This past Friday night, I was sitting around a campfire, feeling great hope for the future of the church. Some of the members of the Lutheran Student Association at the College of William and Mary were on retreat, and they had asked me to lead them in conversation on their retreat theme: "Remember the Sabbath."
The students that I work with at William and Mary are like those at many highly-demanding academic universities. They are extremely bright. For years they have been driven towards high achievement. (Otherwise, they wouldn't have been able to get into a school like William and Mary.) They push themselves hard during their years here. After college, most go on to graduate school in education, medicine, physics, biology, theological seminary, law. I am all the time telling them, "God loves you despite what your GPA may be." And, "When are you going to play today?" And even, "It's ok if you don't study on a Saturday night."
How healthy it was for the students to focus on "Remember the Sabbath" -- because Sabbath-keeping is a practice they often forget. They were drawn to Sabbath-keeping as something much deeper than simply "going to church." I jumped at the chance to share something about God's gift of Sabbath time, to encourage them to receive that gift.
I am hopeful about the future of the church because I am discovering growing desire for greater depth in the life of faith. Attendance at the congregation I serve is lower than it was 10 years ago, which is true in many congregations. I think that's largely because those who used to "go to church" because they "should" don't do that anymore. But, among a smaller group, there is growing interest in being serious about following Jesus. It seems to me that those who still gather each week for worship are those who hunger to be nourished by word and bread and wine and the mutual mentoring of those in the community who are practicing the faith in their daily lives.
I was sitting around the campfire with 20-something-year-olds interested in exploring the possibilities of Sabbath-keeping. But it's not only young adults who are seeking depth. I find it to be true, as well, among those who are two and three generations older than my college students, those who are still showing up for worship. Most of them have been regular church-goers for years, but few of them have been introduced to these riches of the Christian tradition. With older adults, I just concluded a 10-week study of a book exploring what the editors call "ancient practices" of the faith. Next week I'll begin another 10-week study, this one focusing on the liturgical year: how can we use the themes of the liturgical seasons as a lens to perceive God's presence in the experiences of daily life? There was a time when a topic like that would have sounded boring. Now there is interest. How hopeful!