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Authentic Transformation, Young Adults, and the Church
By ROBERT HENDRICKSON
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2013 Robert Hendrickson
All rights reserved.
From Tourist to Pilgrim
Over the years I have developed a deep fondness for visiting China. I am especially fond of the Tibetan areas of the southwest in Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces. Among my favorite activities is to wander slowly through Buddhist temples and monasteries and just take in the ambience, the sights and sounds of a place suffused with prayer—that feels as if it is built of prayer. I marvel at the paintings and frescoes with their colorful array of fantastic creatures, multiarmed deities, and sometimes gruesome scenes of punishment. You have the sense that history is absolutely alive there and that you are walking in space beyond time.
When I first started visiting China and traveling to various monasteries, it was in a time of significant spiritual wandering in my own life. I was very much a literal and figurative pilgrim. As I wandered through, I was drawn by something. I was captured by a deep sense that here was something and someplace holy. Yet by the same token, I could not have told you much of anything about Buddhism. I did not have strong feelings for or against it. Buddhists seemed to have a language and structure that was entirely their own with a cosmology I could not penetrate and an artistic expression that defies the standard rules for artistic beauty.
I was drawn in, though. Eventually, through conversation with Buddhist monks, I was encouraged by them to go home, back to the tradition of my upbringing, and give it a try again. They were concerned that someone would come fleeing something else rather than simply being drawn by what they had to offer. That began a long return back to Christianity and into ordained ministry with the Episcopal Church.
The transition I made was, over time, from tourist to pilgrim. It is the challenge of the Church to create a space and encounter for the same to happen for the many, many wanderers who will come through our doors. We need a Church that expects people to be present not as consumers of an experience but as part of sharing in the encounter with Christ. We need churches that offer a shape to their journey so that we become a place of refreshment, protection, peace, and transformation. We are often quick to treat those coming to our churches as tourists—as consumers to whom we will offer a set of services designed to make their journey easier, more fun, and less complicated. Somehow, we seem to think, if we just lower the bar enough and make it accessible enough, they will stay. Yet this discounts the power of the journey—the richness of self-offering. Those coming through our doors are not necessarily looking for an easy faith-their lives are not easy and they need a faith demanding and complex enough to actually call them into newness of being.
My great privilege now is to work in a parish that offers a Sunday evening liturgy that is full of candlelight, chant, and incense and is as captivating for the senses as those visits to the monasteries. The young people I talk to (around 100 to 150 each Sunday night) are coming for reasons as complex and as vague as those that led me from temple to temple. Most of them have no real opinion about Christianity, one way or the other. They have not inherited the hurts that many of their parents felt in the Church. They are simply curious to come and see.
What strikes me is that when they enter, they often know as much about our symbols, art, language, and structure as I did about Buddhism. That which their parents rebelled against is for them only vaguely on the periphery or is actually their own form of rebellion. The task has become not only to draw them into the building but into a relationship with Christ. This happens over time and with care—like any real relationship does.
A little about this place—Christ Church, New Haven—and its history and mission might be helpful. When we began our work with young adults, it grew out of the disciplined life of prayer and spirituality that forms the core of Christ Church's identity. One of our first steps was to look at our history to figure out where our deepest joy is found as a parish. In our history were a couple of key elements. First, we are a place of regular prayer. We say the Daily Office with regularity, praying on behalf of the whole congregation daily.
We hear confessions, offer daily Mass, believe strongly in the Real Presence, say the Daily Office, offer Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and hold Our Lady in high esteem. These are all integral parts of a Catholic faith that sustain this community. They point toward "the thing itself" which we hold dear—that we worship a living God that condescends to come among us. We also have women serving as priests, have long supported LGBT inclusion, and support a degree of freedom in matters of conscience such as birth control.
We embody, in manifold ways, the intertwining of the past and the future in a way that holds fast to that which is essential to our identity while drawing from that tradition to find new ways of welcoming those at the margins into the life of faith. We balance holy tradition with reason and scripture in such a way that the individual is neither left unmoored to their own devices nor denied the dignity of conscience. This life together is supported by the comprehensive underpinnings of a creedal theology and Prayer Book Catholicism.
