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Faith and Service: Healing the Great Divorce

11/20/2012 03:26 pm 15:26:29 | Updated Jan 20, 2013

I have an older friend who is very concerned about the future of the church and the need for talented individuals who will lead it for the next 50 years. Every time we meet he asks the same question: Why are you always talking about service and not about faith?

He has a point.

In his day, young people generally grew into their faith and then become interested in community and made a commitment to serve. Activities like Bible studies and worship services helped form a lifetime of deep faith. Strong church communities were led by great preachers like Vernon Brolyes Jr. and Norman Vincent Peale. It was their compelling presence, powerful proclamation and courageous leadership that led the church into the center of the community. They inspired a generation of young adults to join them in making personal commitments for public action.

Today's young people are defined by a commitment to serve and engage in the world. High school graduation requirements and successful college applications put service in the path of every young student and many develop a deep desire to see the world change.

So where is the church in all of this?

Too often it is preoccupied. The church is overwhelmed with leaky roofs, cumbersome polity and life-sucking bureaucracies. And many young adults feel the church is more interested in keeping people out than welcoming them in, more judgmental than accepting. This generation will only come to church if they see that the church is genuine, committed and relevant.

There has been a divorce between faith and service that didn't exist in years past. As service became a defining aspect of growing up in America, the infrastructure moved from the church to the schools and became so secularized that conversations around faith were discouraged -- even taboo.

High school mission trips are an important initiation to service, but when young people go to college, many service programs frown on (if not refuse) opportunities to talk about and explore faith. At the college level, pressure to move such activities out of their traditional home in the chaplain's office to other departments made it harder and harder to have conversations about how faith is related to service.

How do we begin to bridge this gap, to show young people that faith and service do indeed go hand in hand?

1. Demonstrate to a deservingly skeptical generation the church's historic and ongoing commitment to engage with, address and solve local concerns and global challenges. We must meet this young generation in their service and communicate to them our common cause.

2. Demonstrate our deep interest in them as individuals, not as future tithing members of the church, but as children of God who are out living the Gospel in their acts of service and sacrifice.

My own kids want to do Habitat for Humanity but don't want to go to church. They see no connection between the two. What I have failed to do is to share with them that even before creating housing, this important program's first mission principal is to: "Demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ."

It isn't a coincidence that Presbyterian Disaster Relief, Lutheran World Relief, United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and American Friends Service Committee all carry the names or significant expressions of the living and present church.

These are not merely social service agencies but living expressions of God's love in the world and serve as a platform for a faith community to advocate for the vulnerable.

We have to do more than just show them the church's current involvement. We have to, in the words of the poet Maya Angelou, create for them a "space to place new steps of change." So as the horizon leans forward we must seek new ways to partner and support this generation to step into leadership roles.

If we fail to claim that part of our faith, our commitment to lead important social causes will become history and we will be a diminished community because we cease to live out our faith.

But we need to do more than claim our history: we need to support this generation so that they can make their own.

Since the Episcopal Service Corps started up four years ago, it has doubled in size twice and now supports more than 200 young adults at 23 sites across the country as they work to reshape the church. The program declares that "Working for justice, freedom and peace is an essential part of Christian life, and the Church will be changed for the good by the lived theology of our interns."

In Boston, Reverend Arrington Chambliss has launched "Life Together," where emerging young leaders are matched with mission-based, non-profit organizations and churches that train them through spiritual practice, shared leadership models and community organizing tools.

At the national headquarters of the Presbyterian Church in Louisville, a young adult catalyst position was established in the midst of huge budget cuts and financial and staff support for their young adult volunteer program was more than doubled.

At Union Seminary, recent graduate Jason Callahan has inspired President Brian Blount and the school to serve as a launching pad to redefine what it means to be the church. Engaging individuals from schools, churches, community organizations and social agencies the initiative seeks to enhance the spiritual, social and physical quality of life for city dwellers.

Just as the non-profit sector has invested heavily in social entrepreneurship through programs like Echoing Green and the Ashoka Foundation, the church must also invest in innovative new ministries.

When the church invests in a generation to serve and lead, it creates new opportunities for young adults to grow in their faith, to integrate their passion for service with spiritual exploration and creates a base that becomes rooted in community.

But it is more than just building resources and programing. Being a part of a faith community can and must offer a way for individuals to travel their spiritual journey and in so doing discover strength to persevere.

By healing this great divorce and reuniting faith and service, we will support this generation in their desire to be prophetic in their vision, sustain them in their engagement that will endure disappointment and mitigate differences through listening and love.

Because that is what faith communities do best.

Make the church relevant in the world of service and this generation will invest in the church. If the church supports the leaders of the service moment, the most talented leaders of this generation will end up leading the church.