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  • Redemption Church

"Toxic Theology, Why the Millennials left, and Fishing for People" by Pastor A.J. Houseman

You all know it. I’m not saying anything scandalous here. It's no secret that millennials are not coming to church. I’m an anomaly standing here. Anyone out there under the age of 40 are anomalies. But really it's anyone under the sage of 55. Gen X left a while ago and just no one talked about it. (which is why I’m excited to be at Salem, this whole church is an anomaly.)

When I worked in campus ministries and would go to churches on Sundays and take the college students with me, and often I would get asked, (and by often I mean every single church I stepped into)someone would come up and ask me, “well how do we get young adults back in our church?” And I’d usually smile and say some sort of sarcastic remark like, “Isn’t that the challenge everywhere!” or “haha serve more free food.”

Because the cold hard truth is something that don’t want to hear. And certainly wouldn’t give campus ministries money if I said it. The cold hard truth is that they left because of toxic theology employed in the church and the hypocrites that employ it. Causing entire generations to lose all trust in institutional religion.


The Bible is a powerful book. Over the course of history we have seen this power being wielded well and we have seen it wielded dangerously.

In particular, the way it gets used as a set of laws that humans must follow prescribed by particular sects of Christians. How they interpret the Bible... Though, let's be clear, all sects of Christians have done this at one point or another. We have all made this set of divine rules and said this is how its done.

To the point where many have looked upon the church of Christ and said, these are a bunch of hypocrites.

You missed altar guild one time and now you’re blacklisted. Don’t move the furniture around unless it’s the way “I” want it done. You aren’t old enough to serve on council so the boomers will just serve for 30 years. Because you will never be old enough.

OR a super historical thing that happens in the church. They say don’t do this, but then do it in secret. Like drinking. Or they say you need to be like this, or Jesus won’t love you. You can’t get divorced, you can’t be gay, you can’t be mixed race, you can’t have sex, you can’t mak noise in church, and you have to be here every week. You have to serve on a committee. This is what it takes for Jesus to love you.

The church has become an expert in dishing out the exclusivity of God’s love. And used the Bible to back up this toxic theology.

If you stepped into a place, where time after time, week after week, year and year, and they said, “there's something wrong with you and you need to change your whole life or be ‘fixed’ to be loved,” is that a place you would spend much time?

I mean, really? When this book, which is supposed to be a book of love turns into a weapon of toxic theology, why would you want to be around that? In how this book has been used against me, it’s nothing short of a divine intervention miracle that I am standing here today.

That I didn’t flee with the rest of my millennial siblings because of how toxic that we can be sometimes in church. It’s not any one church in particular. Over the course of Christian history it happens over and over again. That those who are in decide the rules, and those who are out either need to conform or they are not welcome.


Our gospel text for this morning is one that has been consistently used to defend and perpetuate this toxic theology. You know the part, “I will make you fishers of people.” That Jesus is telling them that they need to save souls for Christ. In the name of Christ, we must go out and save as many souls as possible.

Let’s back up a couple of steps here. The Bible is a complex set of books, letters, personal accounts, and moral stories written over thousands of years by hundreds of authors. Let me repeat that, it was written over thousands of years by hundreds of people. Thousands. It’s a collection.

This is important to understand because each letter, each story, each book, sits in its own place and time. Authors were scattered over vast amounts of land and belonged to different tribes, with different sets of moral and social norms, practices, governmental structures, imposing threats to their societies, and even different languages.

This book is not cohesive and it contradicts itself in many many places. And why wouldn’t it? Again, it was written over thousands of years by hundreds of people in different places.

When we read this book, it’s important to understand the context of what’s being said. The place and time that each individual passage for which we are reading. What was going on at the time? Who was the political power? Where in that caste system is the author? Who is the author speaking to?

Think about it. OF something just like a hundred years ago. If you don’t know who is saying it, who they are saying it to, or what is going on at the time. How are you supposed to know what they are talking about? This is the one book that we sometimes seem to forget that, that the context is very important!

If you can’t answer any of these things and just take written text from the Bible and declare “This is what this means!” then of course you are going to wield power in a way that is dangerous!

This is a book of love, and if you read any message in there towards another person or creation, that is sending a different message, then perhaps you need to look again and learn a little more about the context.

And at this point, you might be thinking, “well Pastor A.J., how is being called by Jesus to save people’s souls not loving?” And to that, I’d say, “say that to the teen who was put through electric shock and chemically induced “therapy” to make them un-gay because Jesus told those nice Christians to save his soul.”

