“Belonging, Not Conforming”

May 31, 2105


As I started to prepare for this past year’s confirmation class, it became clear that something new was needed. We needed to join the growing number of churches that are exploring new ways of preparing young people for membership. I asked Robin to help me with this, bringing her considerable experience in working with youth in various congregations.

We wanted to do more than simply convey information. We wanted to give the confirmands a feeling for life in a congregation, to help them develop the sensibility of what it is to be a part of the United Church of Christ out of the Congregationalist tradition.

We shifted things around. We didn’t want confirmation to be a “graduation”—sending the message that now you’re done. Because youth are far more likely to continue to be involved in a church if they know adults and know that adults know them, we brought in other members of our congregation: _________ helped as they prepared a meal for the Free Lunch Program; ­­­­­­_________ talked with the class about the Evangelical and Reformed wing of the UCC.

What we had this year was more of a beginning than a conclusion.

And this morning we celebrate what we have done so far even as we look ahead.

Confirmation is such a joyful time in this congregation. It shows much that is good about our life together. On behalf of the whole congregation I want to extend a special welcome to all the friends and family members who are here worshipping with us today. Your presence is a gift and we are glad that you are here. We celebrate this morning. We’ve confirmed four youth and welcomed them into this congregation. After worship there is cake!

Last Tuesday evening the confirmands met with the Diaconate to share their expressions of faith. You can see parts of those expressions downstairs in Rockwood Hall—offerings that show the mixture of doubt and belief that we call faith. The faith expressions of ________________, were received with warm gratitude and generated a great deal of conversation. The tradition of Congregational UCC recognizes the right of individual conscience and members were ready to learn how these youth understood life and faith on their terms.

Members of this congregation know that we don’t have creeds or other tests of faith for membership. We put a lot of stock in our covenant with each other that we read earlier this morning. How we live toward one another is as important as what we believe. Each person is responsible for his or her own beliefs. In owning the covenant of this church each of us agrees to belong to a believing community and, in that community, to work out our own beliefs.

Today __________________ chose belonging, taking their place in that long line of the faithful who have been part of this congregation for over 150 years.

In some sense, have a good understanding of what they’re getting into. All four of them were baptized as infants in this sanctuary. They’ve been seeing some of you week after week, year after year for as long as they can remember. They want to be full members of this congregation that welcomes all people, respects questions, nurtures faith, and call us to action.

As we talked last Wednesday, some of the adults expressed the concern—maybe even the trepidation—that many of us feel for youth today. “Our kids are being raised in different times,” one parent said on Tuesday.

They are.

And maybe you’ve heard the big religious news of this month: the Pew Research Poll that found an ongoing decline in the number of people in the United States who identify as Christian. This seems to be the case across the board—the decline is seen not only among Mainline Protestants but also among Evangelical denominations. We are seeing, the people at Pew tell us, the rise of the “nones”—people with no religious affiliation, people who check the “None of the above” box on surveys of religious preference.

Are we welcoming new members into a precarious community?

Probably not.

Peter Manseau, the author of One Nation under Gods, recently suggested that “headlines to the contrary, we are not necessarily seeing a period of religious decline. Rather, this may be just the latest in a series of moments when more Americans are intent on custom-tailoring their religious identities.” As at other times in the past, people are leaving old ways behind and taking new approaches to the life of faith. Manseau concludes: “It’s too soon to tell what the continuing negotiation between belief and unbelief described in the Pew study will bring, but the picture it provides of religious communities in flux suggests that a transformation of the religious character of the nation might be led by those with too many spiritual influences to choose just one.

In a way this is not news at all. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t draw their faith from many sources and places. One of the great advantages that we have here in Iowa City is the proximity of people of many faiths. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus Buddhists, and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics fill our neighborhoods, our streets, and our malls. They are your classmates. You may have already discovered the joy of talking with other people about their faith and yours, discovering what you have in common, respecting honest differences. You are part of a congregation and a denomination that seeks the good in life through cooperation with people of other Christian denominations and of other religions.

Your world is and will be a pluralistic place—filled with the awareness that there are many forms of faith. Everywhere will be Iowa City! The approach to faith that is found in this congregation will help you to live fully in this world, to meet its challenges, to enjoy its opportunities, and to bring it some measure of peace.

__________________—the world is going to try to tell you what it means to be religious. A lot of people will try to tell you that if you are a person of faith, well, you must believe this or that.

But you have chosen belonging, not conforming. I think you already have a sense that this congregation does not expect you to conform to any single way of believing and living. Faith, after all, is not just a set of propositions with which we can agree or disagree. Faith is a way of life, a way of relating to God and our neighbors. Faith is a way of understanding who we are and who we are becoming. A living faith develops over time. Contrary to popular opinion, confirmation is not graduation. We do not send you from here today expecting that you will never return. Confirmation is simply your preparation for full membership and participation in this community. It is a beginning. You will learn what it means to be a person of faith as you are involved with others in this congregation.

By choosing to join, you change things. The church will become something different if you are an active part of it. If you want to see something happen here, you need to enter into the process of making it happen.

You have learned some of what it means to live the life of faith. You have been described as people of integrity who welcome differences in people. You have shown yourselves as people who celebrate the image of God in each person, who have an appreciation for the whole physical world, who sense the importance of the teachings of Jesus, who know the depth of forgiveness and its significance for life.

As we welcome members of a new generation of faithful people, we need to train our ears and our hearts to hear new words, new ways of speaking about the ways of God in our lives.

Because the world is changing and our community is changing and our church is changing, this is a time when we need to be talking with each other in this congregation. This is a time when we are called to conversation. We are called to talk with each other about what we see, what we hope for, what we know, and what we don’t know. We need to talk with each other about our mission as a congregation, about our involvement in this community, about how we grow in faith and help our children to do so as well, about how we use our building.

A New Yorker cartoon showed a car on an expressway, the road ahead splitting off in three directions. Overhead the road sign announced: “It’s all good.”

What a wonderful, positive message! Ultimately, what a message of faith! Wherever we go from here, it’s all good.

That doesn’t mean it will be easy, or painless, or that the road will always be smooth. It does mean that wherever we go, whatever happens, whatever we do, we will be held in the love and care of God.

Someone told me about going through a difficult time that included the death of a beloved relative. It wasn’t easy, he said. Then one day, he looked up, saw some geese flying overhead, and thought: “It’s OK. It’s all going to be OK.”

This has been a year of change for many in this congregation. This has been a year of illness for many of us. This has been a year of grief and sorrow for many of us. Again and again in recent months I have come home and said: “It’s just a difficult time for a lot of people here.”

Often it seems like all we get is challenge. Sometimes we wonder if we’ll get through. But the message keeps coming to us: It’s all going to be OK.

It’s all good. It’s all going to be OK.

We celebrate today. We give thanks to God that ________________have joined us in making our way into God’s unfolding future as together we walk in the ways of Jesus Christ made known and to be made known to us.