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My younger son made this unsolicited announcement one day when he was in high school: "You know what grown-ups can do for kids?" he asked. You can help us make good choices, and that's all. That's all."
Not long ago as we returned from Sunday worship, his brother offered this-"We hear a lot of preaching at church about what the Bible says we should and shouldn't do, but no one tells us what that looks like in our world. How do you actually do what the Bible says?" He wondered if his church family was going to do for him what his brother took to be our only proper assignment.
When I read the text from John 10, it brought these questions to mind. If Jesus says believers will hear his voice and follow him, well, just how does that happen? How do we in congregations expect hearing and following to happen? We want our children to be faithful and make good choices, but how do we hope that comes to be?
At the Fund for Theological Education (FTE), we are concerned with that next generation of believers who hear the call and follow in the paths of ordained ministry and the academy, and we wonder how this happens too. We wonder if the answer has anything to do with the shrinking number of those who follow into pastoral ministry.
"My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life…" John 10:27-28
So Jesus, if it is so, that your sheep hear your voice, then we grown-ups in the church should see that they learn to listen for your voice, learn to make (good) choices, and to follow where you lead. We really must do this, but how?
In FTE's newest initiative, Calling Congregations, we have begun to look for the places around the country that young people who do hear and follow come from. These are places that are doing something right and we can learn from them. We want to learn what they do, how they do it, and find ways to encourage and support them.
We have found that young people who hear and follow come from experiences in all sorts of congregations, campus ministries, outdoor programs, mission trips, and other church-related engagements. These are the incubators of faith, the places, habits and practices in which our children learn to listen for the voice of God, and where some of them will hear and answer the call to pastoral ministry.
FTE has found that young people who learn to listen for the voice of God do so in the very midst of the people, symbols and sacraments of the faith and in the practiced patterns and rituals of their church family.
Sharing life in the Good Shepherd's "flock" creates the relationships, time and space for life's most important questions; and young people get to see and even try on roles they may later play. We note, too, that these are congregations that expect God will speak to their children, and they see to it that the young ones can hear.
We call them "calling congregations." These are congregations that find ways to articulate somehow what we call "The Vocation Question"-What will you do with your life in light of your faith? In some churches I know, the question might not be a question at all, but something more like, "Young lady, you look like a preacher! God's hand is all over you. Stop fighting it!" God addresses each one directly and intimately, but the help we all need to recognize the voice, to make sense of what is happening, and to know how to follow is the interpretive work all God's people.
Since we started looking closely at how this happens, I have begun to ask church leaders to share some of their call stories; and I ask them to take care to specify who was there, what happened, and where it took place.
These become precious, powerful moments-when the names are called and the voices are heard again, the cloud of witnesses gathers around us, and the community of the faithful is summoned, those without whom neither the voice of Jesus nor the "call" of God would make any sense at all. The story-telling becomes holy ground.
Our attention to congregations and where church leaders-particularly clergy leaders-come from puts the role congregations play in shaping the identity of believers in the foreground. The focus shifts from the individual to the gathered people. I can remember a time when a black preacher measured his success by how many "sons he had in the ministry"-and back then only he and his sons would be counted. We count the daughters now, and I may be counted twice in that number-as I follow both my mother and my father in ministry.
The ways and values of our faith move into the future when we are careful to share the living of that faith with our children-and when we do it on purpose.
When Jesus struggled in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, he was discerning voices and making choices. I will never forget a sermon Professor Luther Smith preached at a seminary retreat. He asked us, "Was Jesus out there alone?" And after a pause, he answered himself, "No. Jesus was not alone." The faithful temple teachers who had taught him the Scriptures he knew by heart, they were there with him. Of course! Jesus could resist the Tempter because he knew the text traditions they had made him learn by heart, the very ones that had sustained him in his time of trial. "He shall command his angels concerning you so that you do not stumble and fall." (Luke 4:10-11) This is how we learn to do what the Bible says, to make faithful choices.
When Jesus set about his world-changing work, the first thing he did was join a "community of learning and practice"-a group of just 12. People of faith learn to hear the voice of faith and to follow in a way of life they practice in congregations. My dad always says, "The Christian faith is never taught; it's caught." Faith is formed in us when we are together.
But what if Jesus had not called the disciples or they had not heard him? That next generation would have been subject to any and every voice.
Samuel was tutored by Eli to understand that it was God who spoke to him in the night, and it was Eli who told him what to say in response: "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." (1 Samuel 3:9) The next generation of people who know how to hear and to respond will emerge from congregations willing to play the role of Eli-willing to help them learn their lines.
