Silent Epidemic

The suicide of celebrity chef and TV travel host Anthony Bourdain, 61, hit a lot of people hard, especially people my age. Here was someone who seemed to have it all together. He lived a life people dream about, travelling the world visiting exotic places. And yet Bourdain was a recovering addict. Whatever despair he was experiencing didn’t come across to viewers. One middle-aged fan of Bourdain said, “His death is a reminder that we just don’t know what people are going through unless we ask them.”

For two years now, life expectancy in the US has been dropping. The reasons seem to be suicide, substance abuse, and despair. The risk of suicide among men ages 55-62 has increased 55% since the year 2000. One researcher called this “the silent epidemic,” an epidemic that is “under-researched and under-reported.”

When God created everything and pronounced it “good,” there was one aspect of creation that God said was “not good.” It was “not good” for the man to be alone. So, God created someone to keep the man company.

Many years later, Paul, the early Christian missionary, wrote that “we belong to each other.” God designed us to be connected to each other the way the parts of the human body are connected, with no part more important than another. This happens supernaturally through Jesus Christ.

This means that the church has something that nothing else has, and it’s what people today desperately need. We’re a community of four generations, joined together by the God who made us. God gave us the church to be the place where people who care about you know what you’re going through.

You can travel to exotic places, and you won’t find anything better than that.

Growing young

It’s well documented that young people are leaving the Christian church at an unprecedented rate. One study estimates that by the year 2050, 35 million young people who were raised in the church will have abandoned the faith. The reason is usually not a crisis of faith. They simply aren’t interested in the Christian life they saw lived out in church.

But there’s hope. Fuller Seminary has documented the results of a four-year study of hundreds of churches in the book, Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church. It turns out that many churches are growing, and growing with young people. And it’s not just churches with hip music and edgy youth programs. All different kinds of churches are growing.

This week, I committed our church to take part in a year-long study of Growing Young with other like-minded churches in Pittsburgh. The average age of our church is 65, a generation older than the average of our downtown Pittsburgh neighborhood. We could use some members of the church who are passionate about young people to join us.

The folks at Fuller believe that when a congregation commits to growing young, it’s not at the expense of older generations. Young people bring energy to an entire congregation. As a congregation grows younger, other priorities gain momentum.

When I look in the mirror, I notice that I’m not getting any younger, and there’s nothing I can do about it. It doesn’t have to be that way with our church.

35 million

That’s the number of young people who were raised in Christian households who will walk away from the Christian faith by 2050. So reports Vincent Burens, President and CEO of the Coalition for Christian Outreach. The US is “currently experiencing the fastest decline in religious affiliation in the history of this country.” The majority didn’t have a crisis of faith or reject church teachings. “They left because they just weren’t interested in the Christian life they saw.”

And remember, Burens is talking about young people who were raised in the Christian faith. The 35 million does not include those who have no Christian experience or reference point.

Burens calls this, “The largest mission opportunity in the history of America.”

This really isn’t new. It was documented in the 1970s by the Rev. Lesslie Newbigin, a Presbyterian minister from England who served for 27 years in the mission field in India. Returning to England in 1974, he discovered that the churches of Europe were mostly empty. Europe, once the source of missionaries, had become the mission field.

Another study, published in 1982 in the Christian Encyclopedia, estimated that 29,000 Christians in Europe and North America were leaving the faith every week.

It’s possible for individual churches to experience this decline (85 percent are either declining or stagnant; only 15 percent are growing.) and miss the mission opportunity this paradigm shift represents. The reason is that declining churches become more intimate, more comfortable, more homogeneous.

Our ancestors at First Presbyterian Church crossed an ocean and a wilderness to plant this church on the frontier.

When paradigms shifted, and needs changed downtown, they dug up the cemetery where their own saints were buried to build new church buildings.

If any church in America can meet the great mission opportunity of our day, it’s us.

Silent sanctuary?

Five years ago, the Dormont Community Presbyterian Church, once a thriving congregation in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, closed. The property was acquired by North Way Christian Community. North Way is an evangelical congregation in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, 25 miles away. Today, the former Dormont church is a thriving North Way campus. (What once was the Dormont United Methodist Church is now a Buddhist Temple.)

A couple years ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did a photo essay on two dozen churches in Allegheny county that had closed, with many of the buildings falling into decay. Dormont was one of the few to find new purpose.

(To see the photo essay, Google “Post-Gazette Silent Sanctuaries.”)

What happened? In every case, the neighborhood changed.

The mill closed and the workers moved away; a tight-knit immigrant community dispersed over time; the white middle class moved to the suburbs. Then people with different ethnic, racial, or economic backgrounds moved in.