Or the mother who was told that the church won’t baptize her child because they were born out of wedlock and they would go to hell, so in order to “save the kid’s soul”, you have to get married first. Even to someone who might be abusive. Because to save your soul, it’s better for you be battered and married, than the mother of a bastard.

These are real things the church and said and done to people.


So after enough of this toxic theology, the Gen Xers and the millennials said, “why should we take this abuse? This isn’t what God intended. This isn’t what Jesus was saying. Let’s do our own thing.” And they did. Many just said, “screw it. I’m done with this church thing.” and aren’t a part of any church community. And others said, “Let’s start our own church.” and they did. And we sit here and get mad at them because they have these vibrant and growing churches, but they don’t do liturgy “right”.

Last week, the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton hosted a conversation to talk about the future of the church. To address this problem. The problem that the churches are shrinking, that there aren’t very many people of color, or young people. That they way we have been doing church isn’t working. Some people got all huffy puffy about it and as a millennial, I was like “yeah. Duh. This isn’t new”

I actually think the way forward is in our gospel lesson for today.

See that thing about the context of the Bible is really important because it’s important to know who and what is going on. First, let’s be clear about some context around Jesus. Jesus is well versed in his Bible. The OT being the Hebrew Bible and the one that would have existed in his time. He knows his scripture and he quotes it often. Quite a lot of times the things that Jesus says is him quoting scripture. Or at least the other of that Gospel using the scripture to show how Jesus is using their sacred texts.

And let’s be clear in this particular context, the author of Mark is speaking specifically to a Jewish audience assuming they would recognize that Jesus is quoting Jewish scripture.

This morning’s gospel is no different. Fishing for people isn’t a new concept that Jesus made up, he is referencing potentially three different Old Testament scriptures.

In Jeremiah, God declares that God will send “fishermen” as a symbol of God’s severe disappointment with the people. In Amos and in Isaiah, “hooking the fish” is a euphemism for judgement upon the rich. So what was Jesus saying? What was the entire mission of what Jesus was doing with his life? Lifting up the lowly, calling out the rich and powerful and so maybe Jesus’ use of this language here is inviting them into the radical struggle of overturning the existing order of power and privilege. His entire ministry.

It’s an invitation into mission. Remember this, it is not our job to save souls, that is the job of the Holy Spirit. Let me say that again. It is not our job to save souls, that is the work of the Holy Spirit through grace in Jesus Christ. We have neither the power or divinity to do so. Our job is to invite people into the mission of working towards the manifestation of the kingdom of God on Earth. The mission that Jesus is sharing with all of us and inviting us into continually in discipleship.

This is what Jesus is doing. Inviting them into creating a more just society. Inviting them into calling out power and corruption. Inviting them into the mission of healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for the poor and the orphan.

And let me tell you, millennials are up for this. Millennials are about this action. If the church said, “come as you are, whether you are broken, gay, unmarried, black, white, unchurched. Come join us in mission.” I think you’d see something a little different emerge. That this is where the church needs to head. That is not a club that meets on Sunday mornings with a set of rules that you need to follow. It’s inviting people into the mission of Jesus Christ.

See the fishermen that Jesus is reaching out to aren’t the “churched” people. They aren’t the the perfect, sin free, rule abiding folks the church has bolstered them to be. They were blue collar, smelly, grubby men. Who probably drank and swore. Swear like a sailor… where do you think that saying comes from? Right? They were highly looked down upon by the powers of the day. As the famous poet Roman poet Cicero (sis-er-o) said, “the most shameful occupations are those that cater to our (the elites) pleasures.” That it's just their job to provide us, important people, with things.

Jesus isn’t calling the perfect. Jesus isn’t laying down a set of rules to follow to be loved by God. Because let’s be clear, God loves you whether you like it or not. Whether you follow all these rules or not. We are created int he divine image of God, the image of love. And we have been saved by Christ through our faith.

Jesus is inviting us into mission. That’s what the call of discipleship is. To make the world a better place. To love, to love fiercely, and love all and share this love. To do the work of the kingdom. That has to be the future of the church.

For the church to be a place of invitation. A place of mission. A place of love. A place to come as you are and be loved. Ad to be sent back out into the world to follow the call of manifesting the kingdom through love. So when you go out to be "fishers of men", this is your call to stand up for justice, this is your call to serve others, this is your call to show the love that Christ came here to show: the love of God given for all people. Amen.

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