When we are not Eli, we leave our young people wide open to all kinds of voices that call to them day and night, and that want very much to shape the choices they make and to influence their commitments and values. I can't imagine how many voices call to them from TVs and play-lists, cell phones and voice mail, text messages and instant messaging, chat rooms, video games. Even if they make no sound at all, they are ever-present, relentless and largely subliminal.
If we are not Eli for them, what texts will they know that can sustain them long enough to find a faithful way through?
The business of learning lines of Scripture and listening for the Shepherd's voice takes practice and time. Mark Yaconelli, a gifted West Coast youth leader, says it takes some kind of "noticing, naming and nurturing."
Around the country, we have found all sorts of congregations are Calling Congregations-they are Pentecostal in that sense that they are all sizes, shapes and descriptions, each with richly diverse and very distinct gifts. What Calling Congregations have in common is a commitment to help young people make sense of their lives and the practice of their faith, to listen for God's voice. They Notice, they Name, and they Nurture.
And, yes, just how is that done exactly?
Because each congregation has to discover how these become the habits and practices in their unique story and location, let me offer a few thoughts about that from my own experience and from what we have learned in our looking.
Congregations notice young people by keeping them in mind and in view, knowing they are there and doing the difficult, all-important work of becoming themselves. Noticing is taking an interest in what they need of their church family and imagining where and how space (in time, in the building, in the budget) can be made to assure their needs are met. Children are noticed when we pray for them by name, and when we show up at a track meet or a youth orchestra concert.
To notice is to hear and overhear what is on their minds, to be available by e-mail, by telephone, for a walk, to share questions, celebrations, or just silliness. At times, teenagers are noticed best when you don't notice them-when they can trust you to be nearby, not hovering, but available, just in case. And sometimes they are noticed when you make them come along on a house call.
When I taught at a boarding school, I was surprised at how certain these extraordinary students were that adults did not take them seriously. They were sure their choices mattered to grown-ups only when they went outside the lines.
Sometimes to notice is to make it clear you value their input and honor their growth, to assure them their voices and issues are important to the whole church family.
When we notice young people, we expect to see them around; their separate programs are not their only contact with us. They are noticed when we give them important things to do like read the Scripture in worship or offer grace over a meal. We notice them when we invite them into relationships.
Naming is perhaps the most important of these, I think, sometimes anyway. This is where we put language to the experiences we are having, especially and particularly the language of our faith and of our story. All the teaching and formation we do is part of naming, but it is more than that.
To name requires the ability to see things in two ways-as they are in ordinary reality, and as they may be in the alternate reality that God dreams of for Creation. This kind of two-step seeing is learned in the symbols of worship in the Scripture, in the sacraments, and in the hymns of faith.
This naming also ascribes a value to their lives in the frame of God's love-this is where they are told that God speaks and speaks to all of us. This is where they learn to know the difference between the Good Shepherd's voice and other voices. It has become recognizable; the distinct differences of that voice get named. This is where pain can be felt and named without losing hope from our vocabulary.
Nurture may be all the ways we find to do the naming and noticing and the ways we offer young people to experience themselves in the community of God's love and the ways we find to assist them. Mission trips that include making sense of all that happens in some reflective moment when it's all over is nurture. Finding funds to send a group of kids to an international gathering of Christian youth is nurture. Walking a picket line when our children take a moral stand is nurture.
Young people hear the voice of Jesus when we make sure they know how to listen and prompt their faithful following. When they practice hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd, they learn to follow, and they follow in the freedom of the fold, the freedom of belonging to a people of faith with deep roots, the very roots that offer freedom.
When they are prepared, they can live in the freedom of choosing faithfully. Like a jazz musician, the scales must be practiced and the harmonic structures memorized before you may be confident to improvise. Good improvisation is born of practice and purposed time.
Young people who know the Good Shepherd's voice and "belong to (his) sheep" live in the freedom and confidence of the 23rd Psalm-which most of them have learned by heart and can shout with the psalmist, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want!"
I haven't been able to shake this hymn. The words of Isaac Watts have been in my mind these last few days. I love this hymn:
My Shepherd will supply my need:
Jehovah is His Name;
In pastures fresh He makes me feed,
Beside the living stream.
He brings my wandering spirit back
When I forsake His ways,
And leads me, for His mercy's sake,
In paths of truth and grace.
And that third verse:
The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may Thy house be my abode,
And all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger, nor a guest,
But like a child at home.
Young people who know the Good Shepherd's voice and belong to his sheep live in that freedom and that confidence. Amen.
Mark Yaconelli, Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus; Zondervan, Grand Rapids MI, 2006.
Dr. Luther E Smith Jr. is Professor of Church and Community at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, in Atlanta, Ga.
Isaac Watts, The Psalm of David ("My Shepherd Will Supply My Need"), 1719.
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