28 March 2017

keys and the kingdom: discipleship and a buddhist teenager

I remember once when I was in graduate school at Denver Seminary, taking a course on religious pluralism, one of our assignments was to attend and observe a religious service of a non-Christian practice and make our evaluation and assessment of the experience. We were given a good amount of freedom in the parameters of this project, so our small class of about fifteen people scattered ourselves across the metro to a variety of religious contexts. I found myself at a Buddhist "temple" for a weekly meditation gathering, sitting with a handful of other curious men and women in a row of chairs set up on the parameter of the gathered Buddhist faithful. It was an interesting experience, and I experienced more spiritual light and darkness conflict than I anticipated.

One particular piece that remains with me in regular thought was a special ceremony that took place toward the end of gathering. The temple was welcoming a new member into their official ranks. On this particular day it was a teenage young man who had shown himself committed to the life of that community. I do not remember most of what was said to him by the elder gentleman who was leading the gathering, but what I have not forgotten is the key. As part of his formal welcoming into the group he was handed a key to the main doors of the center (they were meeting in a former church building). As he was given his key he was told: This building is for you; it is for your use in meditation and growth. Come here whenever you need to. Bring your friends and your family to this place, and show them the way that you have learned.

Having been a part of the Christian church since birth, I can say that this sort of mentality is incredibly rare in American evangelicalism. I have seen that most churches guard their keys, many with great fervor, and restrict access to the physical space for a whole host of reasons. Even in churches where every adult member has a key to the building, it is still rare that this should be given over to a teenager (or that a teenager might be considered a full-fledged member in the first place).

I suppose this comes down to being an issue of discipleship: What is the goal of Christian growth, anyway? In this Buddhist temple it was part of the spiritual culture that this young man, regardless of his age, understood the responsibilities of participating in this community. And with those responsibilities came a charge of evangelism and discipleship – bring others and show them. This was clearly an expectation of the journey of meditation and enlightenment, and here was someone coming into his own along the journey. Why would we in the church be so terrified of what might happen if we entrusted our teenagers in the same regard?

In his fantastic book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity, Thomas Bergler says: "Adolescent Christians don't expect to be adults for a long time, so they don't particularly care if their Christianity prepares them for adulthood. They tend to be much more aware of their religious 'rights' than their religious responsibilities" (14–15). I think that sums it up quite nicely, and sheds a particularly bright light on the lack of genuine discipleship within the average American church today.

Many times, when I have relayed my experience of watching this young man receive his key to the temple – in a serious and ceremonial way – I am met with some form of admiration: Wow, they are serious about this. Indeed, they are. Or, perhaps we are not. While it might be a stretch to give out keys to the teenagers, why are we still battling over who among the adults receives keys to the building? (Or, what about every nook and cranny in the building: how many locks does your church kitchen have?)

Rick Bundschuh, teaching pastor at Kauai Christian Fellowship in Hawaii, once wrote of when their church community had built a new campus and decided to give everyone a new key that would open every door in the building (!!!). Yes, this was difficult for some of the congregation to swallow, and I have shared this with a number of pastors and church leaders over the past few years, none of whom have thought it was a good or appropriate idea for their own churches (to be fair, about half have indicated that it would be great if they felt as though their group was ready for this.) But there again we see the problem: are we discipling men and women (and children) into maturing believers who are ready for the responsibilities of faithfulness?

Bundschuh says of their experience: "And while we have had a few bumps along the way (just how did those high school kids get a copy of the key anyhow?), the place is a beehive of activity day and night with people doing the very things that we had hoped they would do. I think people in the real estate business call it 'pride of ownership'" (Don't Rock the Boat, Capsize It, 80).

So, there it is – a short little lesson on discipleship that I found at a Buddhist temple. And I think it has important implications for the American church today. It's amazing what can be discovered by handing one little key to another.

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