God’s Runaway Train

TrainThat is the image that came to me this morning as I thought about the journey we have all been forced into in this awkward, troubling, and fertile time. I can’t help but think and feel that something really big is happening to us, among us, and around us right now.

Yesterday was a sobering and revealing day for me. I heard in the context of a meeting two different statistics that woke me up to a sobering reality. The strange thing is that it seems like every week I am having some new sobering-reality-wake-up-call and they just keep coming like waves in the ocean.

The two statistics that woke me up were these two realities:

  • On July 1, 2019 Millennials overtook Boomers as the largest generation and the percent of the U.S. population that was Millennial or younger was 52%, and;
  • In a Racism Index study white mainline Protestants showed higher levels of racist attitudes (69%) than white non-religious Americans (42%).

blindnessLately there has been a lot of talk about structural racism and structural bias. While I believe there is truth to these increasingly obvious realities I also feel a certain blindness to them—which is, of course, a big part of the problem—people just like me! Those of us who have racist attitudes by virtue of the DNA of our culture often can’t see them because it’s just the sea we swim in.

But hearing these two statistics woke me up to this reality just a little more and it was the first statistic that helped me see the second statistic.

While the church has long yearned to “get the young people back in church” I suddenly heard that refrain in a completely different light. I realized that the young people we keep talking about are now almost 40 years of age and now represent a majority of the U.S. population. Our refrain to get the young people back always felt like we were pondering, “How can we bring this loosely established minority group into our established majority community?” Hearing the 52% statistic made me realize that we have crossed a threshold. Now we might be asking, “How can our dwindling minority community be attractive to a growing majority demographic?” Those youths we keep yearning for now outnumber us.

assimilationThe statistic made me realize that there is a whole new structure emerging in our culture that is not dependent on our traditional structures or even values. For decades we have written books and offered workshops on “how to assimilate” new people into the church. I suddenly realized that in this new environment assimilation is the problem. Isn’t that what we are hearing? People don’t want to be assimilated into our culture. They don’t want to have to fit into OUR structure!

Why would a 52% growing majority younger demographic want to assimilate into a declining aging demographic?

And then the second statistic made sense to me. I could see it.

Why would a group that scores lower on racist attitudes want to assimilate into a group that scores 65% higher on racist attitudes?

gay menAs I thought about this, I remembered the comments of our featured speaker at the Lectionary Seminar in 2018 at Menucha. Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary New Testament scholar, Luis Menéndez-Antuña, was speaking about the shift in the LGBTQIA culture over the last three decades. He said that in the early years of the fight for gay and lesbian rights the chant was, “We want what you have. We demand equal rights.” He said the refrain today is, “Why would we want what you have? We demand you get to know us on our terms.”

What I keep hearing—finally—is a problem with structure. “We don’t want what you have! We want to create our own world and our own structure.”

And then I thought about the obvious implications of this:

Could these words be applied to our young people (meaning 40 and under!)?

We don’t want what you have!

Could these words be applied to our secular white non-religious neighbors?

We don’t want what you have!

Could these words be applied to our African American brothers and sisters?

We don’t want what you have!

Could these words be applied to the LGBTQIA community?

We don’t want what you have!

Could these words be applied to single and divorced people?

We don’t want what you have!

Could these words be applied to any person and any community who has felt that they don’t belong in the structures of the established church?

We don’t want what you have!

  • art image personMaybe it is time to quit trying to force the world to fit into our structures.
  • Maybe assimilation workshops are part of the problem.
  • Maybe it’s time to question whether our structures serve the cause of justice and peace, mirror the liberating message of the gospel, and bring greater glory to God.

Maybe it’s time to let others teach us and lead us and educate us.

TrainMaybe it’s time to get on board or get out of the way of God’s runaway train.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

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