Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
November 4, 2018
Text: Deuteronomy 6:3, O.T.: Deuteronomy 6:1-9, N.T.: Hebrews 9:11-12
Tree of Life Synagogue was showing the same challenges we are seeing as Presbyterian Christians.
The people who died, and the descriptions of the congregation suggested an aging population were in worship on a Sabbath day that was not a “high holy day.” All too many Jewish and Christian congregations are seeing a similar pattern. Younger generations aren’t in worship as much as older generations.
When you look at congregation demographic statistics for Pittsburgh Presbytery, about 32 percent of total church membership is under 45. In 15-20 years, if current trends continue, only 25 percent of that age group will remain to serve Jesus Christ in congregations. This lower figure shows the attrition that will occur as a result of young people leaving organized religion or leaving the Presbyterian Church for other denominations.
These statistics represent a critical fact about the condition of religion in America. The transfer of faith from one generation to the next is not happening. Billions of dollars have been donated for youth ministers, children’s ministries, and youth mission trips for over 60 years. Recreational centers have been built by congregations for church youth to attract them. Retreat centers have multiplied. Christian music concerts and evangelization events for teens have come and gone. Articulate national speakers have repeatedly told the Church’s youth, “You are going to make a difference! You are going to change the world for Jesus Christ! You are the future of the Church!” Only to see too many walk away.
The percentage of teens who attend such youth events pales in comparison with those who chase after pop music icons and youth film industry stars. There is no strong data that these events have stemmed the tide of teens and 20-year-olds leaving the Church. The Church of Jesus Christ has heavily invested in evangelizing youth. Presbyterians have made significant investments in youth ministry resources. Yet the statistics tell the story of American church decline and the loss of several generations of confirmands. Transferring Christian faith in this social climate is tremendously challenging.
It is tempting to say we failed. It is tempting to say we will never succeed. Everything is stacked against us.
I’m sorry if that’s where you are. I understand why you feel this way. There are a lot of parents and grandparents who still come to church but are in grief for their children and grandchildren’s absence from the Church.
You didn’t fail. The forces of our culture have been set against you. You were parents in isolated homes with church leaders who didn’t understand how the cultural landscape was changing around you.
Don’t give up. It’s never too late to give your faith to your family and younger generations. For those of you who are parents, you will always be parents and grandparents until the day you enter the Kingdom of God. It’s a matter of how you are going to give your faith in this social climate that is before us this morning.
For those of you who are children, who are receiving faith instruction from parents, you are living in a world that is doing everything possible to strip you from your parents’ faith in Jesus Christ. The world is feeding you fake faith as an alternative to the Church’s teaching through parents and Sunday school teachers.
The world is giving you alternative lessons from the Bible’s teaching that it claims are superior for living life. You’re being fed fake information. It’s a lie.
Let’s look at today’s reading from Deuteronomy to see how it begins to inform you about how faith is to be transferred from one generation to the next. Deuteronomy is written during the period of religious reform of King Josiah in the seventh century before Jesus. It’s a call for religious re-vitalization of God’s people. Deuteronomy 6 lies at the center of the call for reform.
It had been nearly 500 years from the time of Moses and Israel was straying from worshipping God. Some of Israel had begun worshipping the gods and goddesses of the Canaanites. Others were including into their worship sorcery and magic that came from other religions. Although they called themselves God’s chosen people, they were gradually slipping into alternative lifestyles and beliefs that did not represent God.
By invoking Moses’ authority as the source of God’s command, the writer of Deuteronomy challenges Israel to worship God whole-heartedly. Give it all you’ve got! All your heart! All your soul! All your might!
This is the first message to us today.
Give it all you got! All your heart, soul, and might! I would go on to say give it all your thought!
Think about your faith.
- Why do you believe what you believe about Jesus Christ?
- What difference does it make what you believe about Jesus Christ?
- How has your belief in Jesus Christ influenced what you do, what you say, what your goals are in life?
Write down your answers to each of these questions. Ponder them. Put time into reflecting on your answers. Then ask yourself, has anything you have written addressed the faith challenges facing young people today?
Go back to answering the questions again from the perspective of a young person. Find the similarities between your life and theirs. Begin to re-think your answers from these similarities. Re-write your answers.
Then ask yourself whether these answers show any real appreciation for God’s blessing in your life. Were your answers based on having faith in yourself; were your answers based on having faith in our nation; or, were your answers based on having faith in God and His Son Jesus Christ?
