A few weeks ago Dr. Roger Nishioka, professor of practical theology at Columbia Theological Seminary, spoke at our synod assembly's fall session on the topic of young adults in the church. He had lots of wonderful, challenging, and insightful things to say, many of which were captured in a series of blogposts posted from the floor of the assembly.
But it was one simple fact, I'm ashamed to say, that just shocked me. Only 27.5% of young adults have a college degree, yet we Lutherans often conduct our ministries in ways that assume that the people in the pews will have at least a college education, and an interest in the theological and Biblical scholarship of the church. Lutherans, he said, easily appeal to the head with their approach to ministry, concerned with good theology and good liturgical practice. (As a Presbyterian, he also included in this assesment his tradition, many of whose ministers use an academc style gown when preaching and presiding at worship.) And not only are we concerned with such things, but we often lead with such things, preaching and teaching and holding conferences about the importance of theology and preaching and liturgy while, perhaps, giving less attention to the life-giving Lord himself, who is the sole purpose and foundation of any good theology or liturgical practice in the first place. As I confessed in these pixels two weeks ago, I have often attempted to preach in a way that would appease the intellectual gods that I fancy seminary professors and Christian Century editors to be, at the expense of the people who are actually – or who potentially could be – in the pews.
And more. As our Lutheran pietist sisters and brothers have often highlighted, to what extent does an emphasis on orthodoxy often fail to warm the heart in the way that our Lord's presence warmed the hearts of the disciples on the road to Emmaus? Orthodoxy and heart-felt faith are not polar opposites – such an opposition would be a false dichotomy – but we who value good order and right doctrine must remember that human beings are whole bodied beings, able and yearning to experience God in all facets of our being, not just through intellectual assent. For the Word became flesh, took on the entirety of human experience, and lived among us.
But back to the 27.5%. According to data from the 2000 census, young adults have obtained college degrees at a higher rate than the rest of the population. That is, the proportion of Americans who have college degrees drops when we factor in older Americans (and by "older," I mean people as young as their late 30s, and older).
For the sake of discussion, let's pretend that this 27.5% is stands for the whole population (which it doesn't). If in the way we conduct our ministry we're appealing to 27.5% of the population (represented by the green area in the pie chart, above), what about the other 72.5% of the population (represented by the blue area in the chart)? By the way we conduct our ministry, are we essentially narrowing our proclamation of the Lord of all peoples to only 27.5% of the people, excluding – intentionally or not – the other 72.5% of God's people? Classism and educational elitism comes into view …
Though I'm suspicioius of Paul's claim to be all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) – that's a pretty darned hard thing to do if we're honest with ourselves – I like what he says in these verses nonetheless. "To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews," that is, in order to speak and teach and minister in ways that make sense to Jews. Same thing "to those under the law," "to those outside the law," and "to the weak" – Paul became as one of them, "that I might by all means save some." He knows that he cannot "win" any – that is, that he cannot proclaim the Gospel in ways that draw people to Christ – simply by staying within his own worldview. He is willing to change the manner in which he conducts his ministry, "for the sake of the gospel."
Are we willing to try and follow Paul's lead? Are we willing, for the sake of the gospel, to change the manner in which we conduct our ministry? Are we able going to become weak for the weak, under the law for those under the law, outside the law for those outside the law? Are we willing to view the world from the perspective of 72.5% of the population who does not have a college education, and conduct our ministry in a way that might speak to even some of them? Are we willing to believe that God might care less about the framed degrees on our office walls than He does the people who never had the ability, opportunity, or luxury to accumulate such learning? And if so, how does that belief shape the way we conduct our ministry?
As this last paragraph attests, I have more questions than answers. I'm more convicted of my own failure than I am convinced about what to do. I'm humbled by Paul and all the saints who have gone before me in genuine service to all God's people. I'm awed by the God who chooses weakness and foolishness as his way in the world. I'm weighed down by the sin of my own pride, the storing up of academic treasures framed on my wall and stacking up on my bookshelf, and I ask God to change my heart and my ways, so that I might more faithfully serve all his people.