Preacher: Spencer Carey
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord. Amen.
Good morning! For those who do not know me, my name is Spencer Carey. I am the leader of the young adults group at Trinity parish in Seattle and a peer minister at the University of Washington Campus Ministry. I preached at Diocesan convention a few weeks ago and Reverend Conn and Reverend Wesch asked me to preach here today. They graciously offered to use the same gospel readings that were used during convention but as a good Episcopalian, I couldn’t bring myself to deviate from the lectionary. I love the Episcopal Church and this community and I am deeply honored to be here today.
When I was three years old, my family went to my church’s Christmas Eve mass and because it was the children’s service, I got go up to the front of the church where the rector would tell the story of Jesus’s birth. At one point in the story, the rector asked us what Jesus was going to save us from. And little three year old me raised his hand and declared, “Taxes!” Reflecting on today’s gospel reading, if tax collectors only collected what was prescribed, we wouldn’t need saving from taxes.
In today’s gospel, John the Baptist makes several such commands to his followers: do not extort from others, share food with those who have none. Today, these commands seem so obvious, but 2,000 years ago this call for justice was radical. The Good News was and still is an idea of love, hope, and justice. At the end of the passage, John goes forth and continues to baptize and proclaim this Good News. By doing so he inaugurates a new era. Today, we are called to continue John’s work. We have a duty to share God’s radical message of love, hope, and justice.
I don’t want to scare you, but this is also known as evangelism. Evangelism should not be intimidating. The word is derived from a Greek word that I am not going to even attempt to say. But literally translated, it means “bringing of good news,” and that is not exclusive to the gospel. If you get a puppy, and you tell all your friends about how cute and fluffy he is, you are evangelizing puppies. Given the conversations at coffee hour I have had about your children, grandchildren, and pets, I know you are much better at evangelizing than you think. It’s not a large jump to do the same with your faith.
And you have an advantage being Episcopalian because no one knows anything about the Episcopal Church. No one outside our community knows for what we stand and in what we believe. If you don’t believe me, then go ask them, and start a conversation about it. (hehe–see what I did there?). This is a real shame that no one is familiar with us because we have some truly unique selling points. I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I hosted a table once on the center of our campus and I will never forget this. We had these T-shirts we were giving away to rope people in and our shirts that said “Peace be with you” got the attention of two Catholics. So I asked them, would you want a faith where you are not forced to conform to a standard dogma? And that got their attention because they supported marriage equality. Do you want a faith where you don’t have to sit in the front row? You are brave souls! Do you want to be have the same religion as Batman? Do you like democracy? Do you like wine?! Then boy do I have a church for you. At this point, their Catholic guilt started to set in and they never came to a service.
I know many of you have ideas that evangelism involves intimidating or judging others or imposing our ideas of Christianity on others. But that is not who we are and that is not what evangelism is about. My first impression of evangelism is always these preachers at the university that hold up signs that say I am going to burn in the fiery pits of hell. After reading today’s gospel, I am starting to think that these preachers read about John calling everyone a “brood of vipers” and then stopped reading. Because Jesus was different. When Jesus evangelized, he did not demonize those in need! No! Jesus showed compassion. Compassion is what we are called to provide.
One month ago, Michael Curry was installed as our new Presiding Bishop. In his installation sermon, he made a beautiful explanation of evangelism. The Most Rev. Michael Curry describes it as, “A way of evangelism that is really about sharing good news. A way of evangelism that is deeply grounded in the love of God that we’ve learned from Jesus. A way of evangelism that is as much about listening and learning from the story of who God is in another person’s life as it is about sharing our own story. A way of evangelism that is really about helping others find their way to a relationship with God without our trying to control the outcome. A way of evangelism that’s authentic to us. We can do that.” We can do that because that is who we are.
Evangelism is just about a conversation. It’s talking about and listening to the stories of our faith. And I want to have a conversation with you right now about the young adult community here in our church. You’ll forgive me if the first couple minutes of this conversation are a little one-sided; I promise that I will listen all you want after (Rev’d Conn/Rev’d Wesch) kicks me off the pulpit.
To give you a broad sense of what the young adults are facing, I want to paint a picture for you. About seven months ago, the Pew Research Center released their United States Religious Landscape study. If you read the entire report, you get a strong sense of where our church stands.
Imagine we find 100 people that were raised in the Episcopal Church. These 100 people come from all ages and live all over the United States. Of these 100 people that were raised Episcopalian, only 39 are still here. The fact is, most of those we raise will eventually leave us.
34 people leave for other denominations of Christianity or other faiths. Our freedom of religion is a beautiful thing; Americans will shop for the denominations that best suit their spiritual needs. For instance, former-President George W. Bush was raised Episcopalian before he joined the Methodist Church in 1977. <Pause> Depending on your views of history, <slowly> this explains a lot. These 34 people that find a new home in another faith I don’t worry about, because we have 33 people that will leave other faiths and join the Episcopal Church. Many of you are here today and I salute you.
But then, there are 27 Episcopalians who will leave all organized religion and become a “none” or simply not affiliated with anything in particular. In the western United States, 28% of the population are “nones,” making them the largest religious group. The Episcopal Church is losing members to the “nones” faster than every Christian denomination except for the Congregationalists.
Of the tens of thousands that are becoming “nones”, most of them are young adults or those aged 18-35. If you took three young adults that were raised in the Episcopal Church, only one will remain religious. If you think that this is crazy, consider this, at the University of Washington, statistically there should be about 190 Episcopalians. Only 8 participate in the UW Episcopal Campus Ministry. At Western Washington University, there should at least 70 Episcopalians, but only 12 attend services. At this rate, we will lose over 90% of our young adults.
We have a problem. A BIG problem.
I have heard many talk about young adults or what should be done. But no one ever asks the young adults. So I did it for you. Over the past few months, I interviewed about 40 Episcopal young adults from across the diocese. I want to talk with you about what I found. As a young adult that stayed in the church, I cannot tell you why young adults are leaving, but I can tell you why we stayed.
They are a diverse group. Some are just graduating high school while others are married and contemplating children. Their answers to many of my questions are equally diverse, but they always answer one question the same way. And it’s the most important question: why did you stay while so many of your peers chose to leave? The answer is always the same: Community. If you don’t remember anything else from this sermon, remember that community is almost always the first reason why young adults go to church. Young adults flock to communities where they feel loved. Young adults flock to communities full of people with whom they want to be friends. Young adults flock to communities where they feel safe and will not be demonized. If a young adult looks to the church as their home away from home, I guarantee that they will search you out wherever they end up. And if you want to build a young adult presence, you must foster that community. When any young adult returns or tries out a church for the first time, the critical thing they look for is that love and support. Coffee hour is critical here. The more welcoming people they talk with, the more likely they are to come back the next Sunday.
Young adults are hurting, but the statistics fail to truly capture that pain. This community that I am talking about is not some abstract thought. For me, it was something I had growing up. This was the community that celebrated my graduation from high school, the community that walked me through confirmation, the community that supported me when my father died, the community that loved me when I did not love myself. And that type of community is all anyone wants. That love, that acceptance, that support. The church should provide this, but in this day and age, it has become nearly impossible to find.
We have ALL been called into this work. If no one has told you yet, it does not matter if you are a deacon, priest, or layperson, if you are baptized in the one true God, you are his disciple. And as disciples of Christ, we are called to continue John’s and Jesus’ work to spread the Good News. <Pause> And we have a lot of work to do.