( The following is the text of my sermon delivered Sunday Sept 20, 2004 at St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Westfield NY.)
Whenever I prepare for a Sunday morning like this one I take a look at the scripture readings for the day to see if they have any inspiration for me. After wading my way through some pretty grim stuff I found a phrase that grabbed me in the Gospel. It was the reminder that we can not serve two masters. When a phrase or passage grabs me like that I begin to look at how that speaks to youth ministry both here at St. Peter’s and in our diocese.
Our young people today are called by two masters. The first master is the culture that surrounds our young people, a culture that is shallow, self centered and insidious. It wants us all to believe that we will gain happiness through things. Let me give you an example: There’s a TV promo on the Jamestown cable system promoting cable TV versus satellite. A pretty teenage girl who complains she has so much homework it’s interfering with watching her favorite TV shows! But her friends told her that if she just got a new DVR then she’d never miss another program. You see silly things like homework keep trying to get in the way of the important things, like the new season of Survivor.
The other master is or should be their church as the expression of their lives in faith. I worry that the voice of this second master calls too softly to be heard for many of our young people. Here’s another example - a congregation I knew very well. They had a full Sunday school program for all ages where they did nice classes teaching their young people all the stories of the Bible. When the kids were a little older they got confirmed and became acolytes. But they had this problem that once their kids became teens they just kind of drifted off. I know of one young man who went off to church camp and came back really fired up about his faith. He came back with a lot of questions and wanted to talk about them and how it related with his life in High school. Unfortunately for him the curriculum for that year didn’t include discussion groups. You see they had this book they were supposed to read and talk about. So after a couple years of getting pumped up about his faith at camp and deflated at church he just stopped going. His parents fought with him for a while but in the end it was just easier this way. Astoundingly that young man grew up to become the Youth Missioner for the Episcopal Diocese of WNY. I’d love to tell you that my home congregation was an anomaly. Except that the Episcopal congregation in the town where I went to college, a parish that was right across the street from almost half the dormitories on campus, that sat just a few lots away from the largest off campus student housing complex in the area never made the smallest effort to reach out to those young people in the 4 years that I spent in the community.
The question that faces us today is how do we bring the voice of faith into our young people’s live, how do we communicate that faith clearly so that they will not only hear us but want to listen.
I spend a lot of time studying youth ministry and I’ve seen lots of approaches. Some folks look for the perfect curriculum or program. I call it the magic box syndrome. Once you find the magic box you open it and all your problems are solved. Then there are the places that will do what ever it takes to have the youth show. They have lots of fun "events". The idea appears to be that if you can get the youth into the vicinity of church often enough they’ll catch faith along the way. Maybe it’ll rub off on them. There are the study intensive ideas and the mission intensive ideas. There’s books you can buy, and video series available for only 149.94. Maybe we need worship services with rock bands, or Taize chants or interpretive dance. Ways that engage our young people using music and video and computers so that we are speaking to them in the formats with which they are most comfortable.
The question arises however is that all that faith is? Another set of rules, another music video, another class, no matter entertainingly presented for them to sit through?
So the question becomes how do we make this second voice heard? We’ve tried different things over the years in our diocese. In 1948 this diocese opened Camp Carleton to help bring young people into a deeper relationship with God. For many adults today the memories from those camps are still vivid and form an important part of their growth as people of faith. If you grew up somewhere else, as I did, your memories may be of a different camp. Over the years our diocesan youth programs have had both highs and lows. The highs include the growth of camp program to include young people from elementary school to high school and camps that grew so large that there were waiting lists to get in. The lows include the closing of Camp Carleton in the 1970’s to the cancellation of Senior High conference this year.
In the four years that I’ve served as your diocesan youth missioner we’ve found ways to increase our outreach to our young people. Today we do more ministry with a smaller budget. There is now a diocesan youth choir, a diocese wide social event called the Bishop’s Ball, we’re exploring ideas for mission trips, the Journey to Adulthood program is up and running in some of our congregations. There are lots of other great programs and events being offered to young people in WNY. And they’re all great. But they’re not enough.
