Young adults grip and wrestle with a legion of issues, quick to flee the church. We church leaders need to study and respond to these issues as part of caring for this searching population. Several books can be valuable in helping us along these lines.
Preaching remains one of the most important tools for evangelism and nurture, and Performance in Preaching: Bringing the Sermon to Life
(Baker, $24.99, 2008), edited by Clayton J. Schmit and Jana Childers, is useful for helping preachers to focus on the technical aspects of delivery. Drawing significantly from the work of Charles L. Bartow, who has made insightful advances
regarding the relationship between homiletics and performance studies, this collection of essays with companion DVD probes issues such as the positioning of feet, shoulders, and body, as well as gestures, facial expressions, and inflections. The book's first half draws from theology and biblical studies to establish and underscore the relevance of performance studies to exegesis and preaching. The second half examines the specifics of performance methods, such as gesture, inflection, and expression.
While several points state the obvious, overall Performance in Preaching
is valuable for challenging preachers to reexamine their method and style and how to refine their skills, including to increase effectiveness for ministering to young adults.
One issue with which many young adults grapple is doubt, and Robert N. Wennberg's Faith at the Edge: A Book for Doubters
(William B. Eerdmans, $14, 2009) provides excellent, reassuring wisdom for those staring into doubt's eyes. Wennberg begins with the old but ever new assertion that doubt is frequently an integral component of the believer's journey. Countless exceptional
Christians have ventured through the "dark night of the soul," and there is no shame in any of us believers doing likewise. Wennberg indicates, therefore, that this book is for insiders, for believers experiencing doubt, not for doubters toying with belief. Drawing from his own experiences as well as the great doubters, including John of the Cross, Mother Teresa, C. S. Lewis, and Martin Marty, Wennberg provides a thoughtful book that helps believers understand anew that one can both believe and doubt simultaneously. I am in the midst of a dark night of the soul myself and have found this book on-target with my thoughts and feelings. Powerfully helpful for me is the reminder that I am not alone in my doubting, that I need not feel guilty about doubting, and that, as I doubt, God is with me. Wennberg concludes his book by exhorting doubters to be patient with their struggle. These messages would be priceless to proclaim to the searching, skeptical young adults who believe in God in spite of their best efforts not to.
A related book is Andrew Root's The Promise of Despair: The Way of the Cross as the Way of the Church
(Abingdon, $18, 2010), which argues that both society and the church today fail to take seriously the pain of death. Death, both physical and otherwise, is agonizing. Further, in our society we humans
writhe in the deaths of meaning, authority, belonging, and identity. That is, we live in a society that separates us from belonging, and challenges all authority, all ultimate meaning, and who we are.
Many turn away from the church because it fails to engage seriously these issues. The answer, Root contends, is for the church to reclaim and emphasize the Reformation principle of the theology of the cross, which avers that we encounter God, not in spite of death, but in death. The cross teaches us that it is in "the monster," death itself, that we encounter God. Therefore, the church needs to place suffering and death at its center, not to be masochistic or full of despair, but to encounter, through suffering and death, community, discipleship, hope, and justice. To help readers embrace these teachings, Root concludes each chapter with a meditation on a different figure from the Bible followed by discussion questions.
Root does an admirably honest job of exposing death and applying the theology of the cross fruitfully to challenge the church to embrace this theology in a way that will help seekers, including young adults, to respect the church's relevance.
In addition to doubt and death, another salient issue for many of us, including young adults, is care for the environment. Christianity, Climate Change, and Sustainable Living
by Nick Spencer, Robert White, and Virginia Vroblesky (Hendrickson, $16.95, 2009) is convincing and thorough in arguing the importance of Christians caring for the planet and in
presenting substantial and detailed ideas for how Christians can be better stewards of creation. After reviewing the evidence that global warming is occurring at an astonishing rate (which they believe is due, in large part, to human activity), the authors go on to show the biblical basis for caring for the planet and developing a lifestyle of sustainable living. The authors feature Isaiah 40–66 as a portion of Scripture that presents a vision of God's goal of redemption and liberation for the future that can inspire human emulation.
The last third of the book offers numerous suggestions for how Christians can help to advance sustainable living, including numerous Web sites and other resources. Christianity, Climate Change, and Sustainable Living
is an eye-opening, challenging, and inspiring book. Even those who hold doubts regarding climate change and how humans are contributing to it will find sensible and practical suggestions for better conservation of creation's resources. Un-American Activities: Countercultural Themes in Christianity (A Modern Father and a Postmodern Daughter Reflect on Their Pilgrimages of Life and Faith)
by Tom Wilkens and Kim Wilkens (Fairway, $20, 2009) offers a young adult's reactions to her pastor-father's ministry. Tom served for 31 years as a professor at
Texas Lutheran University, and Kim is his sometimes questioning and skeptical daughter. The book consists of 30 chapters, each of which follows the same format: Tom provides a sermon or some other writing from his ministry, which he precedes with an introduction explaining the background of the piece; then Kim offers a response.
In the first chapter, "Risky Business," Tom shares a quiz that he gave in lieu of a sermon (he had been called in at the last minute to preach and had no time to prepare a sermon). Since he was a professor, a quiz was easier to throw together. The quiz consisted of five questions that measured how oriented a person is to liberation theology. After giving people time to complete the quiz, Tom then explained the answers, using the exercise as an opportunity to talk about liberation theology. In response to the quiz, Kim writes about how, when she was younger, this would have been meaningless to her. As a young adult, she rejected the church and Christianity as hypocritical. She tried being secular, but found such a view of life lacking. She tried "soft-secularism," a position of believing in God but without serious commitment to religion. That view also left her wanting more.
Now that she is older and has a family of her own, she has returned to the church but still frequently feels like an outsider when she sits in the pew on Sundays. She also understands better now that her father's emphasis on liberation theology was, among other things, a departure from the very hypocrisy against which she had been protesting. She concludes by giving her own quiz, which help readers see whether or not they are "secular," "soft secular," or "Christian" in orientation. Throughout the book, Tom identifies himself with modernism, which he sees as a middle ground between fundamentalism, with its insistence on absolute truth, and postmodernism, with its emphasis on deconstruction and rejection of absolutes. Kim, of course, presents a more postmodern perspective.
The book contains a Lutheran slant. For instance, chapter 2 is entitled, "Lutheran Disdain for the Epistle James," and chapter 7 is entitled, "The Grudging Americanization of Luther." Nevertheless, the chapters would be valuable for Christians of most denominations and would be useful for both ordained and lay Christians. In general, in fact, Un-American Activities
is accessible, entertaining, and enlightening, especially for those trying to minister more effectively to the wandering, skeptical, and searching young adult.
As we allow Good Friday and Easter to wrap their life-giving grasp around our lives, may we be open to young adults, who frequently long for that life-giving grasp, whether they realize it or not, and whose questions often reveal our own, thanks be to God. David von Schlichten is pastor of St. James Lutheran Church, Youngstown, Pennsylvania, and the book review editor of
Lutheran Partners magazine.
This article appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 26, no. 2).