Something great happened to me today as I drove up to Zephyr Point. My radio cut out just as I left Sacramento. Most of you have probably traveled Highway 50 from Sacramento to Tahoe, but if you haven’t, let me tell you that it is one of the most spectacular drives you can take.
Without the radio, no other cars on the road, and being wickedly early, I was able to go slow and savor the drive. From the sequoia forests to the cliffs and rolling stream, I could not help but laugh as I thought to myself what a remarkable world we live in. In the context of so many issues and problems that our world seems to be facing, it is amazing what happens when we break out and begin to realize that God’s world is much bigger than any immediate problem or crisis.
More than any single issue I see going on in the world, I think people are disconnected. We are disconnected from each other, and ultimately, we are disconnected from God. Even many who are our most faithful members are disconnected. That is reflected in the gloom and doom of the current election cycle, the perceived violence and unrest in our communities, and the very real distrust of authority because of the actions and laws which undermine trust.
As a pastor, I have been struggling with all of these issues for most of my ministry. Unfortunately, I still do not have any good answers, with one exception: we need to engage people in faith. No, I am not talking about standing on the street corner and preaching the Word. But I am thinking about how we engage those who are not in the church, those who do not consider themselves to be faithful.
At the continuing education conference I am attending this week, we are identifying this group as “nones,” and asking how can we reach them. I cannot help but wonder about the church and her relationship with this group. We do not do well. I am sure that you will hear much more on Wednesday and Sunday, but I often wonder how many times when we engage this group, we are focused on the wrong things.
That seems to be the direction this conference is going. I often say that people seeking church today are not seeking the things that the church did in the past. Many none’s only view of church is a caricature, because their only experience is through pop culture. Others have been abused by the church, and want to have nothing to do with it. Although those are the extremes, when someone from this group engages the church, they are seeking something different than what the church as an institution has offered. Instead, they are looking for a spiritual connection, a better understanding of God, and finally, a better understanding of themselves.
I know I have told this many times, but I find I feel closest to God when I am out in nature. It helps me to remember that God is so much bigger than what I am doing and what I want. As a church, we do not often have the opportunity to do that. When it comes to reaching out to people who do not identify as Christian, we often completely fail to connect with them. My theory is that we try to engage them in the “gimmicks” of faith: those stories, practices, programs, and so on that “worked” in the past. Instead of meeting people where they are or even preaching a message of Christ, we tend to lift ourselves up and play right into the caricature they hold.
Remembering that God is much bigger than we are, it is crucial to be humble in the way we engage those outside the church by being true to God and unashamed of our faith. This means we need to engage people not by focusing on what we offer as a church, but what God offers through faith. Think about it¾even at the age of 125 years, our church is only a speck in the history of God in this world.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen