31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
June 27, 2021
1 Timothy 4:12-16
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
Earlier in the service, I mentioned that last week I had the honor to be included in a wonderful panel of United Church of Christ leaders who shared stories about past General Synods, which is our national church gathering which happens every 2 years and this year will happen exclusively online.
Once upon a time, I was an under 40 clergy and a part of a wonderful community called the UCC 2030 Clergy Network and it was for this reason that I was called to share in this webinar. I was invited to tell the story of the first 2030 gathering at Synod, 14 years ago at the church’s 50th birthday, here in Hartford.
In preparation for the webinar, we were being coached about potential tech issues, which led to a conversation about other tech faux pas we have committed. And I shared about the time I accidentally left the prelude slides on auto and the slide changed every 4 seconds. The UCC staff member assisting us with tech made a cringing face, to which I responded, yes, I heard from a lot of people about how it was too fast. And then the staff member was surprised – cause she thought 4 second slides were too slow. As you might guess, she was younger than me –likely by two decades.
It is no surprise that generations of people are different from one another. We respond differently to the world, differently to technology, and differently to worship and ministry. When I asked our elementary, middle, high school and college youth what they would do differently with the church, they shared with me about wanting worship to be more lively and upbeat, with a variety of instruments; wanting Children’s Ministry to be more playful and interactive; and wanting to broaden our service ministry out to other states and countries with mission trips.
They imagine sharing the unconditional love of Jesus more widely – perhaps by creating yard signs or t-shirts or bumper stickers that say, “Jesus loves everybody in the world”. They also wanted to see the church be more engaging to people their age, building connection and community through service and social events.
Fourteen years ago, my under 40 ministerial peers said many of the same things. In our vision for the next 50 years of the United Church of Christ, we wrote:
We dream of new ways to “be church.” In the United Church of Christ, only 4% of our clergy are currently under the age of 40. The membership of our churches also mirrors this reality. We (along with other “mainline” denominations) have lost almost a whole generation of believers and leaders. We grieve this loss and we see it as a sign that God is calling us, as a church, to open ourselves to transformation.
The vision statement goes on to say: “As our UCC constitution states, the Church has a responsibility, in each generation, to make this faith our own.”
I love that line. The Church has a responsibility, in each generation, to make this faith our own. At the First Congregational Church, Bristol, CT, we have nurtured and are nurturing a generation of Christians and leaders who want to make this faith their own – for themselves, for their peers, for generations to come. They, too, dream of new ways to “be church”.
Change is challenging however there is no denying that life in 2021 is different; different from 1957 when the United Church of Christ was formed, different from 1999 when I attended my first General Synod; different even from 2019.
In this past year, many of the rhythms and rituals of the Christian church have changed. We went from communion together in one building with cubes of bread and little cups of grape juice, to orange juice and animal crackers shared across the miles and internet.
One set of our young leaders suggested we might start to use red Gatorade – very hydrating, like the living water Jesus promises?? Another young leader thought we might want to try out milk and cookies because they are comforting, wrapping us in God’s love, and milk and cookies bring joy to the world – and isn’t that what communion is about – being reminded that we are wrapped in God’s love so we can go share joy?!
In this past year, whether we have dreamed it or not, whether we have wanted it or not, we’ve discovered that it is okay to let new ideas in. It’s okay for the Church to innovate and grow, because the Church is a body, Christ’s body, and a body either grows or dies.
And if we, the body of Christ, are going to grow, we need to not only welcome the new voices of younger leaders, we need to nurture them, create space for them, lift them up and respect them. If the Church is going to be bold, open to the Holy Spirit, and ever faithful to God’s still speaking, still leading voice, we absolutely need to make space for younger generations to make this faith, this community of Christ, their own.
And that’s not as scary as you might initially think because according to Barna Research’s State of the Church 2020, younger generations of Christians value many of the same things as older generations, like worshipping through song and spoken prayer. Our own younger Christian leaders value FCC Bristol’s mission of hospitality, welcome, and inclusive community. They love how they and others are welcomed in, made a part of, and truly seen in this community of Christ.
They value how our faith, our trust in God and Jesus Christ knits us together, regardless of where we are on life’s journey. They appreciate the little ways we are the Church- passing the peace and passing the lemonade and cookies at fellowship; Easter egg hunts and Rally Day/Fall Fun Sunday picnics.
And they appreciate the large ways we are the Church, embodying Christ’s love through our feeding and housing ministries and through our connections with St. Vincent DePaul and Family Promise as well as our partnerships with Gloria Dei and Zion Lutheran Churches.
While the way they walk this journey of faith might look and be different, they, too, are committed to the essentials of the Christian faith – loving God and loving our neighbor.
The Church of Jesus Christ is blessed. The First Congregational Church United Church of Christ, Bristol, CT is blessed. Blessed with faithful Christians of all ages and generations, blessed to have such a diversity of gifts and talents, united in the same mission.
Just as God called those first believers, God is still calling us, the church to be made new, to be a new community. God is calling us to show no partiality, to have no pre-requisites when it comes to inviting people to follow Jesus Christ and calling others to lead. God is calling us to be an ever expanding glitter ball of blessing to the world.
To listen faithfully and fulfill that calling, the Church needs all the parts of Christ’s body, no missing generations. Now is the time to lift up the voices of Millennials and the younger Generation Z because they are not future leaders of the Church. They are present leaders of the Church, with wisdom and faithfulness, to continuing making our church a church for all and a blessing to the world.