Everywhere I go, I still hear the same little whispers in the church. Different voices. Same concern. “Pastor, when I was growing up the Sunday School had so many more children.” “Pastor, I remember when the church was full on Christmas.” “Pastor, there’s way more gray hair than not in here. What’s going to happen in 20 years when we’re all gone?”
I’ve heard those whispers for years. I still hate them. I heard them in the fields of rural Nebraska. Downtown San Antonio couldn’t look more different, but some things sound the same wherever you go. Especially fear.
It’s fear that whispers these questions. It’s fear that makes the same mistakes over and over when it comes to our kids. Control them and treat church like a bad thing they are forced to endure because we say so even though we can’t come up with compelling reasons why. Or try to trick them into thinking church is fun because secretly we think it isn’t. Let them bat around a beach ball during something we’d never call “worship” except for the fact that we want them to like it enough to stick around in a few years. Look at the empty pews that have you so afraid. Neither of those things worked on us. Neither work on them. But the fear makes us forget.
We know this stuff is important. Somewhere we just lost the words to explain why. So we go through the motions because we used to go through the motions. We carry around worry even though we know better than to talk about it. That would let on to the kids that we’re afraid. Which means we’re not in control, and we’re not having all the fun we’re desperate to convey. Worry that whispers about our future shows just how little we can control our kids and make them stick around, and how foolish we really think trying to trick them is. You know what’s great though? They agree. We’re doing it wrong.
I’ve had the privilege of helping out with Higher Things for a few years now. I’ll tell you a comforting secret. We have the same worries. I sat, probably blocking the fire exit, in an over-capacity classroom listening to the executive director of Higher Things teach a breakaway explaining Gen Z. She’s a smart cookie. So I went to steal stuff from her to teach you. It was aimed at parents. The kids outnumbered us 4 to 1. She laid out the statistics. It was sobering. The kids nodded along to the rising trends of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. They laughed when the adults tried to get their heads around slang that doesn’t translate well to speaking outloud. Then the Executive Director, a public school Spanish teacher, broke the rules. She told the kids she was worried. She confessed there were times she wished she could have shared more, but was afraid to lose her job. That she wished there was more she could do for and say to transgender students. And I only heard the same whispers again.
She said she needed a pastor for the next part. I shouldn’t have sat in the fire lane. Goodman. Stand up. Preach a one minute sermon on the text on the board. I asked the kids to reread the text because I wasn’t listening to it. I hate those whispers so much I was half out of my seat already. First things first. Her conscience. “In the stead and by the command of my Lord and savior Jesus Christ, I forgive you this and all your sins.” Of course we all should do more. Of course we’re sinners. That’s why God gives us the church in the first place. We’re afraid together, and it’s wonderful, because God drags us along together. Forgives us together. Sustains us together. We have a place for that fear now. We have God given words to answer it.
She likes to say she’s not a theologian, but she’s brilliant. The kids read the text she picked, and I knew what she was driving at all along.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
She had all the same fears everyone else does. The same ones I harbor too. She knew exactly where to look for hope. The light set on the hill. Not in your heart. Jesus, the light of the world, hanging on the cross set on a hill called Calvary. He died there for us.
This is what Higher things does. Jesus for sinners. Hope for the hopeless. We answer the whispers. We speak to the fear and remember the words that explain why this stuff is important? It’s the gospel. We just give it to kids.
She tells me “Stand up. Preach a one minute sermon.” Fine. The church doesn’t stand on your shoulders. It stands on God’s. The light set on the hill cannot be hidden. It can’t. There, God was crucified for you and for me and for all the world. It’s His church where He gives His gifts. The church is built on Him, not us. Remember the ancient church that hid in catacombs afraid to speak what we believe too. If this was our church we would have died out thousands of years ago. But this is God’s church. He fills it with sinners struggling with depression and anxiety and sin and loneliness. He dies for them. Rises for them. Forgives them. That’s us. Gen Z and every other generation. We were sinners in the ancient church and we’re sinners today, but the light still shone on the hill for us all. Until someone sins in such a profound way that Christ is put back in the tomb, relax. Your sins are forgiven you, and the light will continue to shine, and it will even shine through you. Who do you think you are that you can take from Jesus someone He loves by being afraid? Your fear is not as powerful as you think, and your God already conquered darkness and death. Look to the hill and see the light. That’s what we gather around. Hope. And there’s plenty to go around. Hope rooted in Christ and not our works. That against everything wrong in the world, Christ has died and for everyone struggling in fear and darkness He is risen. Do not be afraid.
Then we went to church for the third time that day, and the kids were louder than the adults again. They have the same fears we do, but they hear the gospel and they sing it back. These kids don’t hold the church up anymore than we do. The church holds them. They heard the promise and believe it. So they sang. My heart still almost stops when I hear them. We live stream it. You can listen on the internet, but it’s not as loud through your phone. This is what the church sounds like. This is what the church is. I watched 900 Christians who happened to be teenagers hear the word of God, receive His body and blood, cling to His promises, and sing them back. This isn’t a bunch of kids who are at a church service against their will so they can go play lazer tag later. Those kids sit quietly and roll their eyes. I didn’t see any of those kids. I only heard the church. Our kids sang.
I hate the whispers. They assume a lie that comes right from the devil. It’s not our job to keep the Church going one more generation. It’s God’s job. I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. He’s doing a pretty good job.