I remember sitting in a Bible study in Pontiac, IL with a group of around 20 mostly senior-aged parishioners. I asked them, "Who has been the most important spiritual mentor in your life?" Almost universally, this group of 60-80 year old church members shared the impact on their faith that their childhood Sunday School teachers, and Adult volunteers during their young adulthood, had on their faith, their life in general, and their continued commitment to God and the church. I can still see the glean in their eye as they described lessons they remembered, over 50 years later, that changed their lives. They were universally appreciative of previous generations who committed time and effort, no matter how big or small, to raising them up, caring for them, and sharing the love of Christ with them.
Community dynamics have changed drastically in the decades since they were children. Back then, many of the leaders they described were family relatives, or direct relatives of their friends and classmates. Multiple generations grew up in church and the mantle of leadership was handed down as children took over family businesses, family farms and church administrative and education positions. Today, our own younger generations have moved into different communities, following their college degrees and the promise of gainful employment. That's okay, many are finding church families elsewhere, and hopefully they will carry on a new tradition and mentor others in those new locations.
But the questions I ask in this article is, who in our church is mentoring the next generation in Henry, and who is the next generation in Henry? It is true that many of our direct relatives don't live here anymore, but there are new families who have moved into the community. In fact, over the past 30 years, the size of the schools has not drastically shifted at all. There are still young families, with children, in this town. There are still young adults starting new jobs, new families, and seeking new opportunities. What they don't have, is mentors built into this community, because so few grew up here. They too, moved to a place without direct family connections.
Are we willing to step into the role of mentoring the next generation, even if that generation isn't directly related to us? Will this younger group, many of whom have never sat in church, have never had a mentor, and have never known how to seek spiritual guidance or direction, tell the same stories about some of you, that I heard a group of seniors share about their ancestors? Just because people aren't knocking down our doors and filling up our pews, doesn't mean that they aren't hungry for direction, support and love from their neighbor.
But how can we do this? How can we step forward when it seems so difficult? Chris Ritter is a United Methodist Pastor at Geneseo, IL. He wrote a short book called "Seven Things John Wesley Expected Us to Do For Kids". In it, he challenges every church to:
1. Teach Them Intentionally
2. Know Them Personally
3. Pray for Them Intensely
4. Mentor Families Meaningfully
5. Challenge Ourselves (To step up in leadership) Continually
6. Shape Our Ministries Appropriately
7. Care for Them Practically.
As I look at that list, I imagine that every single parishioner in our church can participate in two or three of those things in simple, intentional ways. Everyone has a gift to offer, a story to share, a way to show love and attention, a heart to pray, and a way to witness. If our church is to last beyond the current generation, we have to each be responsible for passing the mantle to someone. They are out there. They are looking for the love of Christ. Will we offer it? One final challenge. Not one of those members of that Bible study mentioned their pastor as their greatest spiritual influence on their life. Not one. It will take the congregation, waking from our slumber, and stepping into each person's role, to lay a foundation for God's work in the future. I hope we can rise to this challenge. I know God is calling us to it. Amen.