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Looking for an Encounter with the Living God

A couple weeks ago, something I wrote on Facebook went viral. Well, sort of. It was a comment on a post in a group called Grown & Flown for parents of emerging adults, and it received more than 2,500 reactions and almost 200 comments. Which probably isn’t truly “viral” as these things are measured, but it was still a bigger audience than anything else I’ve ever done on social media.

The original post was anonymous, from a member of Grown & Flown, a Facebook group for parents of teenagers and young adult children, who was struggling with the fact that her young adult children had not embraced the faith that was so important to her. From the many responses, it’s obvious that she’s not alone. Indeed, one-third of Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2010) describe themselves as being of no particular religion.

How did they get there? We often blame Sunday sports for keeping kids away from church, or parents who embraced the sacraments but not a lived faith, or even clergy and Sunday School teachers for failing in our solemn duty to teach the next generation. And it’s likely all of those have played a role. But my experience with my “viral” comment and with my own children suggests something deeper may be going on.

The Grown & Flown member was not someone who had the baby baptized and somehow expected faith to take root and grow with no further effort on her part. She was a regular churchgoer and was intentional about making sure her children received instruction in the faith. She had talked about her faith and why it mattered to her. There was no obvious clash between the Zoomer generation’s core values of inclusion and tolerance and her church’s teachings. But still, her 17-year-old and 19-year-old were not interested in the faith she had tried to instill.

This is what I wrote in response:

As an Episcopal priest, I often tell parents that our goal is not to make sure our children understand God the way we do, but to give them the kind of foundation that when they find themselves longing for God’s presence, they know where to look. The rest is up to the Holy Spirit.

You feel sad because you want your children to have the kind of relationship with God that you have found so powerful. This is not a desire to force them to follow your path, but rather the offering of what you see as a most precious gift, and finding the recipient has returned it to the store because it wasn’t their style.

The good news is that this is a gift that will be there waiting when/if the day comes when they wish they had kept it. It will be available in different colors and styles to fit the person they are, and the person they will become. It will fit perfectly, even if it looks nothing like the gift you thought you were giving.

As for you, pray for them. Pray your love for them. Ask God to look after them and lead them. Ask God to reveal Godself to them. And then entrust them to God’s care, knowing that God loves them even more than you do, but God sees more than we do. For encouragement, the Bible offers us many stories of people who trusted God — reluctantly, doubtfully, uncertainly, fearfully, but still decided to trust. Read and meditate on Abraham and Sarah, Rebecca, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Elijah, Peter and Jesus. Rinse and repeat, which is the essential core of growing faith.

And sympathy — I have a son who is agnostic and a daughter who is faithful but not interested in church. I trust them and God to find their paths, as it right for them. For as Paul says in his letter to the Romans, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God.

My response comes out of my own lived experience, but I tend to think most good theology does. After all, that’s where all our theology is grounded – in Bible stories of people who encountered God and shared what they learned about God. And this is what I have learned about God – God is trustworthy and God is love.

Those two things, God’s trustworthiness and God’s love, is what my whole faith is built on. They are affirmed again and again in the pages of scripture, as God works in partnership with people to call forth the world envisioned by the Creator and shared through the prophets. They are embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. And if God is trustworthy and God is love, then God is not disappointed in my children any more than I am.

My daughter openly claims her Christian identity; she loves God and values Christian community. But she’s at an age where she’s moving every few years, and the thought of searching for the kind of church community she longs for—a church where everyone is deeply valued and no one is left behind, young or old, black or white, gay or straight, cisgender or trans, where all means all and God’s love is lived out, however imperfectly, over blueberry muffins at coffee hour – feels overwhelming. It shouldn’t be hard to find, but she is daunted by too many stories shared by people who were hurt by churches whose welcome was limited to those who agreed with them. And she knows that even if she finds a church, she’ll only have to leave it behind when she turns the next page in her life.

