Sunday, May 17: What Youth Want From Liberal Religion – Rev. Greg Stewart

Today’s Music

Here Together (for Gathering): on the Music for Services page


“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” by Diane Warren
Performed by Chris Powell

Special Music

“Julie-O,” by Mark Summer
Performed by Erica D. Parker, Parker Cello Studio


What Youth Want From Liberal Religion
Rev. Greg Stewart

Note: This morning’s sermon is audio-only.

Some teenagers and I were sitting in the youth lounge of the Second Unitarian Church of Chicago. The basement room smelled of mold and mildew. The tattered and worn sofas were permanently embedded with the butt-prints of many predecessors (I can see this is already getting too graphic for some of you!). And the walls and ceiling were all painted a cheerful jet black. This was their home in a congregation that treated them as family. I had just asked them a question that had silenced the normally boisterous group: What are we here for? Why here, and not at school? Why here and not at someone’s house? Why not meet at a community center or park? Why, O why do we meet here?

The silence was finally broken as one teen confidently summed up the situation: “We’re on a mission,” she declared, and this minister’s head began to swell with pride. Then the other shoe dropped:
“We’re on a mission from ‘to-whom-it-may-concern.’”

And like a balloon, this minister’s head lost air and returned to normal size. But you know, maybe she was right.

One hundred UU youth surveyed, top one answer on the board: name the one thing you like best about Unitarian Universalism. Survey of teens said: “I can believe anything I want.” Anything? Anything. And you know, maybe they’re right.

Two Sunday school leaders were trying to figure out teenagers, an exercise in futility. “When ‘they’ encounter us at church,” one lamented, “‘they’ always seem to intentionally look right past us or through us.” Nodding in agreement the other adult added, “I don’t know how to relate to ‘them’ and ‘they’ just keep on walking.” My advice: the next time it happens, stick your foot out and trip those teens! Then watch “them” and “us” become “we,” an intergenerational puppy pile. And you know, maybe I’m right.

Please note that the title of this sermon is what youth want from liberal religion, not what youth need. That could be the topic of another sermon for another time. But I think the Church, with a capital “C,” has spent too much time telling youth what they need and not nearly enough time listening to what they want. As adults we tell each other what we want from our religion all the time.
Believe me, I’m a minister; I know these things.

At a previous General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Salt Lake City, I wore a different hat than is usual for me. I didn’t lead a workshop or debate resolutions of immediate witness. I didn’t commiserate with colleagues or applaud award winners. I didn’t vote and rarely danced. Yes, they dance the night away at General Assembly, after the long day’s work is done. And let me set the record straight right now: there is nothing sillier than a bunch of rhythmically challenged white liberals flailing their arms and legs to the music of Drake or Beyonce. Doesn’t the very thought just send chills up and down your spine? Well, chills would have been an improvement! But I digress . . .

No, I didn’t vote, dance, chew the fat, or record the facts at General Assembly. All I did there was listen. Listen. In my role as one of two adult chaplains to more than 360 youthful delegates to GA, I spent a week with my mouth shut and my ears and arms open.
And I’ll tell you, my arms weren’t long enough to wrap around the troubled waters of our movement’s youth. I couldn’t listen enough or affirm enough or console enough or confront enough. I wasn’t enough of a minister to do it.

There, I said it. I cannot do this job by myself. And as a parent of teenagers, you can’t parent by yourself either. Neither can their teachers “wing it” in isolation. It wasn’t so long ago that the cover of Newsweek magazine told the truth: It said, “America under the gun. What must be done. Protecting your kids.” It alarms me that virtually all of the killings featured in the magazine’s so-called “AK-47 centerfold” involve children and youth as either shooters or targets.

How can we remain seated in our sanctuaries when we read about the almost-daily murder of our school children all over? So many schools are run by street thugs who have replaced glee clubs with gun clubs and books with bullets. And I was reminded at General Assembly that we could no longer look in someone else’s direction to do what youth want us to do. That is because one youth from an average liberal religious home in rural New England brought weapons into youth housing.

I don’t believe he wanted to harm anyone. He did so, he told me, for two reasons: he wanted to count, and he wanted something to believe in. UU youth from Littleton, Colorado, that infamous year, told me the same thing. Sure, they were afraid of going back to school and being sprayed with another shower of shrapnel. But they expressed more fear about coming home to an empty house after school night after night while parents work long hours to pay the mortgage on their little piece of suburbia. These youth feared that churches saw them more as obligations than as opportunities. And they wondered aloud if their fragile spiritual foundations could take another year of this ever-present loneliness and ambiguity.

They, too, wanted to count, and they wanted something to believe in. Who will answer this plea if we, the Church, don’t? The media seem happy to take our place. But do “Alpha Dog” and Snoop Dog portray the kinds of values we want our youth to inherit? Does the relentless consumerism of our age answer their call for a system of belief? Is their any adequate and reliable substitute for the Church when it comes to matters of faith and reason? Call me a pessimist, go ahead, call me one, but I doubt that the Church can solve the gun-toting epidemic in post-modern America. That is not where our expertise lies.

