Does Jesus Care if Young Adults Come to Your Sunday Morning Service?

“After Jesus figured out how to rejig the synagogue service, all the young adults and families came back to worship and put heaps of money on the offering plate.”
    – 1 Fabrications 3:16

Lately I have noticed that the participation of youth and young adults in the mainline church has become fetishized. That is, we often have “an excessive and irrational […] obsession with” youth and young adults taking part in our churches. (Thanks to Oxford Dictionaries for the definition.)

“If only” more young folks were in worship … came to more events and programs … contributed more money … etc … etc … then everything would be roses and cupcakes, forever.

Don’t get me wrong. I love it when young folks are in church. I love it when old people are there, too. And little kids. And middle-agers. Worship and other churchy activities are awesome for all ages: they form us as followers of Jesus, as compassionate neighbours, as eager servants of God and God’s love. Worship is essential to a rightly-oriented life, no matter your age or stage.

But trying to get a younger demographic into the church for the sake of survival, or for the sake of saying we did it, is backwards.

The vocation of Christian communities is to serve. To serve. To love. To give. To share. To partner with others in doing good. Worship forms us for that, and it orients our hearts to God. But we don’t exist as churches just for the sake of existing, and worship doesn’t happen just for the sake of happening. The church exists because the Holy Spirit has called us into existence for a reason: in order to further the purposes of Christ’s mission in the world.

So I think the real issue, the real question, is not “how can we get more young people into our church?”

The real question is, “how can our church serve the young people (and other people) in our community with joy and humility?”

To answer that question, we’re going to need to find some ways to listen, really listen, to those young people, whether they are “part of us” or not, and to ask them what they need. When we are clearer about that, we’ll have a better sense how to use our resources to serve them.

Rob Fennell teaches theology and history at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia.


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Should There Be Religious Education in Public Schools?

In Manitoba in the 1970s and 1980s, when I was growing up, the public school system was completely evacuated of religious education.

Well, there were two exceptions: we read a Bible story from the venerable and hoary Hurlbut’s

Hurlbut's Bible

…and the Lord’s Prayer was said aloud during morning exercises.

There was clearly a Christian bias to those practices.

Then, a Manitoban student successfully protested having a mandatory Christian prayer in school, all the way into the court system, and morning exercises were de-religionized.

Otherwise, you would think that, according to the education I got at school, religion and spirituality did not exist. There was no mention of any religious tradition. It was completely rinsed out of the curriculum, like the mud ground into the knees of our jeans that our mothers valiantly tried to wash.

Even the core French language curriculum was curiously lacking in reference to the words of faith, despite the high correlation between Roman Catholicism and the francophone population in Manitoba and across Canada.

Along the way, many of us learned about religious traditions by-the-by. Or (more commonly) we learned bits and pieces, fragments of fact and fiction, here and there.

Today, I think Canadian religious illiteracy is kind of shocking. The assumption of most school systems seems to be that the whole world is irreligious.

Not long ago, one of our neighborhood schools tried to flex its multicultural muscles by listing the religious festivals in the monthly school newsletter. I thought this truly laudable, but the details (often quite erroneously stated) were haphazardly cut and pasted from internet sources in a way that boggled the mind.

I don’t mind AT ALL if someone believes differently than I do (or doesn’t believe). And I am certainly not saying that all students must be taught Christianity in school. That’s the job of the Church.

But I do think we have our heads in the scholastic sand in most places in this country.

If your neighborhood has public education about the plurality of religions that do in fact fill our society – excellent! But most places seem to assume a “don’t talk about it; it doesn’t exist” approach.

Meantime we run the risk of teaching that religion is non-existent or unimportant, when for so many people, here and around the world, the opposite is true. Faith is profoundly important to billions of people.

We run the risk of responding to each other’s faith traditions out of carefully-choreographed ignorance, instead of curiosity, respect, and neighbourly regard.

RESPECT A Bourdain 

Rob Fennell teaches theology and history at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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Pick-a-Flick Post-Easter Revelation

My family spent last weekend on Vancouver Island, connecting with Presbyterian colleagues and their families and preaching on the Sunday. We stayed in Cook Street Village, a cute as pie little neighbourhood on the other side of Cobble Hill Park from James Bay. It’s a trendy spot, with hipsters and homeless, boutique shops and cafes, an organic grocery store and an obligatory Starbucks.

Oh, and there was one more establishment that caught my eye. In fact, as I stood there it was clear that the children were confused but I was speechless.  No, don’t worry it wasn’t a medical marijuana dispensary, we’re used to seeing those on the west coast all the time.  What I saw was called Pick-a-flik.

The children asked me, “Dad, what are those people doing?”  I stammered, “Well, they appear to be going into a store where they look at DVD’s and pay money to rent them, take them home and watch them on a DVD player. And then return them to this store.” Silence.  “Like in person…” the children asked in a confused tone, “where they have to carry it back and forth?” Nodding in astonishment I said,“Yes, in fact, if they’re late returning the video they have to pay extra money in fines.” Wheels turning. Blank expressions.  And then,“Why don’t they just get Netflix?” the children asked innocently.

