By John McLarty
When I met with Troy and his fiancé a couple of months ago, they had not yet nailed down a venue or exact time for the big event, so I called Troy to see how things were going. We chatted a few minutes about wedding details, then he turned the conversation. Was there any chance he and another young man could join me for a day on snowshoes in the mountains. What makes this conversation remarkable is that the Troy is an atheist. Why did Troy, the atheist, ask an old Adventist pastor to officiate at his wedding? Why would he and his agnostic friend want to spend time in the mountains with me?
Troy and another young man arrived in my previous congregation as teens. We have stayed in touch ever since, through years at Walla Walla, through career success, and relationship ups and downs. I have remained their pastor, no matter what their theology or lack thereof. So, of course, I would officiate at his wedding. And periodically they have invited me for a meal or a hike or a snowshoe.
I don't know where these young men will end up in their spiritual journey. This I know: they willingly testify that when they were most vulnerable, church was good to them and good for them. They keep in touch with me across the miles and years. My relationship with these young men is personal, yes. And it builds on the constellation of connections with others at church in those formative years.
My present social circle includes many young adults I met as kids in my previous congregation or as friends of my kids at that time. They remain my friends. They call me when they want to get married. They say yes when I invite them for coffee (hot chocolate, tea) or dinner. One who attends my present congregation is looking forward to bringing her baby to Sabbath School after she is born this summer. It seems to me these young people care little about an institution called “church” or “The Seventh-day Adventist Church.” They care deeply about people who have cared for them.
How do we keep our young people connected? Over the past twenty hears I have served in two congregations, North Hill Adventist Fellowship (a small suburban congregation of 100) and Green Lake Church (a center-city congregation with 200 attending). Here is what we have done: Sabbath School, children's stories, campouts, bike rides, hikes, singing groups in nursing homes. Teenagers have served as deacons and sound system and video operators. At North Hill we have recruited them to participate with us in the construction of our new building and in the subsequent monumental landscape construction project. In short, our kids have simply been integral to our life together as a congregation. They do what we do.
In my present congregation where we have more financial and human resources, the church hired a superlative conductor to create a youth orchestra. He pushes the kids (and few adults) to an amazing level of musicality and finesse that enriches our worship and gives the young people a well-earned sense of pride. We have hired a locally-funded youth pastor and pay a small stipend to a children's choir director. Twice a year for “Youth Sabbath” the youth—junior high and high school age—do the entire service including the sermon.
More important than any of these details is a fundamental philosophy: We respect our kids. We love our kids. We know their names. Every name. “I'm bad with names” is not an acceptable excuse. We work deliberately at learning the names of all the kids, even if they are there only a few times a year, whether they are six months or nineteen.
My concern for young people shapes my sermons. After writing my sermon I go back through it and ask, “Why would a kid listen to this?” I imagine myself as a kid again sitting with one of the teens on the back row in the balcony. If I were sitting there with him, would we find anything of interest in this sermon? In this paragraph? If the answer is no, I revise or delete. I apply this discipline ruthlessly. Entire sections of sermons get deleted. Why preach sermons that are mere noise in the ears of our kids? Let's do our exegesis, word studies, commentary research, and all the other things that help us get at the heart of the text. Then turn our understanding into lucid words and compelling metaphors and stories that evince respect for the interests and attention of twelve-year-olds.
Some of our kids will grow up to be atheists and agnostics. Some will find church irrelevant, at least until they have kids of their own. But if while our kids are among us, we love them and respect them as precious members of the divine family, it is highly likely they, like Troy, will still bear witness that church was good to them and good for them. And we can live with a lively hope that when God is able to touch their hearts, the way home will be a familiar, inviting path.
Some of our young people will move seamlessly from “kids in church” to “grownups in church.” If we have practiced loving and respecting them, it will be easy for us to hand over the reins and natural for them to take them.
John McLarty is senior pastor for the Green Lake Church in Seattle, Washington
By John McLarty