Attendance is down, giving is down; one could be forgiven for getting the sense that the Church isn’t doing too well these days. And nowhere is that more apparent than with our youth. I work with the high school youth group in my home congregation. The youth leaders at my church share a concern that is common to all churches these days: how do we keep our young people interested? It’s not limited only to youth, either. Fewer adults are making Church a central part of their everyday life. But youth are the true bellwether for the church’s relevance, and I think I’ll get a lot of agreement if I say that youth today don’t see the Church as all that important. Today’s youth are critical and discerning when it comes to authority figures. If they don’t see a good reason to, they simply won’t listen to them. So how can the Church make itself heard? The key task of the Church in the 21st century is to keep itself relevant in the modern world, and one of the best ways it can do that is by reclaiming its prophetic voice in the name of Christ.
The Virtue of a Skeptical Culture
Our youth being skeptical really isn’t a problem, when you think about it. Today’s media-saturated world is full of movies, TV, music, and advertisements which sell a lifestyle that, glamorous though it may be, lacks depth or meaning. It’s a good thing that our youth are skeptical, because skepticism is rapidly becoming a necessary tool for survival in modern culture. We shouldn’t be upset that today’s youth don’t automatically accept the Church’s authority. Instead, we should seek to respond to that skepticism with sincerity and openness. We should demonstrate that the Church is worthy of authority because of its Gospel message. If we do that, not only will we make a unique, vital space for the Church in modern life, we will also be following in the footsteps of the historic Church, a path going back to Christ himself.
It’s a good thing that our youth are skeptical, because skepticism is rapidly becoming a necessary tool for survival in modern culture.
Here’s a question to ponder: what exemplifies Jesus? What do you think of when you think of Christ as he lived? What is he doing? Healing the sick? Preaching to the crowds? Admonishing the Pharisees? Hanging on the Cross? There’s a common thread that ties Jesus’ entire ministry together in the way it interacts with the World. Jesus was intensely counter-cultural. All the ways that the society he lived in practiced injustice, oppression, and exclusion, he stood against. He called it out so that all could see it for what it was. Jesus didn’t only focus on injustice in civil society, either. He also called out injustice in the institution of religion. Jesus remarks in Luke 11:42: “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the Love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.” Jesus’ message was that injustice and oppression can exist anywhere. It’s not enough to simply talk the talk; one has to walk the walk as well.
We call the Church the Body of Christ. What we’re trying to say is that the gathered assembly of all the faithful is called together to continue Christ’s work of proclaiming the Gospel until he returns. And Jesus’ Gospel always calls for justice. Being the Body of Christ means doing our best to stay true to Christ’s message. It means being a voice that stands up to our culture, to our media, to our government, and to our selves. It means continually calling all to Christ: his love and acceptance of all people, his emphasis on community and relationships, and his rejection of materialism.
Prophetic Ministry After Christendom
This prophetic voice is important because tomorrow’s church will be scrutinized as it hasn’t been in centuries. The Church has enjoyed a lengthy period of automatic authority in our society simply by virtue of its size and ubiquity. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that that period is ending. Tomorrow’s Church must continually prove its sincerity. If we are not sincere, and if we do not follow through on that sincerity, then the Church will have no place in the larger world. And the larger world needs the Church, desperately. It exists for a reason.
In the last half-century, the Church has to an extent embarked on a journey of rediscovering its prophetic voice. In the wake of the emergence of the global economy, the civil rights struggle, and the Cold War and its violent proxy conflicts, the Church has really awakened to its conscience. We’ve discovered that not only does Jesus have something to say about our world today, but that his words are absolutely vital. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has over the past two decades produced a number of social statements offering a Gospel-centered perspective on modern issues: the death penalty, the environment, education, and healthcare to name a few. We need look no further than this to see clearly that the Church has a unique voice in responding to the World.
But despite this, there are huge numbers of people who have little idea that the Church has anything to say on the topic. In the popular consciousness, the Church’s voice rarely registers beyond the issues of abortion, gay rights, and creationism. So, now that we have made such wonderful progress in rediscovering our prophetic voice, the next task is to reclaim it in the wider context, for the sake of the whole World, and for the sake of the Church itself.
I opened by asking how the Church can stay relevant in the skeptical culture of the 21st century. This could be a key part of the answer. We are in a position to work for peace and justice, to fight the forces of evil that lead to death and destruction. In fact, we already do. But our proclamation must become so loud that it is impossible to ignore. We have to stand up to injustice, to speak a word of hope and healing to the oppressed, and a word of repentance to the oppressor.
Sometimes, we are the oppressed. But other times, we are the oppressor, and if there’s one thing that doesn’t fly with youth today, it’s hypocrisy. There’s no faster way to lose credibility than to say one thing while doing the opposite. And while we can’t hope to ever do a perfect job of being the Body of Christ, we can at least acknowledge our own failings and shortcomings. Reclaiming our prophetic voice isn’t about putting ourselves above the World and shouting down at it. It’s about acknowledging our position in the World, but not of it. We too are broken, caught up in the same Sin as all humanity, and trying to pretend we’re not won’t win us any points. But we can still claim the prophetic voice, as long as we’re willing to hold ourselves up to its scrutiny along with all humanity. We can even model Gospel-centered healing and repentance in seeking to change ourselves. God is always present and active in the world, even in our shortcomings.
The prophets in ancient Israel didn’t limit themselves to speaking in safe contexts.
Reclaiming a prophetic voice is hard, though. We can’t limit ourselves to only speaking to each other, or only speaking on Sunday mornings. The prophets in ancient Israel didn’t limit themselves to speaking in safe contexts. They got out in the thick of it, and proclaimed loudly and confidently. But that gets dangerous sometimes. I’m reminded of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who gained infamy during the 2008 presidential election for a sound bite of a sermon he delivered in Chicago. Though the particular condemnatory quote everyone is familiar with may not have been ideally phrased, it’s worth noting that Wright was speaking in the same prophetic voice as the Prophet Jeremiah, his namesake.
The Church must be willing to risk the sort of backlash Wright received to reclaim its prophetic voice. Preaching peace and justice will always be unpopular with those in power, and those in power often have great control over the shape of discourse. Though Wright’s comments may have been inflammatory, they were also taken out of the prophetic context and made to sound merely spiteful. There is, however, a way to resist this. The Church’s prophetic voice must always be tied directly into the Gospel, so that it’s readily apparent that Christ is the true source of our message. When Jesus is at the very core of the Church’s proclamation, it’s much more difficult to miscast it.
The Courage to Be Sincere
If the Church is courageous and loud in calling out injustice, today’s youth will take notice. If the Church takes a strong stand against oppression, today’s youth will listen. And if the Church reclaims the lead in healing the world, today’s youth will not only join in, they’ll move straight to the front. They care deeply about the world. They’re aware of the global community of all humanity in a way that no generation before them has been. All they need is a voice to teach them what to fight for.
I’m actually excited to be in Seminary right now. Despite the myriad issues the Church is struggling with, I see a great deal of good in the making. The Church is going to change drastically during my ministry, and I have hope that those changes will be for the better. In responding to the 21st Century, the Church is poised to return more fully to its roots in a counter-cultural Gospel of hope and justice. In so doing, we can not only work to heal some of the brokenness present in the world today, but also heal some of the brokenness present within the Body of Christ itself, and help to ensure that the Church continues to be a relevant and beneficial organization for years to come.