Bishop Ough Speech for the 2018 Wesley Foundation Celebration Dinner

“Who Is This Jesus?”                                                                                          

 It is a pleasure to be with all of you this evening as we come together to support the Wesley Foundation at the University of Minnesota and to celebrate this remarkable and essential ministry.  I am grateful to both Dave Knutson and Jill Apple for the invitation to speak this evening. I also want to express my deep appreciation to both Jill and our campus minister, Lauren Rheingans, for meeting with me in the past couple of weeks to update me on the exciting direction the Wesley Foundation is moving.  We are so fortunate that God called and led Lauren to come and serve with us in Minnesota and among the University of Minnesota community.

While attending North Dakota State University I participated in a Wesley Foundation ministry.  It was a critical season in my personal and vocational formation – but I was not mature enough to even know how critical it was. It was during the Vietnam War (or the U.S. War, as they call it in Vietnam). I was anxiously waiting to learn my lottery number and seriously contemplating heading to Canada.  I knew God was calling me; but I didn’t know to what.  I was working part-time as a director of youth ministry at a local UM church near campus. Yet, I was majoring in biochemistry. The road to responding to God’s call on one’s life and coming to understand one’s personal mission in life is seldom straight and is often like searching for something precious in a heavy fog.  The NDSU Wesley Foundation provided the most essential ingredient I needed in that season of my life – community – a place to experience acceptance, the freedom to question and explore crazy options, a grounding place, an incubator for my emerging mission.

My youngest son, Matthew, graduated from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa with a bachelor’s degree in pre-med. At his graduation ceremony, the commencement speaker, whose name I have forgotten, said something I will never forget.  He told the graduates that if Luther College had only prepared them for the workplace, the university had failed them.  Because, he claimed, the role of the university experience is to help its students discuss and articulate their personal mission (Luther did that for Matthew). He was really encouraging every graduate to know their “why” story.

This is exactly why we need a healthy, sustainable, vibrant and adaptable Wesley Foundation at the University of Minnesota (and every other university)—we are in the business of helping young adults discover, articulate and engage their personal God-inspired mission, their personal God-inspired why, whatever their workplace or career choice or setting.

There is a renewed urgency to be about this task.  The demographics, polling numbers and our own observations tell the story.  These numbers and observations tell the story of how the culture in which we minister has and will continue to change.  The numbers are compelling – begging, urging response and adaptation.

Please allow me to personalize this with a story that some of you may have heard me share in another setting.  Our youngest son, Matthew, whom I referenced a moment ago, is part of the millennial generation.  By the way, the millennial generation, which is larger than the baby boomer generation, reached its peak in 2006.  That is the same year Matt married Jory.  They met while attending medical school at the University of Iowa.

During their Christmas break in December 2004, Matt and Jory spent several days with Char and me in Columbus, Ohio.  The day before they were to return to Iowa, Matt took me aside and told me he was planning to refinance his car loan.  The best part of the deal for him was he could borrow an additional $3,000 without raising his monthly payments.  When I asked him why he needed an extra $3,000, he indicated he was thinking of buying an engagement ring – for $3,000.

In February 2005, Matt called and told Char and me that he had the ring and he could wait no longer. He was planning to take Jory to dinner and propose.  Char and I were pleased, but knowing our son, we were concerned he might take Jory to a pizza shop to pop the question.  So, we called him back and offered to pick up the tab for Matt to take Jory to a fine restaurant in Iowa City.  Needless to say, Matt took us up on the offer.

This continues to be a bittersweet situation for Char and me. We celebrate Matt’s and Jory’s love. We rejoice in the life they are building together.  We are over the moon in love with the 3 grandkids they have brought into our family. Jory is a wonderful, talented and caring woman, mother, spouse, physician.  However, there is a measure of sadness, as well.  You see, Jory is not a Christian.  She grew up in a household in California that had no faith experience. None! Jory is a “none.”  Actually, she is pre-faith.  At the time Matt and Jory began to date she had no knowledge or feeling about the Christian faith, either positive or negative.  She was a blank tablet when it came to faith or religious language, ritual, experience.

