'Tis the season of the high school graduation, when we celebrate our seniors' scholastic achievements, reflect tearily on how quickly they've grown up, and then "send them off" into the wide world of adulthood. For the church, marking this momentous event in the life of the American teenager has always been a challenge. Some school districts hold a baccalaureate service to do so. Other congregations simply list their graduates' names in the newsletter. For many communities of faith, it is a difficult rite to address, because school and church seem to be separate domains. But perhaps congregations need to re-think this. In many cases, graduation marks the end of their participation in youth group and Sunday School. Many of them will leave (if only temporarily) and, unless they settle down in the same town in which they grew up, graduation may also be the "end of the road" of their life in a particular congregation. Should a congregation do more to draw attention to this reality as they send them on their way? Should a congregation try harder to maintain the ties with its graduates? It's a hard one...
Below is a copy of a letter I wrote to our graduating seniors, with the hope that it will at least start them thinking about their larger relationship to (with? in?) the church. Yes, it's long. And I also fear it's a little preachy. But, for what it's worth, this is what they got:
Both the congregation and I are extremely proud of you at your upcoming graduation. I have been fortunate to observe your growth in faith only over the past year and a half, but many of the members of our congregation have watched you grow up for a lot longer—from the moment you were baptized or joined this church, all through Sunday School, first communion, church youth group, and confirmation. I'll be honest with you: the congregation sees you as their children. Now you are about to take the “big step” into college or other walks of life, and we all pray the faith and character you have developed here will accompany you in the world beyond our doors. Many of you are no doubt more ready for this next step than we are; nevertheless, we are very happy and excited for you and look forward to seeing how God continues to work in your lives.
But we are also nervous. We are nervous not just because you will be venturing out from your parents’ protection into a world that is often dangerous, but also because statistics tell us that you will most likely stop going to church on a regular basis during the next four to eight years of your life. It seems like our society even hopes that you will wander around awhile, reorganizing your priorities, testing various things out, or like that beloved Robert Frost poem so often read at graduation ceremonies, “taking the path less traveled by.” Some of this must happen: life will always present us with decisions and opportunities which need good exploring, and the freedom you are about to experience will be exhilarating at times. But over the next few years you will most likely discover what I discovered at your age: that, for whatever reason, life after high school graduation will make it more difficult to wake up on Sunday mornings or carve out time during the week to attend worship somewhere. What we are really most nervous about, however, is that in all of the testing, wandering, and sleeping in, you will reorganize your priorities in such a way that you will determine that Church is not important in life.
And that, we know, is wrong. Church is important in life. In fact, if you look closely at all the ways this congregation has nurtured your character up to this point—partly through those things I named earlier—you will find that Church is vital and crucial and necessary. Church concerns not just your identity as a child of God, but your very salvation. By that I don’t mean that you must attend church to “get into heaven,” (we know from the Bible and our good Lutheran theology that there is nothing we have to do to get into heaven), but I mean that through the church and in the church is the only way that your relationship with God and God’s people may rightly be nourished—and that, in itself, is salvation. And despite some hurt feelings and the occasional hypocrisy you may have noticed in your fellow Christians along the way, it has primarily been through your family and the church that your gifts and your faith have been nurtured thus far in life.
Indeed, during these first eighteen years you have already been experiencing a foretaste of what the final form of our salvation will be like because you’ve been participating in Christ’s work. For example, you have been molded to serve others and learned how humbling it is to be served. You have made mistakes and been embraced with forgiveness. Likewise, you have begun to learn what it is like to embrace others in forgiveness. In some of the more exciting times you have discovered God has given you gifts through his Spirit, and that God has given you places to use them and people with which to share them. Already, through the church, you have started to taste, hear, feel, and see what God’s grace in Christ looks like. In the church you have been loved and encouraged in a way that the world will never be able to care and encourage you. And as you continue, you will find that the people gathered in the church—we call them saints—are necessary for helping you understand and articulate how God is at work in your life. These are the elements of salvation, and it one reason why the church is and will continue to be important in your life.
There is another big reason why we become anxious that you may wander away too long from this imperfect but nevertheless gracious community: we don’t want you to forget the stories. I'm speaking mainly of the stories in our Scriptures—like how God gave Israel manna to eat in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, or how God saved Noah and the animals with the ark. Or the one about Jesus’ feeing the five thousand, and the one about the silly shepherd who throws a party after he finds his one lost sheep. Those stories are powerful and fun, and being with us on a regular basis will help you remember them. But even more importantly, the church helps all of us remember that, through Jesus, God narrates true meaning for the entire world and redeems it from sin. The world, by contrast, will offer its share of competing stories for the meaning of life, some of which may be worth listening to for awhile, but no story the world thinks up will contain the words that begin, “In the night in which he was betrayed…” There is unfathomable love in that story, love that puts an end to sin and death, love that grants eternal life, and it absolutely captivates us. Beginning with your baptism, you have been irrevocably woven into that world-redeeming story, and this congregation has done a fairly good job of telling it to you, over and over, so that you may begin to see yourselves in it. It may sound strange, but the church is of utmost importance to you and the world because of this particular story and the way God’s people tell it by living it out.
Speaking of that, the church also sorely needs you and your gifts. You will be the next generation of people through whom the Spirit will help form us all into the person of Christ. Oops. Strike that. You already are the next generation who will mold others in the faith. I hope you will discover how much you will depend on the church for this mighty task.
So, as you enter this phase of your life—be it wilderness or paradise—know that God has promised to be with you. As you leave to “grow up” or “become independent,” don’t forget the value of growth in God’s Spirit or lose sight of the ways in which you have learned that we are all inter-dependent. Remember that God has been stating your true identity since your baptism, and that the community called the church has and will be intimately involved in that process. Think of it like this: at your birth, you were set in motion toward God. Sin tries to prevent us from moving toward that goal, but Christ, through the church, places us back on track every time. This grace saves us, and the church tells this story, lest we forget it. Here you will get manna for that great journey. Here in this ark, God guides us to salvation.
This is why the church is important.
May God bless you in your life. We love you.
P.S. Don’t be a stranger!