Consider whether the answers you gave show any advanced knowledge about Jesus Christ that comes from your greater experience in life that can help a younger person get through a similar experience to your own.
Second, think about your community of faith – the congregations in which you have worshipped God. The people, places, and sacrifices they made for you to believe in Jesus.
- What difference did it make to be part of a congregation of believers in Jesus Christ?
- What difference is there between being part of a congregation of Jesus believers and not being part of a congregation of believers?
Write yours answers to these questions. Ponder them. Put time into reflecting on your answers. Then ask yourself, has anything you wrote reason enough for a younger Christian to want to be a member of a church?
Go back to answering the questions from the perspective of a young person. Did you make a convincing case for what the Church offers that a young person can’t find as a citizen in our country? If not, why not?
These two lines of thinking that we’ve examined this morning are critical for successfully transferring our faith from one generation to the next. How many of us have already given serious thought to such questions before today?
When we’re surrounded by signs that our faith in Jesus Christ is not being successfully accepted by younger generations, and they have no compelling reason to be members of a congregation, why haven’t we been scrutinizing our involvement in the problem.
Religious reform needs a compelling reason to change. Deuteronomy 6 doesn’t offer God’s Word as a friendly suggestion from a loving God who doesn’t care about whether younger generations are worshipping. The compelling reason to change is we’re accountable to God and God knows were not showing accountability.
God holds every generation accountable for faith and active involvement in worshipping Him. God commands every generation to join in worshipping Him.
Is the problem that we have lost younger generations because of their independence? Or is the problem of losing younger generations that we have not made the case with enough clarity as to what it means to have faith, hope, and love for God and Christ’s mission on earth?
It may be the latter more than the former. Older generations lived in an age when we assumed younger generations would stay part of the Church. We left it to the minister to run confirmation class. We left it to Sunday school teachers to tell Bible stories to our children once a week.
We didn’t give compelling reasons for how faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to make it in this world on a daily basis. We didn’t expose the fake faith our culture poses as an alternative to Christian faith. We didn’t defend our faith in Jesus Christ against the multiple criticisms and intellectual attacks that distract younger generations from Church life.
I lay much of that responsibility at the feet of ministers like me who have not pondered the difference between Christian faith and civil religion. We have taken for granted that being a Christian means being an American and not taught congregations to know the difference.
We saw the culture changing around us. We didn’t know what it meant to bring up children in the Church in this changing environment. Too many youth group leaders thought having fun was the goal of youth groups. Not enough thought studying the Bible and Christian service were central to youth groups.
Too many Church-attending parents thought going to school was more important for their children and teens than learning an adult Christian faith. They didn’t engage their children and teens in conversations about faith in Jesus Christ around the dinner table. They didn’t help their children or teens learn how to interpret the Bible because they had stopped being Bible students themselves. They devoted more time to youth ministry than adult education for twenty and thirty and forty-year-olds who were parents.
For those who did all that, who were involved in educational opportunities in faith formation, who daily engaged their teens in conversations about Christian faith, who taught their children how to interpret the Bible and apply it to their lives, only to watch their children leave the Church – they were fighting a battle against powerful interests who criticized Christianity in government and industry.
But that is no reason to stop trying with our children, teens, and young parents. It’s not too late to begin.
It’s never too late to begin.
You have more credibility today with an adult child who has had more life experience and can better critique the fake faith the world is offering than he or she could as a teenager. Your adult children have evidence of the entertainment industry’s failure to bring them happiness. They have evidence of the failure in career satisfaction as the ultimate test of happiness.
They have evidence that reason cannot explain all that is going on in the world. They have evidence that evil persists despite laws and governments trying to stop it. They have evidence that secular education does not stop violence. They have evidence that science and medicine cannot save them from mortality.
They have evidence that life can come from death for those with faith in Jesus Christ. People all around them are being restored to life from a pathway to death because they have come to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Deuteronomy 6 reminds us that faith formation from generation to generation is a daily effort. It takes daily commitment by a mother and a father, by a grandfather and a grandmother to instruct children and grandchildren in the faith. It takes all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.
Don’t give up when you meet resistance. Your persistence in explaining your faith in Jesus Christ is a powerful witness that eventually will be recognized as authentic, if not by your children, then by the next door neighbor who is your friend. Expand the reach of Jesus Christ by teaching your faith to others each day!
It is God’s command for the reform of the Church! Amen.