Relationship

A friend asked me to listen to one of the podcasts on my denomination’s web site oriented towards young adults.  I write book reviews for this same site.  

You can listen to the podcast here – it’s about 40 minutes long.
It’s a valuable discussion for anyone and everyone to listen to, though it’s couched in terms of making sense to congregations grappling with the dearth of young adults in their midst.  
Andrew Root is an associate professor at Luther Seminary, and the topic in this podcast is relationship.  Now in my second parish with a much larger proportion of members advanced in years as opposed to younger folks, I often hear the mantra that what we really need is to get the young families with kids to join our congregation.  This was the formula for years of healthy congregational life.  Families raising their kids in the church.  
But unless I’m mistaken, I’m not sure that this was ever an intentional, programmatic approach of churches.  It’s not that they were more successful marketing themselves to young families with kids 50 or 60 years ago.  But it was the accepted thing for young families with kids to do.  Why?  Because those young parents had parents in that congregation (or another congregation like it somewhere else).  They had grandparents there.  They came from a long line of family members in church, more often than not.
Somehow, that pattern was shattered 40 years ago or so, so that in many traditional denominational churches, there are no young parents with children in the congregation – or very few.  The memo was never sent or maybe never received that this was what they ought to keep doing.  Or more likely, they were inundated with competing memos offering other alternatives.  I suspect that Christianity will be studying for however many years we have left until our Lord’s return, exactly why and how that pattern was shattered.  
Congregations aching to somehow attract young adults and young families with kids often attempt to deal with this programmatically.  If we just offer the right programs and classes, they’ll come.  Or they attempt to deal with it liturgically.  If we just update the music and get a great praise band here and get rid of the technical language and focus our sermons on practical life skills, they’ll come.  Perhaps those are recipes for success in some places, but I tend to suspect that more often than not they fail.  
Relationship is the key.  At least with people under 40.  This interview does a good job at focusing on that.  I like how the interviewer (a very nice woman, by the way), even highlights the church’s inappropriate approach to this whole issue even as she agrees with Dr. Root (And am I the only one who finds it curious that there are no credentials listed for this guy in the text intro to the podcast?  Does that make him more accessible to young adults?  There’s another interesting if unrelated side discussion!).    “How do we get them to come?  How do we show them that we care about them?”  These are programmatic questions.  These are the questions that an advertiser or marketer asks about customers.  And it is unfortunately how the Church has allowed itself to be conditioned to think as well.  
How do you convince your child (or grandchild) that you love them?  Is there anything that you can do for them that demonstrates this?  Sure – plenty of things.  But what cements the relationship is the time spent together.  Consistent acts of love and caring and interest that demonstrate to the other person that you love them.  Consistent enough so that when it is necessary to speak a word of discipline or challenge, the person hopefully hears it in the context of love – they don’t confuse what you have to say to them with your love for them, but rather hear what you have to say in the larger context of love.  
I suspect that if this is how we build cross-generational relationships in families, it will work outside the family.  The difficulty lies in the fact that outside the family, cross-generational interactions (outside of a church, at least) are more the exception than the rule.  Our culture is stratified by age – sometimes very rigidly.  Crossing strata to interact with people outside of your age group can be difficult, but not nearly as difficult as figuring out how to do it in the first place.  
That’s the only thing that I found slightly curious about this interview.  When asked point blank how young adults will ever know that a congregation is right for them, will deal with them relationally rather than as a demographic niche or the Great Hope for the Congregation’s Future, Dr. Root doesn’t have an answer.  Very few people have an answer, in my experience, or we’d all be doing it by now.
Therein lies the issue – we think in terms of what we can accomplish.  If we advertise in the right places, if we master Facebook or Twitter and the future realms of social media, if our website is savvy enough – we’ll find a way to draw in these young strangers.  Again, in my limited experience, it isn’t that simple, despite what plenty of church growth books may claim to the contrary.  Church growth books base their livelihood on giving you advice that you can implement.
But how does the New Testament talk about church growth?  What outreach programs are discussed?  What evangelism techniques are displayed?  How often does it talk about how people joined the small churches because they were hired the loudest people to go out into the markets and squares and yell above the other din?  How many were brought to churches because they were given a free stylus with the church’s name on it?  
Acts 2 and Acts 5 both describe people being “added” to the church’s number.  In Acts 5, it might be interpreted that the healing wonders of the Apostles are what brought people into the fold, but I think that such an interpretation may be reversing the actual order that is implied in Acts 5:12-16.  But in Acts 2 it is very clear.   It says “the Lord added to their number daily”.  
The one answer we have to the question of how will they know to come to our church, is that the Holy Spirit will bring them.  The Holy Spirit that is already at work in their lives in ways they may not even be aware of yet.  The Holy Spirit they may never have heard about let alone believe in.  That Holy Spirit at work.  It’s a painfully simple answer that many fear relieves us of our duty to be intentional about reaching out to others.  I don’t see the two things as mutually exclusive.  We put our talents to work in wise ways, but we trust that it is the Holy Spirit that is working through and despite our best efforts.  
I think this dovetails nicely with the incarnational emphasis that Dr. Root makes in this podcast.  We need to trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in every single person.  Already.  Before we even meet them.  Every stranger we pass by.  Every person we exchange innocuous pleasantries with in the grocery store line.  There is nobody that the Holy Spirit of God is not actively at work in.  And if this is the case, our job suddenly changes.  We are not seeking to be friends with someone to introduce God into their life.  God is already in their life – He created their life!  Our role may be in helping them to see that at some point.  But we en
ter into the relationship not under false pretenses of I have something you need, but rather in celebration that this other person is a creation of God the Father and is worthy of being appreciated simply for that reason.  
When we do this, people stop being means to an end.  We await the fuller discovery of the Holy Spirit’s miraculous work between us.  We assume that in this new relationship the Holy Spirit is at work on and in us as well.  It is not a one-sided affair, but a symbiotic relationship that changes both of the people involved.  If we discover the other person doesn’t know about Jesus, we can share what our relationship with Jesus means.  We can talk about our relief and peace and hope knowing that we have been placed in right relationship with God the Father through God the Son.  And we can be as authentic in that exchange as if we were telling them about this great little restaurant we just discovered in some dumpy little strip mall.  As if we were telling them about the cheapest place in town to get gas.  Hopefully without the hesitation and self-doubt and judgment that can often cloud our efforts to share the Gospel.  

2 Responses to “Relationship”

  1. Doug Vossler Says:

    I like your summary – “We put our talents to work in wise ways, but we trust that it is the Holy Spirit that is working through and despite our best efforts.”

    When we fall short in our efforts (and we certainly will!), it is comforting to know that God’s word is efficacious. While we should put forth our best efforts in and as thanks for God’s undeserved grace, we also know that God is fully in control. God tells us this very clearly in Isaiah 55:11 where He says that His word will not return to Him empty, but will accomplish what He desires and achieve the purpose for which He sent it.

  2. Paul Nelson Says:

    Amen!

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