Acts 17:22-31 I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown God.” The cultural landscape on which Paul was proclaiming the gospel over 2000 years ago, is not that different from our culture today. In Athens, at the Areopagus (a hill on which many philosophers would gather and expound), Paul was preaching to a people who knew nothing about the emerging Christian community and he was teaching a people who followed multiple religious paths. In 21st century America, despite what we see as a so-called Christian nation, we are more and more, proclaiming the gospel to a postmodern people, who are not that different from the Athenians to whom Paul was preaching.
A few years ago, Terri and I were having dinner with some friends from our church small group. Joining us that night was a 20-year-old young woman named Sherri who had lived in Florida all her life. As we were enjoying our meal, our friends told Sherri that soon, we would be leaving for seminary. Sherri had a very confused look on her face, and she asked me what was seminary. I explained that I was going to graduate school to prepare for ministry as a priest. Her confused look remained as she asked, “Are you spiritual?” “Christian,” I replied. “I don’t know anything about that religion; could you explain what Christianity is?” For the remainder of the evening, I struggled to explain the faith to someone who knew nothing about God, who had never heard the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, and had very little if any idea of who is this Jesus, we follow. Sherri had no exposure to the loving God who created all, who through the Incarnation walked with us. She had not heard of Christ whom we rejected, who died, and through a love that never ends, he was resurrected. Still confused by my attempt at apologetics, she thanked me for talking with her about it. I do not know to this day, if she understood any more about the Christian faith, than before we met.
As hard as it may be to believe, the narratives of the scripture that formed most of us here today and set us on our spiritual journey, are for many folks not as well known, as they were when we were growing up. Most Americans today can, without hesitation name the finalists of American Idol, they can easily name the stars of several prime time TV shows, but few if any can name the man with the big boat that survived the flood, needless to say, the names of six of the twelve apostles.
Sherri’s story is not unusual. A recent survey indicated that in the United States, the number of people who claim no religious affiliation at all increased from 8 to 15% just in the last 20 years. The Church has her work cut out for her, as we work to pass on the faith to the next generations. Reggie McNeal, the author of The Present Tense: Six Tough Questions for the Church noted only 18 – 22% of those folks born between 1964 and 1980, (also known as Generation X) attend church at all. He also asserts that less than 10% of those folks born after 1980 (also known as Generation Y) attend church. It is obvious that the reason a growing number of Americans have no familiarity with the scriptural narratives, is because a lack of exposure to them. Add to that the emerging spiritual trend of integrating, sampling and testing various religious paths, without fully committing to anyone. We all know people who have church shopped until they find one that suits them, but today, some folks explore multiple spiritualities, and the meta-narratives, the over-arching stories of our faith could be lost.
I met a young man named Charles a few years ago at one of our coffeehouse gatherings who shared with me, “I am a Christian, and I also practice Buddhist meditation.” I was intrigued and asked him how that worked for him. He said, “I find them very compatible and neither are in conflict.” Charles is a good example of folks who are sampling and testing various religious paths. It seems that today the deep understanding of faith for the next generation, which was ingrained in us by our Sunday school teachers and youth leaders, is no longer the primary foundation for their spiritual journey.
Sharing the Good News, passing the faith on to the next generations is not as simple, not as guaranteed as it was 20, 30, 40 years ago. Back in the day, we basically had to raise our children in church and we could be assured that somehow it would stick and they would continue at some point. It is not that easy today. We the church have a difficult job ahead of us, but it is that mission which Our Lord gave us 2000 years ago: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” This is the mission, to which we all are called. Jesus prepared twelve, taught them, and then sent them out into the world and Jesus sends us out as well.
Now, I am not encouraging us to go get bullhorns and flyers, stand at the corner, and proclaim the gospel. That style of evangelism is not helpful and is not effective. What I do encourage us to recognize, is that our lives may be the only gospel that the world will ever hear. In other words, our loving response to others, our service to others, our joy and peace that emerges out of our loving relationship with God, is all the witness the world needs to see. During a recent visit with a parishioner, they shared their experience of faith and the conversion made possible in them by this community. They said, “I am at St. David’s because of how much these folks love each other and how much they love me too. I have found a community.”
In a culture where the message of the gospel is not familiar, it will be our love for one another, and our love for those who come to join with us in our journey of faith, that will serve as the means by which others will come to know Christ. Everything we do as a community proclaims the gospel in some way. From our Sunday worship, to our coffee hour, to the fellowship meals, to our Outreach, Mission and Ministry, all that we do proclaims the Good News of God in Christ. We are without a doubt, a very friendly and welcoming church, but keep in mind our job of making disciples today, comes with new challenges.
New folks who come to us may not know the basic narratives of the faith, they may not be familiar with our style of worship, they may even be a little wary of religious institutions. Even so, the Spirit empowers us to help those seeking Christ, to come to know mercy, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and joy. How do we do that? We just love. We embrace the newcomer, we walk the journey of faith with them, and we live into our baptismal commitment to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”
Nine years ago, Terri and I after the death of her father were ready to commit our lives fully to Christ again and we needed a community of faith to walk with us. We started church shopping and after several attempts, we became discouraged and we almost gave up. One Sunday, we tried again and as we approached the welcome desk of the local parish, a man named Curt greeted us. He asked if we were new and invited us to sit with him and his wife during worship. He walked with us to the coffee hour and introduced us to the clergy and to several of the parishioners. The next Sunday we went back and Curt was there at the door waiting for us. He once again invited us to sit with him and his wife and we went to lunch together that day as well. In just a couple of visits, I met a new friend, I felt included and genuinely welcomed, and it was not long before we were serving in ministry in several different ways. Curt understood his baptismal commitment to make disciples and through his love, through his commitment to me and Terri, and through his willingness, the Holy Spirit worked through him to make two new disciples. Curt did not have to use any special techniques or language and he did not have to use flashy music or so-called relevant sermons. He just loved. As we answer the call in the 21st century, it will be by our love that the world will hear the gospel. It will be through our love for each other and those who come to join us that we will answer Our Lord’s Great Commission given to the church, “Go and make disciples of all nations.”