The building is never empty, but always in use, even when there are few or no people around. The very stones of this building are always lifting prayer up. Second, we are a place of the Eucharist. Part of our founding was to offer Communion regularly. Who we are and how we live in the world around us is formed by our encounter at the altar. Third, we are a place of mission. We were established in a place called Poverty Square as a parish that offered free seating at a time when pews were rented. It continues to be crucial that who we are includes any and all who come and pray regardless of their status or ability to pay.
Growing out of those key marks of our identity, in 1910 Father Frederick Burgess established deaconesses in habit (nun's garb) to be resident at Christ Church. They lived in a residence called Saint Hilda's House; they would serve the sacristy of the church, the children of the church school, and the poor and orphaned of New Haven until the early seventies, operating a free medicine clinic, soup kitchen, and many other ministries. In remembrance of their work and in that tradition, we have retained the name Saint Hilda's House.
As we began to form Saint Hilda's in its current form, we looked to our history first as a starting point. Having that history helps us articulate who we are authentically as a body. It gives us a distinctive way to engage the faith and help others to come and see something of Jesus expressed and encountered in the beauty of holiness.
We have also been a place, given our location in the heart of Yale University in New Haven, with a long tradition of forming people for ministry. Countless numbers of people have come through this place and been called into service in the Church in various ways. Recently a photo of me wearing a red chasuble from my ordination was online—we had a wonderful conversation trying to remember the many, many people who had been ordained wearing that same set over the decades here.
So we have a history of disciplined prayer, sacramental life together, service in the community, and forming young people for ministry. We have the model of the deaconesses offering themselves in community as they lived, prayed, and served for the glory of God. All of those elements are drawn together and we build on those things that mark who we are as a parish and give us joy. We formed Saint Hilda's House—a residential young adult community devoted to spiritual formation in intentional community in 2010. It is a community marked by regular prayer, spiritual discipline, corporate worship, and missional engagement in the wider city through their placement sites and community service.
Our interns come from across the country and many from backgrounds that are not Episcopalian. We are very clear that this is a program with a distinctly Anglican charism. It is designed to share that authentic expression of the faith that shapes and guides their corporate life. They live in a community in which there is little private space, minimal personal funds, with a high degree of structure in the schedule. The entirety of the program is designed to draw them out of themselves even as they get to know themselves more deeply through sacrificial living with others.
After looking at our history and identity, we began to put together a theological articulation of why we were doing this. What shape would our life together take? For us, it made sense for our life as a community to take on the shape of the Eucharist. We titled the curriculum Life: Consecrated. Its goal is to help our interns see how the Holy Spirit, which descends on common elements like bread and wine, making them holy things for the feeding of God's people, is present in their own lives and forming them to be the Body so that they may draw others to a living encounter with Christ. The whole of their lives is being transformed for holy work—consecrated to God's purpose.
The curriculum begins with considering how we come together and prepare for Mass. Who is coming together? Why are we here? What are we doing to respond to God's action in our lives? All of these are part of preparing for Communion. We make the move toward the offertory from there. As part of offertory, we consider questions of sacrifice and giving to God. Within both the preparation and offertory, we consider how we confess to God those things that may be blocking our experience of the Holy.
From preparation and offertory, we move to consecration. In many ways, this forms the heart of the curriculum as we consider how we are transformed to be part of God's action in the world. By grace, we come to be more of Christ, and are fed even as we learn to feed others. After consecration, we move to breaking and sharing. We consider this portion of the curriculum, which roughly corresponds to Lent, to be critical. In this section, we ask questions of doubt, hurt, pain, loss, and need and their impact on the life of faith. Finally, we come to the section on going forth. In this section, we summarize what we have talked about through the year and we discuss where the interns go from that point on in Christian living. We help them figure out how they will "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord."
These young people are looking for a faith that will demand their best and transform their lives. They are not looking for easy answers, vague spiritualities, close up "watered-down" theology, slipshod worship, therapeutic relativism, private faith, or a monocultural God. They are desperately searching for a Church that offers an encounter with the Holy that transforms, convicts, inspires, and draws them in.
They are searching for a Church that demands their best. Whether it is in mission, worship, theology, or daily life, they want a Church that is relevant not because it tries to tell them only what they want to hear, but because it offers them a vision of the Holy and its transforming power. A Church that reaches for and preaches relevance is a Church that makes itself irrelevant. The quest for relevance is the mark of quiescent extinction.
