June 29, 2010 – July Newsletter (update of a seminary reflection)
One of my courses at the seminary in June, Preaching as a Contextual Word, was an enlightening journey into our cultural context and its impact on preaching and the life of the church. Our culture has changed and is changing rapidly, decisively, and irreversibly; do we have a word to speak to this culture, in a way that can be heard, especially (though not exclusively) by youth and emerging adults (approximately ages 18-30), the population least represented in the church today?
As I approach my fortieth birthday, I left emerging adulthood behind nearly a decade ago. In retrospect, my ordination at age 30 (married with two young children, soon to be three) marked my transition from emerging adulthood to adulthood. And yet, I was an emerging adult in a similar (though not identical) cultural context to today. I remember after college in my early 20s, when I was discerning vocational (and indeed spiritual) possibilities and drifting from Minnesota, over the Mexican border, and back, I listened to the U2 song “The Wanderer” many times over. I had forgotten about the song, until recently, I happened to listen to it for the first time in years. U2 recruited Johnny Cash to sing the song, released in 1993. Looking back over the span of years, the song captured some of the sense of wandering and searching that I was experiencing at the time:
I went out riding down that old eight-lane
I passed a thousand signs looking for my own name.
I went with nothing but the thought you’d be there too,
Looking for you.
I was wandering, searching for – or forging – my identity, not by following in my parents and grandparents footsteps as people had done in the past, but through personal discernment and choice – not alone, but without much input from my home church either. My search took me from an Evangelical Covenant mission on the Mexican border, to working with special adults in Minnesota, to getting married, to Princeton Theological Seminary, and into ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Along that road, I could have gone in many different directions, but chose one, by which, in part, my identity has been shaped.
That, in a sense, is the task of emerging adulthood: identity formation – discovering yourself and growing as a person. How does the church respond to that task among our youth and emerging adults today? How can we help in the task of identity formation as followers of Jesus Christ? Why do so many emerging adults leave the church to find their identity, with less and less of them returning as they get older? How can we change from being a community to which one may belong only when one ‘has it all together’ (married, with a career and children) to being a community that welcomes and makes room precisely for people who do not ‘have it all together,’ but are searching, wandering, discerning, doubting, questioning, and forging identity? Because, in the end, none of us really ‘has it all together;’ we are all broken, imperfect creatures. We don’t come to church because we are perfect: we come to church because we are not perfect, because we need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, experience the grace and mercy of God as members of the body of Christ together, and have our identities shaped by God our Creator. What about our life as a congregation might we need to creatively re-imagine and renew to reach out especially to youth and emerging adults, but also to all people who are searching for an identity rooted in Christ?