But we had better to be able to make youth count for something, and we had better be able to give them something to believe in. If we cannot or will not do that, let’s bolt the doors now and head for Sunday brunch. We’re just wasting our time. Of course, this is where you come in. You and I—together—we are the church. None of us can do alone what all of us must do together. Don’t leave it to the ministers. In this day and age we’ve all got to be ministers if no youth are to slip between the cracks. Don’t rely only on their youth advisor. Do you really think that one hour a week makes them spiritual giants? About 40 hours a year?

And please don’t point a finger at parents. My teens are more likely to listen to a total stranger than me. I’d feel a whole lot better if that total stranger was also a person of faith. So this is, indeed, where we come in. You are here because you believe in something, even if we don’t all share the same “somethings.” The faith most people have is evident not by what they say but by what they do and how they live. Religious liberals don’t come to church to find out what they believe; they come to church to discover what their lives indicate they believe. Lifestyle thus becomes both a test and a testimony of liberal faith. Our lifestyles betray what we really believe. Says Emerson, “Our beliefs have their names on our faces, be sure of that.” We may think we can hide this basic faith from others, he says, but our actions reveal it.

Not our sermons, not our curricula for one hour a week, not parents for a few hours a day, but by the way we live as individuals and as a religious community, day in and day out. This is an important point that must be emphasized. We’re not teaching our youth creeds and having them memorize scripture and I’m glad for that. But that means we have to teach them what it means to be religious the hard way, the time-consuming way, the sacrificial way–by example.

In his book Challenge of a Liberal Faith, UU minister George Marshall compares and contrasts the orthodox and liberal approaches to discipleship:
“When the average church member in America puts on a hat once a week and starts to the door, he or she is in the process of performing a major requirement as a member of a church.
“The strength, the prestige, the status of the church are entirely dependent and determined by this one activity of the week and this one requirement.”

For the religious liberal, this is simply not so. Going to church, taking down one’s hat, and starting for the door is not the means of fulfilling religious vows, but the indication that a process is starting that cannot be fulfilled in one hour, one week, or one year.
It is a process which will require every hour, every day for the rest of one’s life. There will never be any hour or a day or a month or a year in which religious responsibility can be avoided.” Our youth want to be part of this process. They yearn to be present with us more than just a few hours a week at home and at church, even if their blank stares and body language seem to indicate otherwise. Youth want to have a say in our churches about how we worship, teach, study, legislate, sing, serve, and socialize. They don’t want to be thought of only when someone needs a kitchen crew or a clean-up corps.

Oh, they’ll gladly do these tasks in partnership with adults, but are we willing to share the church’s positions of influence and authority with them as well? One of my own mentors, Dr. William Myers, observes: “I have come to believe that our culture treats adolescents like small children while intentionally isolating them from meaningful work.
“This is also unfortunately true of the [Church]–we ask youth what they intend to be when they ‘grow up,’ yet we fail to connect them with spirit-filled mentors who might appropriately introduce them to possible vocations.”

Many of you know that “adolescence” is a recent cultural invention, an attempt to ease children into adulthood, not prevent them from growing up. It is a time for them to wade in the water without a life preserver, to try on different identities and find the person they are becoming. It is a time for teens to reflect on earlier memories and current experiences, which can, in turn, be the building blocks for an emergent faith stance and give them a sense of belonging. It is critical, then, for adult mentors to take time intentionally to listen, reflect, and comment on this process in an active, caring way. Let’s not limit mentoring to a single program or retreat.

We all must challenge our youth to find their place in our churches and to find something to believe in by immersing them into our own faith stories and still be supportive in the critical reflection such a challenge brings to them. Our liberal churches must seize this critical faith moment in the becoming process of adolescence if our movement is going to reach youth and keep youth. In my own ministry I am convinced that our youth learn more about what it means to be a religious liberal by participating in a church’s board of trustees meeting than they do in a Sunday school class. They are more likely to encounter the spirit of Unitarian Universalism through the work of a vibrant Ministry Team than from a UU history course.

Befriend a youth regularly at coffee hour and watch the transformation occur-—in you as well as in your new partner in ministry. Says Myers, “If the church isn’t a lively, dynamic place where a cross-generational response to God occurs in a regular way, then I question if any program, no matter how powerful, will make much sense.”

In other words, it’s not about programs, it’s about people. It’s about you and me.

Back in Salt Lake City, I am talking with sixteen-year-old Tommy. The weapons are scattered over a table after being confiscated. Their manufacturer intends only one purpose for them, to end human life. It is time to do the one thing teens all the world over don’t ever want us to do-—it is time to contact his parents. “My parents are divorced,” he explains. “My dad is somewhere in Southeast Asia I think, and my mom’s on vacation in Mexico, maybe Acapulco. They didn’t leave me contact numbers.”
“Where are you planning to go after General Assembly?” I asked.
“To my grandmother’s. I usually spend the summers there. She’s the one you should probably call.”

Then Tommy did the right thing. “Can I be the one to tell her? You can stay in the room but I’m the one who made the mistake.” Tommy makes the call but I’m the one who learns my lesson.

A little investment of time in a single youth can help a boy become a man, a man of faith. A listening ear can help a girl become a woman who has something to believe in.

When adults share their lives with open arms with youth in the context of a faith community, youth get the two things they want and need most: becoming and belonging.

To the glory of Life!