Preaching Law to the “Lost Generation”

[1] It is November 4, 2008. I live in Chicago, and I am one of the lucky ones who has secured a ticket to be in Grant Park on the night of the election. My husband and I are there together, and all around me, as far as I can see, are people who are my age. Next to me, two young men cannot stop updating their iPhones, yelling as each state sends in final election numbers. In front of me, two women are caught between hugging one another and crying as the count seems to crawl toward what we had all been hoping for over the last many months. Friends are gathered with us, friends who rarely, if ever, darken the door of the church that I serve, or any church for that matter.

[2] Fairly regularly, when I attend meetings I’ll notice eyes swivel toward me when people start the unavoidable wondering about where my “lost generation” has gone. “It’s normal,” some say, “kids your age, between 19 and 35, they just get busy, but they’ll come back.” Or, “It is that MTV generation, they want those bands, and a PowerPoint. Yes, a PowerPoint, that is what you all want, I think that is what this church needs!”

[3] I know what it is like to look out in a crowded congregation, and to see very few of the people who were in college when we were awakened by news of 9/11. As both a preacher and a pastor in this church that I love, I know that there is something that is missing for most people who fall firmly into the generation into which I was born. I don’t think it is necessarily to be expected that we won’t seek out a church home. I don’t believe that the simple answer is that we are looking for a church to sell us Jesus on a screen or a PowerPoint.

[4] On the night Barack Obama was elected as the 44th president of our country, all around me I saw the people who make up only a small part of our worshipping communities on Sundays. We hugged people we didn’t even know, people shouted and cried, but most of all, they showed up.

[5] So what is it that my generation wants? Better preachers? Barack Obama? A PowerPoint? Perhaps a lot of the gospel of Hope and Change and very little of the law to accompany such a gospel? Worship with a big band and fast moving songs?

[6] Gathered on that chilly evening in 2008, I don’t think it was the big screens, the musical interludes, or the PowerPoints that were drawing us there. We’d been captured by words like Hope and Change. We had been intrigued by conversations about dreams for a future that would heighten and deepen our connections to one another, rather than ignore them. But beyond these ideas, we knew that friends and family suffered without access to health care, we recognized the groans of creation under the stresses of global warming, we had grown cynical toward two wars that continued on longer than any of us imagined. This campaign had told us what felt like a new kind of truth, a truth that did not only blame the other, but convicted the self. We had been gathered together in unlikely numbers because what my generation desperately wanted was someone or something to provide a language for how we ought to live together, in a way that honored each of us, our communities, and creation.

[7] Sounds familiar, right? Our tradition and our scriptures are rich with these very same images, images of hope and change and love for neighbor as self. When I preach, these are the messages I myself am hungry for, and I believe that these are the same truths that this “lost” generation of which I am a part yearn for. These are the messages that pull us away from our computers, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts; these are the truths that connect us with one another and demand more from us than merely existing in a world that can be both lonely and confusing.

[8] The law orders us, calls us to live together in ways that honor ourselves, one another and all of creation. Preaching to my generation then does not call for us to abandon the law, to set it aside in order to be more “marketable.” For too long this has been the reaction of too many preachers in hopes that this lost generation will begin to fill the pews again. What we need is not the abandoning of the law, but a reclaiming of a law that centers us and orders us. This is what, I believe, drew us to the messages preached by the Obama campaign. We were tired of hearing about a moral law that seemed to be more of a checklist than a way of ordering our lives. We were tired hearing the word Fear when we desperately wanted to hear the word Hope.

[9] Preaching to this context isn’t about belittling the tension of law and gospel, it is about reclaiming it, making it new again, proclaiming truths that are ancient and timeless. We don’t need bands and PowerPoints, we need preachers to tell us that there is a God who centers us in our communities, who cares deeply not just about us, but about all of creation. We don’t need the law to be simplified or ignored, but preachers to tell us that what we see all around us, the brokenness in ourselves and our communities isn’t our imagining and isn’t inevitable. We don’t need to be babied and coddled, or sold the gifts of God. We just need to hear those gifts preached–hear them preached in a way that is authentic and hopeful, that is realistic and gives us the space to imagine more for ourselves and our communities.

[10] When I was in seminary, I encountered a colleague who argued over and over with me that what we needed most when we came to church was to walk away feeling good about ourselves. Though I don’t believe that church is meant to be a place that is depressing and dark, I do believe that my generation wants preachers not to tell us how great we are, but to tell us the truth, to proclaim with equal fervor a law that convicts us and a gospel that saves us. We know that our world and our selves have fallen desperately short of our potential. And so we need preachers to give us the language that is rich in hope and honest about change.

[11] As I remember that evening in November 2008, I saw not a group of people that were lost, but a group of people that were hungry. Hungry for a word that did not pander to us, but spoke to us in ways that seem pale in comparison to the richness of the Word as I have experienced it. We are not lost, we are searching, and I believe our scriptures and our tradition have something to say to those in my searching generation.

Brooke Petersen

Brooke Petersen is the pastor of Irving Park Lutheran Church in Chicago, Illinois.