radical: This is a place where we treat all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or political persuasion, as those created in the image of God. We cultivate the fruit of the Spirit. We do things differently here.