The following was initially delivered as a sermon on June 12, 2016 for Christian education recognition Sunday at the Congregational Church in Exeter, but it’s relevant for your church if you are starting a new year of Christian education soon!
The Pew Research Center found in 2014 that only 14.7% of American adults are a part of a mainline Protestant denomination. That’s a church like ours, as well as Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and the like. Membership was down 3.4% in only seven years.
And numbers get worse when you look generationally. Only 11% of Millennial young adults identify as mainline Protestants, compared to 26% of their grandparents’ generation. Our own denomination has gone from over two million members in 1957 to less than one million today. And each of the other mainline denominations can tell a similar story.
We also have the worst “retention rate” when it comes to our young people with 45%, less than half, of our youth continuing to claim our tradition into young adulthood. That number dips to 37%, or just over a third, when you look at Millennials. More and more of our youth are graduating from high school, stepping out into the world, and becoming “nones”.
So what does that have to do with Christian education? And what does it have to do with this story we read today, the one where Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to enter the kingdom of heaven, they have to become like little children?
First, I think this story reminds us just how important children are, and just how much of our ministry has to be focused on them. We have to do the work that allows our youngest to get to know Jesus. They need to know that they are loved beyond measure by God. They need to know what Jesus taught about being good and kind and loving your neighbor. And they need us to make sure there are no barriers in their way as they do.
We work very hard to do that. We have a fantastic group of adult volunteers in this church. You teach Sunday school, you chaperone youth events, you show our youngest how to make music. From the very start of my ministry with you I’ve been so impressed by the way you take education and formation seriously, especially with our children and youth.
But that’s not all this text teaches. Because as much as Jesus was turning the culture of the times, and not so long ago times, on its head by saying children were supposed to be both seen and heard, he was also teaching the adults an important lesson.
Because not only was it their job to let the children come, he was telling them that they themselves had to become like children. They had to let go of their self-assurance and of appearing like they knew it all, and they had to remember what it was like to be young again. Only when they did that, could they really have a relationship with Christ.
And so what is it like to get to know Jesus the way that a child would?
I was thinking about that this week and I was thinking about how our youngest learn. I was thinking about this at the 5th grader barbecue on Friday night when we were making s’mores over a fire. The conversation moved quickly from “how can we best toast marshmallows” to “what else can we burn in the fire”?
Don’t worry…nothing burned down. But as the questions came, as well as the limits, and a few well-supervised experiments happened, I realized something: more than anything else, the youngest among us are curious.
It doesn’t matter if we are talking about campfires, or Christ. They want to learn. They want to get to know more. They are not afraid of asking questions.
That’s a gift. Because for adults asking questions often feels like a sign of weakness. Not knowing it all is a red flag to others, we think. And so we grow incurious. And we don’t grow at all.
But that’s not what Jesus asked us to do. Jesus never told us to become mindless. He never told us to stop exploring. He never wanted a church of know-it-alls who stopped learning.
He wanted the curious. And he wanted disciples.
Take a minute and think about how you understand that word “disciple”.
When you hear it do you automatically think “followers of Jesus”? That wouldn’t be surprising. The word has certainly come to take on that meaning. But the reality is that the word has been used for so many other followers too. In Jesus’ time a lot of teachers and leaders had a group of disciples.
Disciples would follow someone attentively because being a disciple, to anyone, had to do with one thing in particular: learning. Disciples sincerely thought that the person they were following had something to teach. So much so that the actual word that the original New Testament texts, written in Greek, use for disciples is mathetes. You don’t need to remember that exact word, but know that the easiest translation of it is simply this: students, or learners.
Many of you are teachers or educators of some kind. You want well-educated church leaders. And I would guess that if I asked you what wanted for their children or grandchildren or any other young person in their lives, one of the first things you would say would be “I want them to get a good education.” Or, “I want them to love learning.”
That’s a good thing because you can’t help but grow when you learn. Conversely, when you stop learning, you stop growing.
The same is true for Christians. If we stop learning and growing, then we can’t do any of the work of the church. Learning is the way we prepare to be Christians. But even in churches that are filled with highly educated people, we sometimes forget that.
In order to become disciples, simply reading and listening is not enough. One can devote hours to the academic study of Christian faith without any real desire to be a disciple. In order to be that, you have to take it one step further; you have to be willing to grow. And there is no growth I know of that does not demand change.
And spiritual growth starts with knowing your purpose, and knowing who and whose you are. A church culture that encourages this growth acts like oxygen to a fire. The flames are fed, and the fire blazes. But a church culture that dismisses faith development and spiritual growth, and that fails to cultivate a sense of purpose, acts like a natural damper. The fire will burn out, one log at a time, until all you have left are ashes.
I believe that’s one reason that the statistics aren’t looking very promising for mainline churches. Because, historically, we haven’t emphasized discipleship at every age. And if we aren’t fostering curiosity and growth for adults, they will find it elsewhere.
That’s one reason I asked everyone to read the New Testament this summer. Because you can’t read the Bible and not get more curious. This is not a book of easy answers. It’s one that invites us into a relationship. It’s one that reminds us that we don’t know everything. And it’s one that, if we come to it with the hearts of children, makes us go deeper, and grow.
If we are going to teach our children and youth well, then we have to become like them. Our own Christian growth cannot end with our last youth group meeting or Sunday school class. To be a disciple, you have to commit to growing. And you have to be as curious as the youngest among us.
Thankfully, looking around at our children and youth, we have some pretty good teachers in that respect.
By the way, is your church looking for a new book for your adult Christian education program? Want something that a reading group could devour? Check out “Glorify” here: http://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Reclaiming-Heart-Progressive-Christianity/dp/0829820299/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453486699&sr=1-1&keywords=glorify+emily+heath