The church was no longer ministering to its neighbors.

A stalwart generation kept the church going as long as it could, but then a big bill came due; the roof needed to be replaced; and that was that. The Rev. Dr. Sheldon Sorge, general minister for the Pittsburgh Presbytery, said the [Dormont] Presbyterian church reached a similar point as many congregations in changing neighborhoods. “They’re good people; they just didn’t have the energy to reach into a new community.”

Well, our church just got a report from a roof consulting company. Our roof, which was built to last 125 years, is 113 years old. But parts are in bad shape. We’ve only got five years of roof left, and its going to cost a million dollars to fix.

Is it curtains for us?

Well, our neighborhood is booming. $8.5 billion has been invested here in the last ten years. We still have money in our own investments to perhaps seed a rebirth.

Promising. Hopeful.

Here’s the rub. The people moving into our neighborhood are changing, too. Most no longer go to church.

If we hope to reach them, we have to make a difference, and be known for making a difference, in things that matter to them. We have to provide ways to welcome them, get them involved, let them see us making a difference.

Will we have the energy to do those things?

Will we have the courage to change the good things we’ve been doing to reach them?

I pray we will.

Wee little man

There’s a children’s Sunday school song that many in my generation learned growing up. “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.” It’s one of those tunes that sticks in your head. You may not remember what you had for breakfast, but if you sang that song 60 years ago, you might start singing it now, just because I brought it up.

The problem with songs like that is that they can leave us with memories that aren’t quite right. This is not a sweet little story about Jesus sticking up for someone who was picked on because he was short.

Jesus was passing through Jericho, about to begin the long climb up to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. In just over a week, Jesus would be dead, yet he stopped, not to accept the adulation of the crowd, but to spend the night in the home of Zacchaeus.

Instead of mingling with the crowd, Zacchaeus had stationed himself high in a sycamore fig tree on the road out of town. He didn’t do this because he was short and wanted to see, as the children’s song would have us believe.

He did it because he was hated.

Tax collectors were universally hated because they collaborated with the Roman occupiers. Tax collectors got rich by extorting as much as they could and keeping the difference for themselves.  Zacchaeus was the chief among tax collectors. If he had mingled in the crowd, he likely would have wound up dead, and no one would have missed him.

Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately, I must stay in your house today.”

Jesus took the hatred of the crowd upon himself.

It was a hint of the unexpected, lavish, self-giving love that would be on display on Good Friday of the week ahead.

Cut off

The health services company, Cigna, just released the results of a national survey of 20,000 adults on the impact of loneliness:

  • Nearly half of Americans report feeling alone or left out.
  • Over 40 percent feel their relationships are not meaningful.
  • 20 percent rarely or never feel close to people.
  • Only about half have meaningful personal interactions (quality time) with others on a daily basis.
  • Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and may be in worse health than older generations.
  • And by the way, social media use is not a predictor of loneliness.

The bottom line: most American adults are lonely. And do I need to mention the devastating effects of all this loneliness?

Ezekiel 37 is the passage where God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the valley of dry bones. Ezekiel worked at a time when the people of Israel were in exile. The exiles described themselves as “cut off” from their people, their homes, and their faith. It’s amazing how many times the phrase “cut off” appears in the Bible. In a desert culture where connectedness was critical to survival, to be cut off from the community was a severe punishment. To be cut off from God was the worst thing of all.

Could it be that what people experience today is a problem of biblical proportions?  They’re exiles, cut off from others and from God.

But there’s good news. There’s a place where four generations come together every week. It’s a place specifically designed to provide the connectedness that we were made and long for.

Come on church. We were made for this.



Assessment of authenticity

I’ve watched the short video maybe 20 times. I’ll show it to our new church officers again this year. The speaker is Dr. Rodger Nishioka, one the top Presbyterian teachers in the country. Rodger is speaking about the “21st Century Reformation.” The theory is that every 500 years or so, God holds a “rummage sale,” throwing out things in the church that are outdated and making room for the new. He says a reformation is a terrifying thing to undergo, but in the end, the church emerges stronger and more faithful. Every time I watch I discover something challenging, new, or encouraging that I hadn’t noticed before.

Rodger points out that most young adults today who grew up in the church no longer attend.

He was speaking about Christian mission to a group of those young adults, and one of them challenged him. She said, “The problem with ‘you people’ (the church establishment) is that you seem to have no effect on the place in which God has planted you.”

For young adults, the impact of a church on its neighborhood is an assessment of its authenticity.

The young woman said she watched people come and go from the church across the street from her condo complex. If the church disappeared, the reaction would be, “Cool, more parking. Wouldn’t it be nice if they made a difference here?”