Matt told me some time after he proposed marriage that for their very first date he took Jory to an Easter worship service at First United Methodist Church in Iowa City. Really?  On the way out of church, Jory turned to Matt and asked him, “Who is this Jesus they were talking about?”

The world has changed. Our culture has changed.  The world is full of Jorys.  In fact, when combined with the “dones”, they are the majority in this country.  For most of us in this room, we can hardly comprehend this reality.  That’s because we are products of and captive to our own generational experience.  When my parent’s generation reached adulthood, 70 plus % were involved in church. For the boomers, my generation, it is still 50%.  For the millennials it is 30%.  And for this current generation – Generation Z -- it is estimated by the time the majority of them reach adulthood, only 10% of them will be involved in a church or faith community. (Now, this might be offset by new immigrants, if we ever create a just, workable immigration policy in this country).

So just a word about Generation Z.  They are individuals born between 1995 and 2012 (6 to 23-year- olds).  There are 72.8 million Gen Zers within the U.S. population.  Go figure; the millennials decided to have children – lots of children.

Generation Z sort of snuck up on us, particularly in the church because we have been stuck in our lament over not having reached the millennials – the Jorys.  But, the last of the millennials are now graduating from college.  So, Lauren’s target audience, the Wesley Foundation’s target audience, is now Generation Z.

Just a couple of things about this generation.  They are realistic.  They grew up during the aftermath of 9/11, with terrorism part of everyday life.  We have been at war in the Middle East – Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria their entire lives.  They have lived through a severe recession.  They have witnessed the erosion of civil discourse and the rise of white nationalism. They are the targets of an endless stream of school shootings.  They are all about “getting real” and being pragmatic.  It is no wonder that mental illness, fear, confusion, opioid abuse, depression and suicides are on the rise among Generation Zers.

The research also shows they have a fear of missing out on anything.  On the positive side of this dynamic, they will stay on top of new trends and competition and will embrace trying new things.  On the negative side of this dynamic, Gen Zers worry they aren’t moving ahead fast enough or in the right direction.  Sounds to me like a generation looking for a mission.  Maybe it will be reasonable gun control.

I could go on with other characteristics about Generation Z, but I told Jill I would not need all the time allotted to me.  I do urge all of you to begin to read and learn about this generation.

The good news is that the need to connect with God spiritually is as old as the human race itself; and, the Gen Zers also express this same spiritual longing.  But, because of their parents, the millennials, they have been nurtured in a culture that places a higher value on being spiritual, than being religious.

They also want to make a difference in the world, but unlike their parents they will reject the collaborative cultures that millennials fought for and seek to make a difference in the world with a more independent attitude; “if you want it done, then do it yourself or we will do this without you.”

So, here is our challenge. We will need to connect the spiritual and the religious dots for our college students.  We will need to provide authentic experiences on Sunday or in worship settings that are as inherently spiritual as they are religious. We will need to cultivate specific, and in many cases unique, spiritual practices that will aid them to find new ways to be present to God and to others that lead to deeper, realistic, get-‘er-done engagement with the work of God’s kingdom.  We will need to understand that today’s students are compelled by Jesus, not traditional (baby boomer) forms of congregational ministry. They are compelled by authentic, learning connections that change lives, not by traditional social clubs or interest groups.  They are compelled by the state of the world and pressing moral issues and a desire to live out their vocations in the public realm, not politics as usual or even political advocacy as usual.

Every urgency is balanced by an equally compelling opportunity.  Lauren is already developing a vision and strategy to embrace the opportunity that lies before us.  We have heard that vision tonight.

• campus ministry as movement, not bound by a static place

• not a religious club, but a holy club

• not just another good cause or club, but an authentic connection to others and the world

• help students discover their why, their mission, not just participate in activities

Sounds very Wesleyan. John and Charles, the first campus pastors in our movement, would be so proud.

Now, we have the privilege to embrace and invest in this opportunity as well.  Without our sustaining support, the opportunity will be missed.  Let’s join in and reach the Jorys who are attending the University of Minnesota.

Thank you.

lauren rheingans