Sideshow Alley?

Exodus 16:2-15 For those of you who weren’t here a couple of weeks ago, between now and Advent the theme of my preaching will be ministry in the first third of life. To start with, I’m focusing on slaying some of the sacred cows of first third ministry – those accepted norms and assumptions that have served us so poorly, yet with which we persist in the face of powerful evidence to the contrary. I’m defining the sacred cows as ‘instruct, attract and exhibit’ and today I’m going to address ‘attract’. Lurking somewhere in the psyche of nearly every congregation is person. Usually a man. A man I’ll call ‘Darren’. Darren is a surfer or footy player. He has a neatlytrimmed beard and discreet earring. He plays guitar or drums. Darren listens to all the right bands and dresses fashionably – but he doesn’t smoke weed or look at porn or get drunk. He knows his bible but he’s not a bible basher, he has an active faith but nothing too radical and he has moral standards, but he’s not judgemental. Everybody loves Darren – when Darren organises a yoof group, children and teenagers flock to it. Darren is polite to the elders in the church, but relevant and hip to the yoof. He loves giving up his Friday nights, and he has a nice girlfriend called Janine who helps as well. Sooner or later, when you start talking about first third ministry, Darren comes up. ‘If only we had a Darren’ people say. Someone who was cool and could relate to the kids. Someone who could rock out the church with funky tunes to get the yoof in. Darren has a lot to answer for. Churches that are Darren-free use this as excuse to do nothing ‘If only we had a Darren’. Worse still are the churches that once had a Darren ‘If only we had Darren back. Things were great when Darren was here’. He’s the cause of jealousy ‘They’ve got lots of yoof at St Whatsit’s – but then, they’ve got a Darren’. And he’s the cause of great insecurity – ‘Ooh, I can’t do ministry with children. I’m not a Darren.’ The thing is: Darren is real. At last count there were nearly six Darrens in Australia, and the US has a few hundred. The baffling is that, when those handful of churches manage to score themselves a Darren, they always have a brief burst of activity and numerical growth, then a long period of decline. But the legend of Darren spreads like wildfire, and like a child who will only be happy if she gets a Tickle-Me-Elmo for Christmas, everyone wants one. The whole premise of Darrenology is that Christianity is boring, meaningless and pointless. No one sensible, particularly a person in the first third of life, would want to be a follower of Jesus Christ. It’s lame. It’s uncool. It’s an epic fail, as the young people say. So it needs to be tarted up and made sexy – rock’n’roll, games, a youth worker with sex appeal, a jumping castle, white-water rafting – whatever it takes. It’s the logic of consumerism – get ‘em in the door with the offer of a $2 cheeseburger, and they’ll stay to buy an overpriced hamburger.
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But before we go too much further, let’s be clear that there is nothing wrong with busting out a few funky tunes. I live for the day that St Cuthbert’s rocks out on thrash metal. And there’s nothing wrong with having fun, and community development, and building relationships – that’s why we’re going on camp together, and why I love going around to your houses for meals and good wine. The problem comes when - as we’ve done since the rise of the consumer age – we equate marketing with evangelism. When people merely showing up to events at a church is considered a success, and when first third ministry is defined simply by the presence or absence of a program or activity. If the outcome that we are seeking from first third ministry is the formation of people with a mature and active faith, then the practice of ‘attracting’ has failed us. It’s failed us because - and this is possibly the strangest sentence I have ever preached - we have placed our faith in the attractiveness of Darren and not in the attractiveness of Jesus. I put it to you that Jesus is inherently attractive - and particularly attractive to people in the first third of life. In a world in which climate change, global poverty and war are real and immediate concerns – Jesus speaks of equity, compassion, for the poor and peacemaking. In a society like ours in which the abuse of power, whether through workplace bullying or sexual abuse, is a real and immediate concern – the story of Jesus offers a way to make meaning about true power. In a culture where constant acquisition, meaningless sexual gratification and a monotonous self-interest are the norm – the poverty, dignity and sacrifice of Jesus provide a desperately needed alternative. But who will tell people in the first third of life? Who will recount the story of Jesus? Who will invite them into a different way? Darren ain’t gonna save us. Sunday School’s not gonna do it. Just being nice and kind and giving money to charity isn’t gonna do it. At some point grown-ups – parents, neighbours, grandparents, friends – need to be able to say ‘I’ve been serving a murdered Galilean peasant for forty, or seventy, or ninety years, and I do not regret it. I want to invite you to follow him as well. I want to tell you the sacred stories so that you can absorb them and pass them on to your children and your children’s children.’ But the perceptive among you are already realising the problem. Before we can tell people in the first third of life about Jesus, and invite them to sign-up to his movement, in order to share our dangerous stories and invite any person to join the adventure – we’ve got to be attracted to it ourselves. We’ve got to believe in it. And this is, I suspect, the shadow lurking behind Darrenology. The reason that mainstream Anglican churches are devoid of people in the first third of life is not because there’s something wrong with the yoof of today. It’s not because we lack the X-factor or a skate-park. It’s because we are not, collectively, passionate enough about Jesus. As a rule, we think he’s a terribly decent chap, a good bloke to have around, certainly someone to worship. But when it comes to proclaiming and working for his kingdom – we’re slow, we’re distracted, it’s not entirely a priority. It’s a hard truth to hear – but
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why would any person in the first third of life want to join me in being a follower of the Christ, if I’m half-hearted and lukewarm about it. It’s like a restaurant that serves bad food – people just stop eating there. But you and I can be passionate and committed to Jesus and his story. It’s OK, it’s a bit weird, but we can do it. And we can learn really good ways to share the story and invite participation from people in the first third of life. In fact, I am absolutely convinced of it and I am 100% committed to this mob being about authentic, animated discipleship for people in all the thirds of life. So let’s take a moment to reflect on that story from Exodus that we heard today. The Israelites have been set free from Pharaoh’s slavery, miraculously crossed the Red Sea and are now wandering in the wilderness. But pretty soon they start to moan. Let’s go back to Pharaoh, at least there we had enough to eat! Instead of seeing the Promised Land ahead, they look behind them to the land of slavery. Yet, in the wilderness, when all seems lost, God rains bread from the sky and sends flocks of birds to eat. Every day. Everything they need is right there. Christians have associated Jesus, the Bread of Life, with that bread from heaven. Perhaps for the Anglican Church, this is our time in the wilderness. When we realise that God gives us everything we need. We have the scriptures and the sacraments, we have our prayer and our practice. Maybe everything we need is right here. The Lord be with you

The Reverend Chris Bedding is an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Perth, Western Australia. He is also an actor, director, musician and comedian. His passions are ministry amongst people in the first third of life, dynamic liturgy and advocacy for the oppressed. twitter.com/frchrisbedding facebook.com/frchrisbedding Email: rector.darlington@live.com.au

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