I met with a young man as a follow-up to his visit to our congregation.
It’s important to sit down and meet new friends, but I was chiefly interested in seeing what a “guest” was seeing.
When we got around to it, we talked about the community and worship, critiquing and praising different elements. But when we came to the question about whether he would return he responded quickly, “Probably not.”
I was a little taken aback, especially when it seemed he had a fairly positive experience in worship. I followed up this question by asking him why. “Well,” he said, “I just don’t see Jesus.”
His response was true. I realized it the moment he said it. And even though I knew it was true I still felt my own defensiveness rise up as I began to prepare my arguments about corporate worship, liturgical heritage, the real presence in communion, etc. But this one time I was smart enough to listen.
Habit or devotion?
He went on to explain that while we “did all the right things,” it just didn’t seem to make a difference to any of those gathered. They appeared to be there out of habit rather than out of devotion.
He is not a member of the ELCA and was curious about several elements of our worship, but when he looked around at the others to see how they responded to the same things, it seemed these Lutherans cared even less than he did.
At least he was curious. The others seemed bored at best, and at the worst, apathetic. He went on to say he was looking for a place where Jesus mattered. He left it at that. While we parted as friends, I was wounded. Wounded by the truth.
This encounter was one of several that led me to a growing understanding of the disconnect between what this generation sees in church and what those of us on the inside think we are doing.
During the age of church-on-every-town-square Christendom, especially following the Reformation, the formative question and the faith-inquiry statement one would ask another would be “What church do you go to?” and then, “Tell me about it.”
Within the formative question is (1) the assumption the person we are talking to is a church-goer and (2) the need to establish to which group within a Christendom culture they belong.
The faith-inquiry statement, “Tell me about it,” assumed a methodology of passing information that was based on the written word, the primary vehicle of moving and teaching. Telling was the way you taught. Memorizing is the mode of learning.
Show me. Don’t tell me
Today we are in a very different cultural climate.
First, the church is no longer at the center of society but is increasingly seen as simply one part of a very wide and diverse social landscape. Most town-square congregations are dying, both figuratively and literally.
Second, to the current generation, information is no longer chiefly shared via the written word but rather through image and experience. We now receive information chiefly through television, the Internet and movies, and then secondarily through our interaction with our environment.
That is to say, images and our experience are now the critical learning factors. Consider classrooms: They are no longer lecture-based, with the teacher passing along information, the students memorizing it and then regurgitating it on the test. Now information is passed through multiple stations where one interacts with the assignment, often communally, to come to a greater understanding.
This generation wants to see, experience, interact with and evaluate what they are learning. They don’t want to be told what to think; they wish to engage thought process itself.
Applied to the question of faith we see that the question and inquiry statement for the current generation is no longer, “What church do you go to?” but rather “Do you believe in God?” The probing faith-inquiry is not the word-centric “Tell me,” but image-centric “Show me.”
So, ponder this: This generation comes to church asking, “Do you believe in God?” and we answer, “We are Lutheran.”
This generation comes to the people of faith and says, “Show me Jesus” and we tell them to go to a membership class where they will be given information about what to believe.
Answer the right questions
Can we not see how we are missing the point? We are answering the wrong questions!
We are presented with a generation that is desperate to see Jesus, not just talk about him.
We are confronted by a generation that does not want to talk about Christ but desires to see the transformative power of Jesus in the lives of those who call him Lord.
We are seeing a generation of people that do not desire a pastor or leader to do faith on their behalf but rather want to experience for themselves the power of Christ.
We are trying to be a “tell me” church to a “show me” culture. No wonder they are confused.
In order to shift our method of reaching out to this generation, we need to change our framework.
We need to ask ourselves hard questions so that we may begin to look like what Jesus has called us to be.
Ask these questions of yourself: Do you look like Jesus? Jesus gave us his life and taught us to imitate him. Do you live a life worth imitating? Does your worship community model the transformed life? Are you teaching ideas or are you modeling a way to live daily in the Lord? In short, do you believe in God?