Meanwhile, my son the agnostic is still waiting for God to reveal Godself to him. He understands and lives the fundamental tenets of Christianity more fully than many who loudly proclaim their Christian faith, but the universe is a big and strange place, and he finds many of Christianity’s claims unbelievable. He’s open to the idea of God, but is doubtful God is what others have claimed God to be. Like Thomas the Apostle, he needs to put his finger in the wounds of Christ before he will believe; like Saul of Tarsus, he needs a personal encounter with the Risen Christ before he can believe that the stories are true.

Judging from the thousands who responded with love and like and gratitude for my words, the Grown & Flown member and I are not alone. We are living in a world where our children do not automatically follow in our footsteps in their careers, or their choice of spouse, or where they choose to live. They are expected to forge their own path in every other aspect of their lives, so why did we think their religious faith would be any different?

And why would we think this would anger God? God, who called Abraham to leave behind everything he had every known to become the father of nations and a light to the world. God, who sent the prophet Isaiah to reassure the Israelites living in exile in Babylon with this promise: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Do you not perceive it?” And God in Christ, who stood on the shore in Galilee and said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” to four men who immediately put down their nets and followed him into a new and very different life than they had ever imagined. I wonder if this is how Zebedee felt, watching his sons walk away from the boat. Surely, he must have felt very similar to how we feel, watching our children walk away from our churches. Is it possible they are also answering a call that we did not hear and do not fully understand?

When I think about my children, and about the children of all those who clicked the little thumbs up on my comment, I think it is entirely possible they are. The Barna Group, an organization devoted to tracking the role of faith in American life, says that it’s not Jesus this generation is rejecting, just the church. While a sizable majority have a positive view of Jesus, half or less have positive views of local churches and pastors. And if we are honest with ourselves, it’s not without reason. It is undeniably true that we in the church have not always loved one another as God has loved us. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. Our churches have fallen far short of being outposts of the Kingdom of God, and our children are right to be disappointed.

It is natural that those of us who love our churches and have found great meaning and comfort in our faith communities should leap to their defense. But what if we didn’t? What if, instead of telling our children why they need us, we invited them to help us make the church more like what it was intended to be? What if we really, truly meant it, and took their advice and embraced them as leaders in our communities? Even more boldly, what if we followed them out of the church and into the community and lived out God’s love and God’s trustworthiness there?

Andrew Root, in his book “Churches and the Crisis of Decline” writes about the challenges the church faces in a secular age. “Westerners hold onto the idea of God (most of us “believe” in God at least in America) but few of us are sure we can encounter this God,” he says. “Most people, even in our churches, would not claim that church is for encountering a living God who speaks and moves in the world.”

But this is exactly what our Episcopal tradition assures us the church is there to offer – the Real Presence of the Risen Christ, received in bread and wine and joining us together as the visible Body of Christ in the world. And it is exactly what so many of our children are looking for – an encounter with the Living God.

There is no guarantee that if we invite them to church they will have precisely the experience they are looking for. But what we can do is be people who hold open the space for such things to happen. We can practice love and forgiveness for one another, confessing our mistakes and listening to the voices of those trying to tell us we got it wrong. We can teach one another and others how to recognize the Holy Spirit when She shows up. We can practice faith that genuinely seeks to see Christ in everyone who comes through the door – where all means all and love doesn’t depend on conforming with a particular set of standards and expectations. We can learn humility, so that when God surprises us by showing up in ways we didn’t expect and really didn’t want, we’re open to the movement of the Spirit. We can tell our own stories about the trustworthiness and love of God and listen to theirs.

I don’t know if that will save our institutions or not. Maybe like the Israelites in Babylon, we will need to forget the former things so that we can perceive the new thing that God is doing. Maybe the children we think have walked away from our boats are actually moving closer to God and someday will come back with stories of Resurrection, ready to invite us to join them as they begin something new.

All we can do is trust that God loves our children at least as much as we do, because as John wrote to the early church, God is love and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in them. God is not finished with us or with the world, and the only thing I am sure of is that the Good News will continue to be good news to a generation yet unborn, even if it is in ways I cannot imagine.

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