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Last weekend my family attended the Hinterland Music Festival. It takes place in St. Charles, Iowa—a small town just off I-35 about 20 minutes south of Des Moines. Three days of music, craft beer, and pretentious-ness. All in all, a great time. For the last five years or so I’ve engaged the issue of young people leaving the institutional church in my research and teaching. Using Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I’ve explored various reasons why young people simply shrug their shoulders at church. They don’t hate it, but they don’t love it either. Andy Root’s Faith Formation in a Secular Age uses Taylor’s work to argue the church is going about things the wrong way. We’re still stuck in the idea of sacred spaces, like “going to church”, while young people inhabit a world in which they no longer make distinctions between sacred and secular. They’re just as likely to experience God at an athletic event, base jumping, or at a concert.

I knew this in my head, but this weekend was the first time I fully experienced it. Thousands of people gathered together in the heat and humidity, sleeping in tents and forgoing showers, crowding together in a shallow ravine with a stage plopped on the north end, all for the sake of experiencing transcendence. The Friday headliner, Hozier, sang about church, Jonah, Eden, and resurrection. His “Work Song” evokes the power and hope of resurrection:

When my time comes around
Lay me gently in the cold dark earth
No grave can hold my body down
I’ll crawl home to her

Boys when my baby found me
I was three days on a drunken sin
I woke with her walls around me
Nothin’ in her room but an empty crib
And I was burnin’ up a fever
I didn’t care much how long I lived
But I swear I thought I dreamed her
She never asked me once about the wrong I did

When my time comes around
Lay me gently in the cold dark earth
No grave can hold my body down
I’ll crawl home to her

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit sang about work, love, loss, and refugees. When he introduced the band, Isbell referred to “beautiful Baltimore” as the place his keys player called home. St. Paul and the Broken Bones brought the sound and energy of a gospel choir, and Brandi Carlile inspired the crowd with songs about motherhood, love, and the need for political action. Every night, people from every walk of life shared in the power of music, imagination, and a common humanity.

No, I’m not arguing the church should be more like a rock concert. Too often that’s the problem—we try to be something we’re not. In the end, we don’t give young people a faith that is deep enough, complex enough, or strong enough to bear the weight of reality. Somehow we’ve diluted the gospel message, we’ve depoliticized it, we’ve turned it in to some hyper-spirituality that’s useless for life in this world. Read through the New Testament and you see how death and resurrection is about a future life, but a future life that takes this life seriously. The gospels call us into the new humanity of Jesus Christ, to live as the new people of God, seeking justice, love, and hope that is only fully realized in the age to come. However, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead means this future life has broken back into the this one. We are not abandoned…we are not left to despair…we are called to hope because the tomb is empty.

This hope breaks back into the nooks and crannies of our insignificant lives, lighting up the most mundane, ordinary, things, and turning them into beautiful signs of Christ’s kingdom. Jason Isbell’s If we Were Vampires gets at this hope—an affirmation of our finitude, our creatureliness, that is the ground of being able to receive divine love and meaning.

If we were vampires and death was a joke
We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke
And laugh at all the lovers and their plans
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand
Maybe time running out is a gift
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift
And give you every second I can find
And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind

It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone
Maybe we’ll get forty years together
But one day I’ll be gone
Or one day you’ll be gone

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

2 Comments

  • Laremy says:

    I had a sense that we were at a worship conference for the “church of the second commandment”.

  • Tom says:

    There’s much here to think on that’s crucial to the future of the church. But I would appreciate hearing you expound – perhaps a future post? – on the assertion that we’ve ‘depoliticized’ the church. I can imagine an understanding of that term where I’d say you are spot on right, but another where I’d think you’re dead wrong.

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