“I don’t know,” I replied and then the words just slipped out of my mouth, “I didn’t realize that people did that kind of thing anymore.”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth I realized that I had heard them before…here in Vancouver…in coffee shops, on the soccer pitch, chatting to parents at swimming lessons. “Where do you work?” “Oh the church…I’m a pastor.” “Really, I didn’t realize that people do that anymore?”

The funny thing about being Christian in this secular, west coast context is not that we do battle all the time with angry atheists. Oh yes, there are those around and it is a helpful reminder of the end of our privileged Christendom legacy to be mocked and derided for faith (it just happened recently in my own neighbourhood). But I don’t bump into angry atheists all the time. No, I meet a lot of affable agnostics. People for whom participation in a Christian community seems as foreign and antiquated as renting a DVD or, heaven forbid, a VHS from a pick-a-flik store down the street.

How might our witness as a Christian community not strike people as quaint or old-fashioned but daring and hopeful as an alternative path of living and loving in this world?  How might the good news of Easter strike people not as “old news” or “odd news” for this world but as news worthy to be describe as, “love so amazing, so divine, it demands my life, my love, my all…”

Ross Lockhart is Associate Professor at St. Andrew’s Hall/VST in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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A good news story

I thought this week you might be interested in this little story in The Globe and Mail about one little town’s efforts toward Christian unity. Click here. 

When our differences and distinctiveness drive us toward sectarianism, even within the Christian community, I am heartened by stories like this. Many thanks to John Allemang for a fine article (and a pleasant interview, too.).

Happy Easter. Let the Great Fifty Days begin!

Rob Fennell is Associate Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia.




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A poem for Holy Week: Snow melting at the tips of hemlock needles

Each droplet poised, balanced, waiting,
Stay back.
I am transforming,
about to fall
and return to the earth.

The sun beats down and I notice the treetops
bare, unbothered,
breathing spring in and out.

A droplet whispers again.

Or dare!
Dare to catch me
on finger or tongue-tip.
Feel my wet coolness
before you yourself transform
and fall
and return to the earth.



Rob Fennell
12 March 2016

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The Surger

Here we are at the edge of the season of springtime; a time when the ice melts and the river waters surge.

It reminds me of a day, soon after VHS video cameras became affordable for the general population, when the first thing my Dad filmed (other than his feet) was the action of the spring thaw. At the edge of the bridge he stood in the cold air and captured images of big sheets of ice bobbing along in the brook beside our bungalow. It was clear from the footage that he was “new” at the toggle buttons for the zoom feature as he focused in on part of the roaring river that looked like a root-beer float. He panned across the auburn water frothing as it curled at the edges of the sheer white panels of the ice-lined riverbank. And though shaky at times, the video playback clearly depicted a sheet of ice freely rumbling along and then getting pushed into a “stuck” place.

I remember watching this footage with Dad after he had come back indoors, rosy-cheeked from the damp zero degree spring weather; his eyes lit up when he invited me to watch the footage he had captured. And so, we sat in the rec room where the wood fire burned, watching the river run … on our TV.

And after a while I wondered to myself “why was he excited to show me this?   It’s just the river.” I quietly questioned the amount of time Dad had spent filming the same stuck sheet of ice. Then … suddenly the surge of the spring energy pushed that enormous sheet of ice from its stuck place and immediately carried it off with abundant energy into the flowing, rushing stream of water, creating an awesome effect. It was a surge worth recording, a surge worth sharing.

I dare speak similarly of the action of Jesus. A surge worth sharing; He caused (and is causing) an extraordinary movement; loving us too much to leave us stuck. In Jesus, God is not only holding us up in the stream of life, but sends a surge of abundant renewing energy, ever creating an awesome effect.  

 Maryann Skinner serves in ministry at First United Church in Port Credit, ON.





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John 12:1-11

“John,” the fourth evangelist, tells this story of Mary pouring perfume on Jesus’ feet in a curious way. Read it here if you you’re not familiar with it.

The question has to be, why is Jesus’ burial being contemplated only halfway through the story? And why is Jesus drawing attention to his burial when Mary is simply welcoming him with this anointing of his feet, a sign of hospitality and affection? And why is Judas mixed up into this account?

Since John wanted us to see and know the story of Jesus with the eyes of faith, that is, to understand Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection from a theological point of view, John does not hesitate to mix all these ingredients into the scene: death and burial; anointing; Judas and betrayal; rising from the dead; the plot against Jesus. All these combine to set the stage for how we are to see the rest of the story that John will tell.

And indeed, again in theological terms, they set the stage for how we are to see the whole story, the whole of history, including our personal histories within the grand scheme of things.

This is one compact little scene in one ancient religious text from one cultural group in one particular area. But it has enormous impact for us as Christians, Christ-followers. It shapes how life is to be seen.

Mary’s act of extravagant, loving hospitality reminds us that life is not meant to be just a desperate getting by from one day to the next day; or an attempt to assert our wills or resist the wills of others; life is not meant to be a grasping, striving, fearing, fretting existence.

The utopians and the optimists and the pessimists and the opportunists are wrong.

Life is a gift, handed to us by a generous God,
our affectionate, extravagant God;
and the blessings of life are designed to draw us close to God’s heart,                                 where we may learn to love as God loves.

Rob Fennell teaches theology and Christian history at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia. 


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