Questing for relevance, as if it is a goal worth achieving in and of itself, is a sad and tired pursuit. It is not relevance that defines a people or that marks transformational leadership, but authenticity, passion, and purpose. It is passion for God that shines through and marks a Church as Holy, as set aside for God's use, and as deeply and overwhelmingly relevant.
There is a profound difference between a Church that is "relevant" and a Church that matters. We are relevant only insofar as we offer a way for our believers to have their lives formed to the pattern of Christ's own life. We are relevant only insofar as we offer cruciform living and it is only in offering that transformation that we matter.
Young people are not looking for the easy path in life. They don't mind a challenge—it is too often us who fear the challenge. They are not looking for the path of least resistance. Look at the number of young people participating in the Occupy movement across the country or those joining Teach for America, the Peace Corps, the Episcopal Service Corps, Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Americorps, Lutheran Volunteer Corps, and the countless other service programs that call young people to live sacrificial lives in the service of others. These young people are not trying to find an easy path—they are trying to find a path that makes a difference both to themselves and to others.
The Church must honor that deep desire by offering more—by offering them all that we have ever had to offer—the life-changing encounter with Christ. Young people are searching for a way of being that is honest and rooted in something greater than themselves; the Church has been too timid about offering that. We can do so with joy, for we are part of a Church that has a way of being the Body together that honors individual gifts while also calling us to a higher common identity.
Many church meetings these days feel a bit like a wake for the Church:
"Oh, I just remember the good times ..." "You know, God has a plan for these things ..."
I keep waiting for someone to say "It looks so peaceful ... so natural ..."
There is deep-seated fear, sadness, and a sense of loss that are palpable in the Church these days—and there are reasons for grief. Yet we are now tasked with moving on (grieving a bit) and getting back to the work of God. The world's need for news of God's love is too great for us to indulge in self-pity and strained good-byes to a Church that never really existed.
The only thing the Church has to offer and has ever had to offer is the worship of God who calls us to relationship. That worship is the heart of evangelism. It is the pulse of outreach. It is the essence of the history and future of the Church.
I am not talking of worship in the ritual sense—though that is vital too. I am speaking of something deeper, the turning of the heart toward God. This is what the Church is called to—turn its heart, the heart of its believers, and the heart of the world around us toward God. It is the genuflection of the heart in awe.
One of our teenagers, whose parents attend another parish, came to Christ Church because, as she told her dad, "The Prayer Book offers so much!" She was searching for a place that honestly tries to live into the fullness of our common identity as Anglicans. She was searching for a place that knows that the Church has so much to offer—and is part of the group of young people holding us accountable to offer it!
The next generation of church leaders is ideally prepared to bring the Church forward. They understand the complexity of human nature and society. They value honesty and real relationships (despite how we might disparage the falsity of Facebook and the like). They have a healthy approach to life that finds identity more in relationships than career. They have seen both the challenges of fundamentalist religion and the costs, especially to families, of a society without grounding. They are always searching for the real amidst hypermarketing. They are generally optimistic and not saddled with cynicism or with a reflexive distrust of (and desire to deconstruct) everything. They are trying to figure out how to put the pieces back together again.
In other words, they are prepared to lead a Church that is grounded, honest, thoughtful, optimistic, complex, and engaged. For those despairing for the future of the Church, I can honestly say that we have a generation of leaders coming who will make all of us very proud. However, we have to have the courage to pass on to them a Church that knows who and what it is. We will be deeply blessed as our leadership becomes increasingly intergenerational.
For these young adults, the social dislocation and rebellion of the 1960s are over. I have heard it said that many in the Church hope to wake up and have it be suddenly 1950 all over again when full buildings and bulging institutions were the norm. Of course this unhealthy impulse impedes mission and ministry. However, it is equally unhealthy to wake up and expect it to be 1968 all over again too. We have no more need for the Church of the '60s than we do for the Church of the '50s. We need to be ready for the Church that is actually around us and to hear the voices of young people calling us into new life.
Excerpted from Yearning by ROBERT HENDRICKSON. Copyright © 2013 Robert Hendrickson. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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