As Advent approaches, with Christmas hard on its heels, one of the first people who come to mind for me this year is Herod. Odd, isn’t it? Sheryl’s attention turns to the Christmas movies showing on the Hallmark Channel and to the lighted reindeer we just put out to graze on the front lawn. My attention is grabbed by the “evil genius of Judea,” the puppet king who was at once the greatest builder in Jewish history and a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis. He was so intent on eliminating Jesus and the threat Jesus posed to his reign, he ordered the “slaughter of the innocents,” the murder of all the infants in and around Jerusalem who were two years old or younger (Matt. 2:16-18).
Herod comes to mind, I suppose, because his response to change is different from that of many only in degree, not in kind. Newspaper headlines proclaim the decline, and some even the fall, of the mainstream Western church, and a lot of people in the establishment are getting twitchy. We’re a long way from even thinking about killing infants to protect our place in the nation and culture. But are we really all that far, sometimes, from “slaughtering innocents,” suppressing the ascendency of some new thing that will supplant our dominance in the recent history of the church?
Among many in the rising generations, the great wealth of the church’s tradition is being lost. At least they’re losing touch with it. I feel sad about that. But so what? My generation has already lost touch with a wealth of tradition that, just when we need it most, could nourish and sustain us deeply. We call ourselves “Methodist,” but face it, most of us haven’t a clue what it means to be Methodist and wouldn’t like to try it if we did know. For better or worse, we’ve adapted to our time and place the faith traditions we inherited, making them our own and giving them new shape.
That’s all the rising generations are doing, it seems to me. They’re asking the question Emerson asked in his essay “Nature”: Why should the present generation masquerade in the faded wardrobe of the past? They demand what we all should demand, an experience of insight and not of tradition, a religion of revelation to us and not the history of someone else’s. There are signs they’re getting it.
At Imagine What’s Next, a United Methodist conference for college students sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, held Nov. 7-9 in Denver, 600 college students and collegiate ministers pointed to a star that has appeared over the place where God seems to be bringing some new thing to birth. Brian Sigmon, an editor of adult teaching and learning resources at the United Methodist Publishing House, described what he saw there.
“I saw powerful, moving worship. Worship was thoughtful and enthusiastic, and it regularly went over schedule (in the very best way). It continued afterwards out into the common areas, as people kept right on singing, praying, and speaking God’s word to one another.
“I saw our connectional church at its best. Every student I met has a deep desire to serve God and neighbor. Many of them connected with the agencies and seminaries of the United Methodist Church to explore what that will look like in their future.
“I saw technology used responsibly and effectively. Online interaction enhanced, not hindered, our real-world experience of Christian community. Event organizers used Livecube to manage the event’s social media presence, enabling participants to interact in real time and share insights and celebrations with one another throughout the weekend. It was a look at how social media can be done right to build up our churches.
“I saw the Spirit moving. The hotel’s atrium, our main gathering space, had a piano off to one side. More than once, two or three would begin playing and singing hymns, and others would quickly join in. A small group quickly would become 15, then 20, then 30, playing the piano, drumming on chairs, and singing loudly and beautifully in praise of God.
“I saw ministers and student leaders guiding the body of Christ within college communities. One Wesley Foundation celebrates communion weekly and builds their life together around worship. Another gathers its students into intentional Christian communities within their college campus, making their Christian walk a daily lived experience.
“I saw ordinary Christians being faithful. My favorite moment was speaking with two 20-year-olds who attend church every week, without fail. They want to serve God in other ways as well, but I was struck most by their steadfast, ordinary faithfulness. One talked about how she spends her Saturday nights differently than her peers, because Sunday morning church is non-negotiable.”
The star of New Church has ascended and is beckoning new generations of the faithful. Frankly, these up-and-coming generations are going to dethrone us who’ve had our time at the helm of the institution, and they ought to do so. Unless we’re like Herod, trying to suppress the threat of change with our inertia and our need to control the church’s future, we had better get accustomed to what’s coming. We will welcome what comes and hand over our heritage to faithful and spiritually gifted hands; we will encourage them do with it what they will; and we will cooperate with them as they give birth to a new expression of Christ’s church.