Dealing with Our Struggles

Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, 10 July 2011. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Genesis 25: 19 – 24, Romans 8: 1 – 11, and Matthew 8: 1 – 9, 18 – 23.

I am at the New Milford/Edenville United Methodist Church (Location of Church) again this morning. Summer services start at 9:30 and you are always welcome there.


I think that I mentioned last week that I have two daughters, born three years apart, and of course, I am exceedingly proud of them. When I think back to the days when their mother was pregnant I remember how we could feel them moving about, anxious to leave the womb and get on with life. There isn’t much that I would trade for those experiences and the birth of each of my daughters.

I found out a few years later that twins are a natural occurrence on both sides of the family. There is some folklore that says that when there are twins in your family, they will appear in every other generation. And it was my generation’s turn to have twins but it wasn’t to be so perhaps when my grandchildren have children of their own, the trait of twins will appear. Still, I can only imagine what it might have been like to have the doctor come out and tell me that I was the father of twins.

That is what is so important about the reading from the Old Testament for today. As any parent will attest, there is something unique when you feel that young child begin to move inside the womb. We would like to think that Rachel was overjoyed to feel the twins moving inside of her but we also know, from our reading of the Old Testament today, that the struggle between Esau and Jacob that began in the womb would continue long after they grew up. And this would have naturally given her concern.

It should be natural for siblings to struggle, to strive and compete against each other. But it should be friendly and competitive. I didn’t play football when I was growing up; actually, I was involved in something more important, band. It is not often that a parent can watch their children compete against each other and be able to root equally for each of them. But both of my brothers played football and there is the memorable game in our family history when Raleigh-Egypt High School played Bartlett High School. The uniqueness of this game was that my brother Terry played halfback on the Bartlett offense and my brother Tim was playing for the Raleigh-Egypt defense at the same time.

But there are times when the prophecy of Esau and Jacob comes true for other families as well; times when the struggle is serious and deadly. With this being the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we are reminded of the struggle that engulfed this country and tore families apart and pitted brother against brother.

But the greatest struggle that each one of us face each day is an understanding of who we are and what our purpose in this world might be. We find ourselves struggling with questions of why does hunger, sickness, famine, and war exist in this world? We struggle with questions about poverty and wealth and who is truly favored in God’s eyes. We know that there are answers to these questions and we expect our church to be the one place where we might find those answers.

We want a certain degree of structure in our lives; we want our laws to be firm and fast, clear and concise. We hear so many people today say that if our society was a true Christian society, based on Judeo-Christian law, then we wouldn’t have all these problems. The only problem with this particular logic is that most people don’t know what the law they are referring to actually says. This is the image of the church, of a fixed and inflexible institution, out of touch with today and insisting on an adherence to a set of laws that perhaps don’t even exist in the Bible.

Against this backdrop we see individuals leaving the church, not singularly but in groups. They look at the church today and wonder how it came to be and why it cannot answer the questions that make up the meaning of life, even when that is often the unstated reason for the church.

Barrett Owen has written an interesting article entitled “Why Millennials Rarely Connect with Churches?” The Millennial Generation is that generation born in the period from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s; they are the children of the Baby Boom Generation. It is a generation that is leaving the church and there are many that cannot understand why.

It is a migration that goes beyond moving from home to college and onto their own lives; it is a migration from the church itself. It is a migration that confounds many parents and church authorities alike. And many experts would say that if we understood this generation, then we might be able to “save the church.”

And though we should be careful when we make generalizations about a collective group, be they Millennials, Generation X, or Baby Boomers, if we understand what they are thinking, perhaps we can understand what we have to do. First, let me say that creating a list of solutions based on these ideas is called marketing and marketing the church will never work.

