Teaching the Sacraments to a New Generation

March 01, 2011

This is the second in a series of articles on worship from the Conference Worship Team.

In her book The Great Emergence, author Phyllis Tickle explores what she believes is a global “rummage sale” of ideas occurring within the church. This rummage sale, she says, occurs every 500 or so years as the church reforms, renews, and reengages with a world and culture that is morphing all around them. Tickle is not alone in her premise that the church universal is currently experiencing one of these giant shifts of ideas and thoughts.  Theologies and practices that have been held firm for hundreds of years are being redefined and infused with a new sense of purpose and identity, while other past areas of focus are being relegated to the “less important bookshelves” of our theological practice.

As United Methodists we are called to the task of upholding our beliefs with a critical and discerning eye - a “witness that is faithful to the gospel as reflected in our living heritage.”  We are also called to a “constructive” approach to the ministry in our charge - an approach that pushes us to “appropriate creatively the wisdom of the past and seek God in (our) midst in order to think afresh about God...and other significant theological concerns.” With this in mind, how do we as pastors engage a radically different emerging generation that questions our traditional approach to what we hold most dearly - namely our sacraments? How do we critically and constructively approach these seeking hearts and lives with the “means of Grace” as we have been charged to do so? 

I consider myself especially blessed because I work with this young and emerging generation. I meet with young adults from 18 through their early 30’s each week, and I hear from them both their great hope and their great frustration with the church and the apparent deadness that they see. Many of these young adults claim a faith in Jesus, a faith that we would call orthodox and even evangelical, yet they are unsure about what that faith actually means. Many of these young adults know the “story” of their faith quite well, but are either disinterested or disenchanted with many of the liturgies we uphold. Many would even say that the liturgies or traditions have little or no real meaning. 

On the other side of this divide are young adults who know very little about the “story.” They haven’t grown up with any kind of faith tradition, and as a result many of the practices they see in the church are mysterious, intriguing and confusing. They experience great meaning in them, but they lack an understanding of what is taking place. These young adults want to participate in these great sacraments, but they want to know more about what they are doing and then incorporate that in to their everyday lives. 

On a cold January morning, I sat down with Dr. Charles Brockwell to talk about these very questions and to think together what it might look like to teach sacramentally to those in the midst of this “Great Emergence.” Dr. Brockwell is a lover of our liturgy and the unique perspective we as United Methodists have on the sacraments. He shared with me that a lot of the teaching on these important elements of our worshiping life is specifically connected to how we as ministers engage the liturgy and the story from which the sacraments come. 

He encourages a living out of our liturgy that invades our sermons and our teachings in all we do. This demands a “sensitivity to the Spirit” to guide us in all we do, to be aware when the Spirit is prompting us to explain and teach what we know and love. I shared with Dr. Brockwell that many young adults look at what we do as a “dead liturgy” and he was not surprised. He suggested we talk one-on-one with these sheep who see such deadness in their worship experience and that we also take a long, hard look at our own ministries. The “liturgy will be dead, if it’s dead to the minister.”

Dr. Brockwell suggested that we as ministers fall in love once again with the story that we are telling. If we love the story of what is happening at both the Table and the Font, then the people gathered in our churches will also find deeper meaning in these acts.  “Look at what is happening here, the Spirit is using these elements to metabolize in you the presence and intimacy of the Living God.”  It is through the liturgy and the elements that we are telling the story of God’s first and most often used self-descriptor  - steadfastness (beginning in Exodus 34:6).  As often as we lead the community through the story of God’s reach to humanity, we are once again allowing the Holy Spirit to “make use” of Table and Font. 

Teaching these sacraments comes best not through some lecture but through an active living out of our story and a continual Spirit and life-filled telling of that story to all of our congregants young and old. For in teaching this we, too, must find the life of our words, our traditions and these sacraments once again.



Notes on Resources on the Sacraments

Rev. Nichols did a teaching on the Sacraments with the Antioch community that gathers at Christ Church and used both the United Methodist resources as well as resources by Bishop William Willimon (“Remember Who You Are” and “Sunday Dinner”) and Dr. Ben Witherington (“Troubled Waters” and “Making a Meal of It”).
Dr. Brockwell strongly recommended a re-reading of United Methodist resources like “By Water and Spirit” and “This Holy Mystery.”



*Rev. Jim Nichols is the Minister for Young Adults at Christ Church in Louisville. He works with the emerging generation ages 18-30. He also leads the Sunday night alternative worship community, Antioch.