Passing the Torch -- A Sermon
1 Samuel 3:1-10
When Teddy Roosevelt became President in 1901 he was the first President since James Buchanan who hadn’t been directly involved in the Civil War. Though Grover Cleveland did pay a substitute to take his place in the Union Army.
Bill Clinton was the first post-World War II generation President, and since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, it appears that the torch may be in the process of being passed once again.
Passing the torch of responsibility from one generation to the next is inevitable – in politics, in business, in sports, and in the church.
At Central Woodward, we’re blessed with members who can remember the earliest days of this congregation, back when it sat on Woodward Avenue. It’s good to hear your stories, and we’re hoping to get them down on video soon. But a new day is dawning, and new generations are taking up the mantle of leadership. And that’s the way it should be.
The story of Eli and Samuel that we heard read this morning is a “passing the torch” story. In one way it’s a rather sad story, because Eli hoped to pass his priestly mantle to his sons. Unfortunately, they had failed him and now God was turning to someone else. The recent bankruptcy of the Crystal Cathedral is a good warning to those who wish to make the church a family enterprise! It rarely works! But the torch must be passed, and in this case Eli passes it to Samuel.
If we’re to effectively pass the torch from one generation to the next, it’s important that we understand each other. We sometimes hear about a generation gap, but these gaps exist because we tend not to understand each other’s stories and cultures. Generational theory is one way to understand these differences.
To give you an example: Think about the music we enjoy. I’ve heard it said that until Elvis, everyone listened to the same kind of music. After Elvis, music became generational. My mom listened to Engelbert Humperdink, I listened to the Moody Blues, and Brett listens to some Finnish metal band. This gap not only impacts family life, it impacts the church. In fact, there have been reports of “worship wars” breaking out in many of our churches.
So, here’s my question: Since we’re a multi-generational church, how can we effectively pass the torch of faith and leadership from one generation to the next?
I’d venture to say that there are at least five rather distinct generations present this congregation. There’s the World War II generation, which some call the Greatest Generation. Then there’s the so-called “Silent Generation,” followed by my generation – the ubiquitous Baby Boomers. Then there’s the GenXers, a generation that has a rather sparse representation in this congregation. They are followed by the Millennials – that generation of young adults who are under 30 and are the children of the Baby Boomers. And now some of these Millennials have become parents, and we don’t even have a name for this newest generation.
Each generation experiences the world differently. My parents grew up during the Depression, and my father was just old enough to serve in World War II. When this generation emerged from that War, they started families and joined churches. As a result, for a moment in time, the churches grew at a fast and furious pace. But this expansion didn’t last long, because a new generation emerged in the 1960s and 1970s that saw the world very differently. And unlike their parents this new generation was much less likely to join the church.
The two generations that have followed after the Baby Boomers – the GenXers who are children of the Silent Generation, and the Millennials who are the children of the Boomers, are even more likely to absent themselves from the church. That’s one of the reasons why so many churches struggle to attract young families with children.
Since I’m the parent of a Millennial, I’m sort of aware of how they view the world. These young adults who are now ready to take up leadership roles in the church have grown up in a world that never knew a black and white TV, a record player or even an 8-Track player. Instead of a typewriter, all they’ve ever known is the computer and the internet. And they’re children may look at the computer in the same way they look at a typewriter.
Now, although this generation is increasingly uncertain about the relevancy of the church to their lives, they are very open spiritually and they’re interested in finding places of worship and community that are authentic. They don’t just join the church for the sake of joining. There are simply too many options available to them.
Still, like Samuel, many of them are hearing God’s call on their lives. But they’re hearing this call at a time when growing numbers of people are losing confidence in institutions. Like the world into which Samuel was born, many younger adults are struggling to hear the voice of God.
The good news is that God is still speaking, to borrow a slogan from our UCC friends. The question is – are we ready to help these new generations hear that voice?
Eli is one who recognizes the importance of passing on the torch to a new generation, and so he helps Samuel tune in the voice of God. You see, according to the story, Samuel didn’t know the LORD’s voice, and so he didn’t know how to answer.
Although it took Eli three times before he figured out that God was speaking to Samuel, once he figured out that Samuel was hearing God’s voice he helped Samuel train his ear so he could respond to God’s calling.
Eli was Samuel’s mentor, and mentors see leadership potential and invest themselves in the lives of these emerging leaders. In order to take up this role, Eli had to let go of power.
A major reason why things went bad at the Crystal Cathedral was that Robert Schuller couldn’t let go of power when his son became the pastor. As a result his son failed and so did the church.
In our congregation more members are over sixty-five than under sixty-five, and so the day is coming, and is already here, when leadership must be passed on to younger generations.
Passing the torch isn’t easy. But then, letting our children go out into the world on their own isn’t easy. We want to hang on as long as possible to the umbilical chord, but eventually it has to be broken.
As for the “children” – they’ve already cut the chord. They’re taking up leadership. They’re hearing the call. And to give two examples of young adults and youth who have heard the call – I’ll point to Alex, who serves on the Young Adult Leadership Team for the Disciples, and Heidi, who serves on the Disciple Youth Leadership Team. These are only two of our under 30 members who have heard God call their names and have answered: “Here I Am.”
So, where do you fit in this story of Eli and Samuel? Are you called to be a mentor or are you being called into leadership?
Just a word of warning here: Newer and younger leaders may do things differently. They may want to sing different songs or engage in different kinds of mission. In fact, they may stir things up a bit.
Yes, the time has come for a new generation to take up the mantle of leadership by serving as elders, officers, teachers, leaders, and mentors. This passing of the torch, if it’s to be successful will take prayer and patience and openness. But, even as we see the torch being passed, that doesn’t mean that the mentor generations get to retire – there’s too much kingdom business for us to be involved with, for anyone, young or old, to retire!
William Willimon said that he always identified with Samuel, until he was about fifty, and then he began to identify with Eli. Tongue-in-cheek, Willimon says that in Hebrew Samuel means "a person who is from infancy to about forty." [William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, 28 (January, February, March 2000), 13.]
In other words, when we reach age forty or thereabouts, our youthful exuberance and idealism begins to give way to the temperings of maturity and experience.
As a pastor, I’m now well past forty, and so I too am one of the Elis. Who are you?
Is God calling you to take up the mantle of leadership? Or, is God calling you to begin mentoring the next generation of leaders?
How will you answer when God calls your name?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
2nd Sunday after Epiphany
January 15, 2012