So, with that caveat, here are some thoughts on the Millennial Generation:

  • They do not care about the institutional church. They do not tithe and have rejected traditional church offerings. They will refuse, reject, and rebuff denominational loyalty if it means causing separation, marginalization, or ostracizing an individual or a group of individuals.
  • Words such as “community”, “intentionality”, and “ecumenism” are mentioned long before words such as “doctrine”, “controversy”, or “resurgence.”
  • They are finding alternative and creative forms of giving.
  • They are building foundational beliefs about faith and morality that are based on experiential truths as opposed to doctrinal or creedal statements. This is not your normal Sunday school lesson they are learning and developing!
  • They will say that Jesus is the fullest expression of God’s love but they will also say that it is not the only expression. They will say that they are spiritual but not religious. They will seek to find God and they are not necessarily looking in the traditional places.
  • They have a lot to offer; they have optimism and a need for reconciliation which is desperately needed in this world today. They are motivated, not offended; they care about creation, people, worldviews, religions, art, creativity and beauty.
  • Faith, for millennials, is less about doctrine or institutional fellowship and more about experiential learning. Beliefs that speak of wholeness over segregation and separation, love over hate, commonalities over discrepancies, activism over bitterness, shared stories over division and missional engagement over doctrinal supremacy have become their heart’s cry.

Owen wondered if all this adds up to the death knell of today’s church. As Owen put it, “Giving up on financially supporting denominational bodies or larger institutions is a risky hope. It’s a hope that something new will emerge. But since this group doesn’t like division, corporate advancement or institutions, I wonder what could ever create enough momentum to have longevity?”

And then Jesus spoke of the sower sowing his seeds in the garden. Some of the seeds landed on rocky ground, where they withered and died. Some landed amongst the weeds and while they grew for a while, they too eventually died, choked by the other plant growth that stole the nutrients. But some landed on fertile soil, where they flourished and grew. And there was a good harvest amongst those that landed on the fertile soil.

What type of church do you have? Is it one filled with rocks and boulders, one where seeds planted have no chance to grow? Or is it one filled with weeds and other plants that choke off the growth of the other plants? Or is it the one with the fertile soil that gives growth to new ideas and plans?

I have seen some churches where this latter field exists. But I have also seen many churches that are rocky and nothing grows as well as many churches that have much growth but most of the growth is in the form of weeds that choke off the growth of the good flowers. And I know that you can turn a church that is filled with rocks or one with weeds into one with fertile ground. It is a matter of whether or not the church members wanted to get involved and get their hands dirty. I doubt that many today who long for such a church, a church where faith is more than a word, even know that such a church once existed.

The early church was an experiential church; it was church, not of words but of deeds. Experiential learning does not take place in the classroom; it takes place in the field. And the church of two thousand years ago bears little resemblance to the church of today. The churches that Paul wrote about met in people’s houses and not specifically built sanctuaries. In fact, when many gathered together to read the letter that Paul had recently written them, they probably gathered in secret because there was the fear of persecution. The structured church, with denominations and doctrines, is a product of the post-Constantine era, the period when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the de-facto state religion. If we were more like those early churches, or even more like the early Methodist churches, perhaps we wouldn’t be struggling as much today.

Paul points out that if Christ is a part of our life today, the struggles we face are minimal. Our own self becomes secondary when Christ is the center-piece of our life. Somewhere along the line we became convinced that the church was about us and not Jesus or God. And when that happened we started to become the church that now either scares away or drives away those who offer much hope. Pastor Owen is right that the Millennial Generation will not find what it seeks if it runs away from what it fears; the same is true for us and sometimes all we have to do is look around and know how true that is. But we can deal with our struggles if we quit dealing with our struggles and begin doing the work of God. The challenge is there and the call is there. If we do not answer the call, our struggles will continue for we will continue seeking answers. But if we answer the call, if we accept Christ into our heart and soul, then we can quit dealing with our struggles. And if we begin to make the church what it once was, then we will help others to deal with their struggles as well.

Last week, I used “Be Thou My Vision” as a preparation hymn, to prepare you for the message. Today, I use it as the invitational hymn, to invite you to vision the world that lies before you. Shall it be a world of rocks and weeds, a world of struggle and strife, or will it be a world of wonderful growth and wonderful harvests?

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