I don’t doubt that Jesus’ call to Christian mission is global. But the average age of our congregation is a generation older than our neighborhood. Are we making the impact here that we should? Do the unchurched (or formerly churched) young adults in our neighborhood assess us to be “authentic?”

What about the young adults who grew up here who no longer attend? Would they miss us if we disappeared?

You can watch “21st Century Reformation” at

The church at the start line

The Pittsburgh Marathon is Sunday, May 6th. Tens of thousands of runners and visitors from across the country and around the world come downtown. It’s like no other morning all year.

Our church is just blocks from the start line, right in the middle of it all

A lot of churches are completely blocked by the course on Marathon Sunday. Ours isn’t. You can take the “T” to within half a block of the church. If you drive and can make it to Grant Street, you can park in the Mellon Garage, half a block from the church on Sixth Avenue.

God put our church in the perfect place to be a blessing on Marathon Sunday.

When they built our church building over 100 years ago, the idea of closing streets and churches on Sunday to run a race would have been scandalous. It would never have happened. Even in the 1950s, streets were closed for church events, not the other way around.

For the last eight years, I’ve been out on the street in front of the church at 5:45 AM on Marathon Sunday, blessing runners. I pray with folks in small groups or one-on-one, or over the loudspeakers to the hundreds of runners walking down the street to their corrals.

I’ve discovered that people are nervous about taking on so big a challenge. In those moments before the race, they’re anxious to call on a Higher Power. Many runners are Christians who run for God, and many others run for causes that are important to them. Hearing words of blessing, grace, and peace is important to them.

This year, we’ll again be playing motivational Christian music in front of the church, interspersed with our prayers. Later in the morning (10:45) we’ll hold our worship service outside and preach from our unique outdoor pulpit. God’s Word will be loose out on Sixth Avenue.

What a privilege to be the church at the start line.

Over a meal

In 1994, our family moved to Montgomery, Alabama so I could attend a year-long Air Force school. Our first Sunday, we visited a church close to where we would live. After the service, we were greeted by the Cornwell family. They introduced themselves, and then brought other people over and introduced them to us as well. Then they asked us to go to lunch at Ruby Tuesday, Dutch treat.

We didn’t bother to look at other churches.

How did you come to faith? Was there a burning bush? A blinding light? For most of us, it wasn’t anything dramatic. We didn’t know anything supernatural was happening at the time. A friend or relative took an interest in us. We came to faith through people sharing a bit of their lives. And often food was involved.

Food is something we all need. Meals are something we all do. And so it’s not surprising that both Gospel writers Luke and John tell us that the Risen Jesus met his disciples over a meal. Luke says it was in breaking bread that the disciples recognized Jesus. John says it was over a campfire where fish was being served. The Risen Jesus reveals himself in an ordinary meal.

In 1999, after two intervening assignments, we moved back to Montgomery, and to the church and the friends we loved. Again, the Cornwells greeted us and welcomed us home. Later, when I started sensing the call to pastoral ministry, the Cornwells were there to listen to us and be patient with us and help us process what we were feeling.

Who are you inviting to lunch? What opportunities is God giving you to share a bit of your life?

For us, it was just a simple invitation to Ruby Tuesday, Dutch treat. But it turned out to be as supernatural as any burning bush.

What great commission?

The Barna Group, a Christian research company, recently asked churchgoers, “Have you heard of the Great Commission?” 51% said they had never heard the term; 25% said they’d heard the term but couldn’t recall it’s meaning; and 6% weren’t sure. Just 17% knew of the Great Commission and what it meant.

Matthew 28:18-20 is the passage most commonly called the “Great Commission,” where the Risen Jesus told his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations.” The Gospel writers Mark, Luke, and John also report a similar “commission.” Jesus “commissioned” his followers, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to go to all people, just as God the Father had sent him. Jesus’ kingdom on earth would be built by disciples who made more disciples.

So why don’t people know the Great Commission?

Well, the term isn’t in the Bible, and it wasn’t a term used by the church until the 16th century. It seems that the term was made popular by a British missionary to China, Hudson Taylor, in the 19th century. So it’s possible to see the words “all nations” and conclude the commission is for overseas missionaries. But the Greek words also mean “all people.” Jesus meant everyone, not just people “over there.”

At the same time, many people say, “Faith is a private matter. Keep it to yourself.” But what they’re really saying is that you need to believe in a different Jesus than the one in the Bible. They’re telling you to shirk the Great Commission and believe in a god they made up.

The one who was commissioned by God to come from heaven to earth, to live the life we should have lived, and to die the death we deserved, didn’t stay dead. He rose again and commissioned us to make more disciples.

That’s pretty great if you ask me.