In my opinion one of the best "thinkers" in youth ministry over the last couple decades has been a guy by the name of Mike Yacconelli. Sadly for us Mike died earlier this year. Mike had this to say about the fight between faith and culture:
"We're attempting to convince the world how good Jesus is by how great we are. This is precisely how Madison Avenue sells toothpaste, automobiles, and underwear. People don't need any more images of success, wealth, and power; they're surrounded already. What they need are their sins forgiven. What they need is healing. What they need is love."
I believe that helping young people hear the voice of the true master is vitally important. Not because I think it’s the thing to do, or because I work for the church. I’ve seen study after study that shows that young people who are involved in their faith do better in life and have fewer problems. It’s NOT a magic bullet, there are plenty of young people involved at church who still get into trouble and have problems. But the numbers go down from the rest of the population. Why is that? Because they’re given something to compare to when they have to make decisions. They’re given the support they need, they’re given the love they need, they have at least the beginnings of a belief that someone, somewhere believes in them, is watching over them, someone cares about them. Those are gifts they can carry with them for the rest of their lives.
I don't believe that these gifts come from a program or a worship service or a video series. All those things can support the process but they are empty without...us. The greatest example of a life in faith, the greatest model that our young people can learn from is the one that surrounds them here.
Now this next part involves asking some uncomfortable questions. If we believe that a life in faith is important for our young people, if we believe that the voice they need to hear most clearly is the voice of divine love are we, the adults, willing to live that out in our own lives? As parents are we willing to say that church is more important than sports? Are we willing to say that our faith is important enough to us that we won’t park somewhere illegally, that we won’t fudge a story to avoid taking responsibility, that we will keep our promises to pay our pledge so the youth group has the funds to get the stuff they need even if it means NOT buying that new golf club? Are we willing to look across the aisle at the young person with the piercings and the tattoos and the weird hair cut and treat them as a child of God and a brother or sister in Christ?
Or is church really just a Sunday morning thing? Is it really separate from the rest of our lives and has no effect on the rest of the week? Which master do we hear most clearly in our own lives? Which voice do our young people see us following in our day to day lives? We can not serve two masters.
Let me tell you another story about how we can really make the voice of the true master heard to our young people. This is a true story about a young woman from here in WNY. We’ve changed a few details about the story, including her name, to protect her privacy. But she’s told me I can use this story. So let’s call her Lucy. Lucy was a pretty typical teenage girl. She was a outgoing, friendly girl from a small town very much like Westfield. She was into school and friends and church in her small town. Lucy had a warm, giving heart. It was that heart that caused her to ask her family if they would let a young man from her school live with them for a while. He had been having some troubles and had left home because of them. Her family agreed. The story takes a nasty turn here. The young man sexually assaulted her and left her pregnant. Can you imagine the hurt? Can you imagine the betrayal? Can you imagine the pain of having to tell her family? At that moment Lucy’s family wrapped her in their arms around her. Lucy’s church did the same and the young people that Lucy had come to know through diocesan events like camp and Happening did the same. Today Lucy is once again working towards her dreams, she’s become a leader among the youth and has even begun to tell this story herself. She’s also raising a beautiful little baby.
This is the vision of the church that our young need to see. They need a church that will do more than talk about forgiveness and healing and love. They need a church that will live out those ideals, not only on Sunday but every day. They need a church that understands who the master is and makes that master a part of everything we do.
There are challenges still ahead of us. But if you look beyond them you see what could happen in our churches and with our youth. If we refuse to let them stop us what might we find in the future? Churches that are growing, young people staying to continue to grow and mature, new energy in our congregations, new ministries, not simply for young people but new ministries of young people. Young people changing their lives, changing their congregation, changing their home town, changing their state and their nation. Changing the world. All because they heard the master’s voice. All because they knew the master’s voice. All because they obeyed the master’s voice.
We can not serve two masters. Because if we try we will love one and hate the other. Which master would we have our young people choose? Which master will they see us choose? Choose.