Dear Working Preacher,
About nine months ago I heard a story that named for me the great challenge for this generation of Christian leaders. I have been wrestling with what it means for us ever since, and I thought of it again in relation to this week’s gospel reading.
First the story: on a Monday morning in late August of last summer, Rollie Martinson, a colleague of mine here at Luther Seminary, had just taken his seat on an airplane when he decided to introduce himself to the man seated beside him. After exchanging names, Rollie asked enthusiastically, “So, do you go to church?” “Funny you should mention that,” the man replied, “we were just talking about church yesterday.” He went on to explain that the previous year, he and his family had let themselves get totally over-extended. Between work, social commitments, and the activities of their two children — one in elementary school, one in junior high — they were exhausted by Christmas. They were determined that this year would be different. So after going to church as usual the day before, they held a “family council” over lunch to review all of their commitments in light of how each helped them be the kind of individuals and family they wanted to be. After an hour and a half of conversation, they made their decisions. And church was one of the things they had decided to stop doing. Girl Scouts remained, but church was out. “It’s just not that meaningful,” the man explained. “We go each week and finally realized we’re not getting anything out of it. It doesn’t connect with the rest of our lives, let alone help us lead those lives. So we’re done.”
So here’s the challenge, as clear as it is stark: If we were to skip this week’s sermon, tell this story instead, and then ask for a show of hands of how many people have felt just this way, what do you think would happen? Whatever your sense of the response to this imagined scenario, the actual fact of people regularly evaluating church against all their other commitments and opting out is anything but hypothetical. Sure, some people — perhaps a fair number — still go to church because that’s part of who they are. Their parents always went, and they plan to do the same. But what about their kids, or their grand kids? We are moving slowly but surely from an age of obligation — where people do things because they feel they should — to an age of discretion (think “discretionary income”) — where people make choices about how they will use their time, income, and talents based their personal and communal aspirations.
[Side bar comment: It’s easy for us church-types — who typically are still fairly motivated by a sense of obligation — to appraise this shift as negative. Trust me, not only will our negative judgments not influence people living in an age of discretion, but we may miss the latent opportunity here. Because while the flip side of obligation is guilt, the reverse side of discretion is need, and imagine if we focused our energies on offering preaching, worship, and congregational life that actually meet people’s needs!]
Now there are many facets to this problem, and I hope to explore some of them in the coming months in this space. But today’s reading from John prompted me to focus on one: Most of our people stand at a great distance from the Bible and, for all intents and purposes, it is an unfamiliar book. Oh, our folks may recognize a few of the better-known stories, but by and large the biblical witness no longer furnishes their active imaginations. What do I mean by that? That if you ask the folks coming to your church to describe a challenge or opportunity at work or home, and then ask them what biblical stories come to mind to help them frame that challenge, to make sense of that opportunity, to help them think their situation through and respond to it, I’m betting you’ll get a lot of blank stares. Likely, no biblical stories will come to mind. Our people aren’t conversant with the Bible; it doesn’t feed their imagination; it doesn’t supply resources to help them think through their everyday lives. Then, in case you’re not sure just how serious the situation is, ask them to talk about other stories that do help. And you might be surprised to hear them name an episode of Lost, or a recent event on American Idol, or the story of a sports hero. There are so many other stories competing for the attention and loyalty of our listeners today, and the Bible is but one story among many, a story that all too often feels a million miles from our stories and concerns.
So what do we do? Like I said, no single essay or conference or book will answer that question. But I believe addressing this challenge is the work that is set for our generation. While reading this third installment of the farewell discourse, I was struck by one response that is available to us this Sunday.
Jesus, as he has been these last few weeks, is gathered with his disciples. It is Thursday night, the eve of the crucifixion. He has told them he is going away and that they cannot follow him. He has instructed them to love another, promised that he will come back for them in time, and assured them that in the meantime he will send the Advocate to remind them of his teaching. And then he prays. No more instructions, no more Q&A, no more assurances or predications. Jesus just prays, asking his heavenly Father to draw the disciples into the relationship the Father and Son already enjoy, that they — Father, Son, disciples — may be as one. But then he extends his prayer, actually breaks it wide open until it stretches beyond the room, city, region, and even the time and history they occupy. “And I ask not only on behalf of these,” Jesus prays, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”
Did you hear that? Two thousand years ago, understandably focused on his impending suffering and death, Jesus nevertheless turns his attention to us, actually prays for us. Jesus prays, in fact, for all those of every time and place who will come to believe through the testimony of his disciples, and that includes us…and all those to whom we will preach this Sunday.
And right there, in a heartbeat, the distance between the stories the Bible tells and our own stories collapses. Suddenly, what’s going on in the biblical story isn’t way back then, it’s right here and now, as Jesus prays for us — for our ups and down, our hopes and disappointments, our aspirations and commitments, our yearning for meaning and need for purpose. Right there. Right then. Right now.
Start here, Working Preacher, to reclaim the biblical story as a lively, even compelling narrative. It doesn’t have to be the only story our people live with — that’s never been the case. But it does need to be in conversation with those other stories. It needs to be a player. So ask your people what the important stories of their lives are, invite them to imagine that the Bible has something to offer as well. Then teach them the Scriptures — in the sermon as well as in educational forums — send them out looking for the scenes and stories they see and hear at church, and invite them to bring back what they find. This is not the solution to the challenge ahead. In fact, it is at best a first, teensy weensy step; but it is a step. And as the old adage goes (not from the Bible, mind you, but still a good saying): “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So go ahead, take that first step, invite people into the biblical story that they might view the people they meet there not as relics in a museum but distant relatives, bound to them by a common kinship in the family of God. And, while you’re at it, tell them that Jesus is praying for them.
Thank you, Working Preacher, for this and for all you do.