It’s 6:06 on a Wednesday morning and I’m in the “green zone.”
At last night’s meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia Carey Nieuwhof talked to us about his energy clock, and how, between the hours of 7 and 11 in the morning he’s in the “green zone.” That’s when he is most productive. Between 4 and 6 pm however he’s in the “red zone.” He’s not going to do his best work.
So, he challenged us to do what we do best when we are at our best, when we are in the “green zone.” That’s where I am at 6:00 in the morning, and that’s where I’ll be until 11:30 or so.
But yesterday at 4:00 pm I was in the red zone, and that’s when I heard a report on Ascent, described as, “a collaborative movement of like-hearted partners of the BGAV committed to reengaging and re-evangelizing North America with the gospel.” I love the concept and I feel the need: young people in North America are leaving the church in droves. And I was pleased with the doctrinal statement that began with an affirmation of the Nicene Creed: that takes us back to our roots. But near the end of that doctrinal statement there was some language about marriage being “between a man and a woman” and that raised a red flag in my red zone because it seemed to be a nice way of saying, “No gay people allowed.”
It reminded me of a sermon I preached at First Baptist a few years ago called “Letting the Outsiders In.” I won’t post the whole sermon, but here’s an excerpt:
Several years ago I read a book called unChristian that addressed the question of why young people are not coming to church, specifically people under the age of 30. The authors conducted thousands of interviews with young people before coming to their conclusions, and then introduced the results by saying: “This book explores our research in six broad themes—the most common points of skepticism and objections raised by outsiders. Those six themes are as follows:
Hypocritical. Outsiders consider us hypocritical—saying one thing and doing another—and they are skeptical of our morally superior attitudes. They say Christians pretend to be something unreal, conveying a polished image that is not accurate. Christians think the church is only a place for virtuous and morally pure people.
Too focused on getting converts. Outsiders wonder if we genuinely care about them. They feel like targets rather than people. They question our motives when we try to help them “get saved,” despite the fact that many of them have already “tried” Jesus and experienced church before.
Antihomosexual. Outsiders say that Christians are bigoted and show disdain for gays and lesbians. They say Christians are fixated on curing homosexuals and on leveraging political solutions against them.
Sheltered. Christians are thought of as old-fashioned, boring, and out of touch with reality. Outsiders say we do not respond to reality in appropriately complex ways, preferring simplistic solutions and answers. We are not willing to deal with the grit and grime of people’s lives.
Too political. Another common perception of Christians is that we are overly motivated by a political agenda, that we promote and represent politically conservative interests and issues. Conservative Christians are often thought of as right-wingers.
Judgmental. Outsiders think of Christians as quick to judge others. They say we are not honest about our attitudes and perspectives about other people. They doubt that we really love people as we say we do.
Jesus once asked his disciples what the outsiders were saying about him, but in this book we learn what the outsiders are saying about us, his disciples. They are saying we are hypocritical, too political, too focused on making converts, judgmental, homophobic, and hopelessly out of touch. Not only that, but they think we are boring and old-fashioned!
Now, I need you to hear me say this loud and clear: I don’t think that’s true about us, the members and friends of Richmond’s First Baptist Church. I don’t think that any of those things apply to us. But I do think that among those young people who don’t come to church that’s the perception of Christians in general, and probably the perception of us in particular. When they walk by this building they may assume that it’s full of just the kind of Christians they despise. And if it’s true that you have to treat perceptions as reality, then here’s the question: how do we change that perception among our unchurched neighbors, and especially the younger ones? How do we convince them that we are not who they think we are?
I don’t think those six perceptions are true of Virginia Baptists, either. The ones I know well are very open-minded and open-hearted. But I think we have a number of partners who have joined us in Ascent, and I think that some of those partners have pre-existing doctrinal statements that exclude homosexuals, and I think that in our eagerness to embrace those partners we have adopted language that will make it hard for us to reach our target audience–young people.
My daughters are both Millennials. They are kind-hearted Christians who have somehow, remarkably, stayed in church. But they have told me that they cannot belong to a church that will not welcome gay people. They have too many friends who are gay. To exclude those people would be, for them, not only anti-homosexual but also unChristian. I haven’t yet shared with them the doctrinal statement from Ascent but I think they will tell me that they can’t support what is, otherwise, a very exciting missional movement.
So, here’s my hope. My friend Jim Baucom, who talked to us about Ascent yesterday, said that its board hopes to become more inclusive, not only in terms of race and gender but also in terms of age. I think he said that they hope to have as many young people on the board as they have old people. If that’s true, then I think those young people will help those old people understand that we have to stop putting up barriers that would keep their friends out. If we really want to reach young people we have to love them, just as they are. Only when they are convinced of that will they want to hear the rest of our story.
And we have such a good story to tell.