Today's Reading: Mark 9:30-37
Over the past twelve days I’ve had the pleasure of making several congregational care visits and talking with over a dozen friends and members of the church one-on-one. These conversations have taken place in any number of settings ranging from coffee shops to places of business to a rehabilitation center.
While the faces and locations have varied a great deal, there have been two themes that have been raised consistently in nearly every conversation. The first theme is a rather warm, fuzzy one. That theme has to do with how much folks in this church love – and I repeat LOVE – the sense of community they’ve found here at Woodland Hills Community Church.
The second theme isn’t quite so warm and fuzzy. It has to do with what some might call a desperate situation in which we find ourselves.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist,” one member said, “to see that there’s an awful lot of us white-haired folks here. If we are going to survive as a church, we’re gonna have to figure out a way to add people with other colors in their hair.”
The person who said that probably didn’t realize they were opening a can of worms – for talking about the need to attract young people is a topic that brings up a wide range of emotions for people.
On one hand, that conversation brings back a wonderful parade of memories of things like past Christmas pageants here at WHCC, images of Sunday school classrooms filled to the brim with kids, and memories of youth group mission trips that changed the life of some of your very own kids.
Those truly were the good old days, weren’t they?
That same conversation also brings up at least two other emotions as well. First, it raises a sense of sadness as you wonder, “What happened to my kids and my grandkids? Why aren’t they involved in church any more?”
As hard as it might be to feel that emotion, it’s still relatively easy to process – since it feels safe to talk about with others.
The second emotion the conversation raises is a lot more difficult to talk about: the emotion being fear. It’s hard to talk about because of what lies behind that fear.
You see a fair number of church folk have bought into a line of thinking that says what’s keeping your kids and grandkids out of church these days is something called a generation gap. They’ve been told there’s only one way to overcome that gap: make wholesale changes to our church and THEN the kids will come pouring back.
Here’s where the fear kicks in. It kicks in when people say things like:
“Toss out the beloved hymns of the faith like ‘Blessed Assurance and ‘Sweet Hour of Prayer’ and give ‘em something new – something with a beat. That’s what you need to do!”
Or, “Out with vestments like the preacher’s robe and the robes of the choir members and in with denim jeans and flannel shirts. That’ll pack them in!”
Or, “Get rid of contemplative elements of worship and printed bulletins. That’ll do the trick.”
Heard any of those things?
What we’ve done is put our parents and grandparents in a terrible bind. We’ve told them you can either worship in a thoughtful, familiar manner with theological integrity and go to church WITHOUT any young people OR you can get rid of every you’ve known and loved for your entire life and have the satisfaction of sitting in a worship service beside your children and grandchildren.
That’s a horrible choice to ask anyone to make, isn’t it?! No wonder fear kicks in.
Well, I have some good news for you this morning. I’m here today to tell you the choice that has been presented to you for the last twenty years is a false choice – for it overlooks another approach that can allow you to have both things: integrity in your worship AND people below the age of 40 in the service.
You want to know my source for this radical proposal?
This morning’s passage from the Gospel of Mark!
It might surprise you at first to hear that the passage has anything to do with that topic, so let me take a minute and share with you what I think the passage has to say about all of this.
When most folks hear the culminating words of Jesus in the passage, they take Jesus answer literally. When he said, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do, embraces me…” they assume Jesus’ meant that the key lie solely in welcoming those little people who are chronologically impaired.
And obviously, that’s a huge piece of what Jesus was getting at.
But I believe there was more to Jesus’ answer than that. When Jesus talked about embracing the children, I don’t think he only meant the little beings that run around Harter Hall after worship and take more cookies than you’d like off the platters during fellowship hour. He was pointing at something else as well.
In order to make my point, I’m going to need a little help from you this morning. And to get that help, I’m going to ask you to take a risk and do the unthinkable. Speak up and answer a question I raise. Here’s that question: when you hear the word “child” mentioned, of what qualities or characteristics come to mind?
[Brainstorm a list of qualities associated with children]
Thank you – that’s a wonderful list.
Now here’s what I want to propose to you this morning. When Jesus was calling us to embrace the children, I believe he was calling us to embrace those child-like qualities within ourselves as well: qualities that go against the grain of how we adults are trained to think and act.
Think about the implications of that for a moment. Think about what it would mean, for instance, to embrace a child-like quality of being spontaneous. Most of us are taught from our earliest days to equate church with things like structure and rigidity. What would happen if church began to relax a bit and be spontaneous? How might that change things?
And what about a phrase like fun-loving that many of us associate with children? Most of us have had it beat into our heads over the years that church is a place to be endured and not enjoyed. What would happen if we got rid of that notion, and rooted our pursuit of the Divine in joyful expressions of things like dance, visual art and all sorts of creative outlets? What would that do to our concept of church?
And how about my favorite word of all to associate with children - innocence?
Over the years, some of us in church have grown a bit jaded. Our first response to new ideas and new ways of being can become catch-phrases like “We tried that 15 years ago and it didn’t work” or “It’ll never work.” What would it be like if we banished such phrases from our vocabulary around here and once again embraced a sense of innocence about the possibilities that lie before us.
Well, friends, all I can say is that I hope we find out: together.
As we journey forward here at Woodland Hills, my prayer is that we’ll develop quite the reputation here. A reputation in this community not for being first in status or prestige. Nor do I envision us developing a reputation for being first in programming or trendiness. No. Instead, I hope we establish a reputation for being first in caring: first for our children, and secondly, for the child-like qualities within us.