One of the cool things about taking students to another country is that they are willing to try things they wouldn’t normally try. They will eat new things, talk to new people, and yes, even try on new ideas. Our London program is one of the toughest to get into but I truly believe it is one of the most rewarding. Although this is my first year, I have long admired it for its rigor and ability to use not only London but the entire UK as a pedagogical canvas for engaging our students in conversation of difference, vocation, and interestingly enough; faith. I must admit, the faith part is one of the reasons why I was willing to postpone my summer vacation for 6 weeks to teach in London. To have an opportunity to discuss faith, learning, and intellectual responsibility in the home of Methodism and John Wesley was too much to pass up especially since the students are required to read Eric Mataxes’s great work about the life of Methodist William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace. In addition to all of this, this year joining the festivities and conversations about faith, would be my husband and our resident Methodist/Wesley scholar, Jeff Hall.
I must admit that I was proud, when I would overhear the kids talking about how cool it was that Wilberforce was doing ‘his thing for God and ended up making a difference for a lot of people’ and that ‘those Methodists were radical’. I was even more hyped when they really engaged Jeff’s lectures about the church and church history. So when I realized that in the first week of our time in London we would be attending three of the world’s greatest churches—I hoped against hope that the clergy would bring their A game. We were in a theological tied game and needed a base hit.
Talk about a strike out. Talk about not even getting on the field. In those three 50 minute visits, complete with liturgy, outstanding choirs, magnificent pageantry not one word, not one daggone word was said about the saving power of Jesus Christ. Three times I took 37 18-21 year olds who had spent a week hearing about a ‘radical’ faith and a relevant faith only to have the CHURCH wiff the air three times. As I sat there listening to expert exegesis and learned homiletical gymnastics, I watched their eyes glaze over. I watched them look at their watches. I watched them tune out after a week of getting tuned up.
Even as I walked slowly out of those beautiful Gothic cathedrals, I couldn’t even comfort myself with the thought that my clergy sisters and brothers in the US could have done any better. Heck, I know that given the same opportunity, 98% of them would have struck out as if they were facing Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish in the 5th inning. The realization that I had gotten some of these kids closer to church than they had been in sometime; that we got some of them talking about faith for the first time; and that the Church could only offer rituals and liturgy that celebrated our past and not a living word broke me up.
Don’t get me wrong. Sitting in those beautifully carved and ancient sanctuaries and participating in those timeless rituals and liturgy was important and fulfilling for ME. Acknowledging that the words I was saying that morning were also being said at my church in Dallas reminded me of our life in connection—that we were indeed one body. But let’s face the hard facts–had I walked in to any of those churches needing to hear about the love of a God that sent is only begotten son for me even before I knew I would need to be saved—I would have walked out disappointed at the least—and in despair at the very worst.
That Sunday afternoon, I realized that our churches are not dying because our God is dead. Our churches are dying because we have become crypt keepers. We preach messages of dead doctrines while extolling traditions that can not be made relevant to our current context. We keep liturgies. We keep rituals. We keep archives. Yet we produce no new growth. We preserve the church—just like a grave preserves the memory of the dead. We willfully place God and the Gospel back in the tomb with our inability to live in the light of God’s love or testify to God’s grace. Those of us who are ‘progressive’ are perhaps the most skilled crypt keepers, because we have deluded ourselves that all of our causes and all of our marching, is what saves the world. We have become ashamed of the Gospel that propels us out of our seats into the street. Instead, we act like WE were motivated to engage in this work on our own-which is why it is so easy for us to be overwhelmed and blinded by our own clouds of self-righteous smugness.
Even a rookie gardener like me knows a simple truth—the living cannot grow in the soil of the dead. Dead soil equals dead plants. Dead churches and preaching are never going to grow the body of Christ—I don’t care how many initiatives or programs we come up with. My beloved Bishop Mike McKee said it best: “gimmicks and programs won’t work—we must be bold enough to speak our faith.”
Like McKee, I believe we have forgotten how to preach the life saving and life giving Gospel of Jesus Christ. The students with me and those that I have been researching for the last 18 months don’t have a problem with Jesus, they have a problem with us. Because we don’t know how to have a real conversation about REAL faith and not this self-help dribble that’s being passed off as faith. Because we are not preaching a living word about the Living WORD, we will be as one former United Methodist college student told me “so easy to break up with.” Why? Because it is easy to break up with something or someone that does not matter. It is easy to break up with something that is not adding anything to your life and right now, sitting in those pews, it was clear to see that we were not adding anything to their lives.
The ability to openly proclaim God’s goodness in our lives, especially as clergy should not be hard regardless of your ideology. How in the heck can a people who have experienced the renewing Spirit of Jesus Christ not be bursting at the seams with the desire to tell the story of their salvation? How can a church that serves the God that has defeated death not speak of what this means for a world that faces death every day. These college students have known more wide scale death than any other non-wartime generation. They have experienced a world in which to run in a marathon, go to a movie or simply go to school is to put your life on the line. So when you wonder why they don’t want to come and have a sandwich with the youth minister after your 11am service, ask yourself this question: where you just shoving another program down their throats or where you helping them discover their purpose in Christ?
Every semester, I hold one class called, “Ask Dr. D anything”. By this time in the semester, I have already established my street cred has a truth teller who keeps it real as well as an undercover theologian. In over 9 years, this no holds barred Q& A session has become a rite of passage and tradition for many of the University seniors. As a matter of fact, the football team, as well as our woman’s basketball team bring their teammates to this one class (imagine that, a class that students actually want their friends to attend). The questions range from sex to theology and everything in between. For over an hour and 15 minutes, nothing is off the table. I won’t lie to you, it is the riskiest thing that I do. Yet, I find that they are so hungry for a real conversation. They want to know that we haven’t figured it all out but that we are still in the game. Inevitability what becomes clear to me is that this is not a generation of ‘nones’–this is just a generation of none of your same old same old. They will not take pat answers. They will not do the cheesy happy clappy. They want to know WHY this faith is important. They want to know what difference does it make in our lives and they want to know the difference it could make in theirs. They want to know what we have lost because of this faith and most importantly, they want to know what we have gained. They want to know, what John Wesley really wanted to know at the end of the day—that there was a God who truly loved him.
This morning, one of my students asked me about our scheduled visit to Scotland this weekend. She asked, “what are going to do while we are there?” One thing was for daggone sure– I wouldn’t be taking them to church.