These are tough times for people of faith. A recent Gallup poll reveals that 77% of Americans believe “religion is losing its influence on American life”—the highest negative number polled on this question since 1970, when 75% of Americans thought that this was true. The Pew Research Institute has determined that 19.6% of Americans identify themselves as unaffiliated with any particular religion; 32% of those 18 to 29 are unaffiliated, making “none” the fastest growing religious affiliation among young adults. In such a climate, many would say that a seminary education is a poor investment. Some would say that we should be pulling back, discouraging new applicants, and cautioning our graduates that they have a long, hard road ahead. But we aren’t going to do that. We are sending you out today, not apologetically, not regretfully, but confidently, joyfully, and with enthusiasm! How dare we?
We dare, because the numbers do not tell a new story. Rather, they represent the stripping away of an illusion to which the church has clung for far too long: perhaps ever since the days of Constantine, when Christianity became legal! We had come to think that we Christians belong with the popular and powerful, rather than the shunned and the powerless. We had come to believe that we ought to be able to dictate our values to the world, rather than demonstrating our values through lives of engagement and service. We forgot that we serve a crucified Lord, whose only crown was a crown of thorns. Now that “Christendom” lies dead or dying, perhaps we can be the Church again, and seek the kingdom of God.
We dare to send you forth, because the numbers do not tell the whole story. You will find, in old dying mill towns, in struggling rural communities, in blighted inner city neighborhoods, that God’s Spirit is still on the move. People are still hungry for the gospel, thirsty for the living water, eager to find meaning and purpose for their lives. Perhaps (to steal shamelessly from Martha Robbins’ baccalaureate sermon) the “growing edge” of the church in our day involves finding new ways to be the church, in new places. I am heartened that young adults—the very people who in the Pew study represent the largest movement away from faith commitment—have been, in my time here at PTS, a growing segment of our student body. Every year, our Miller Summer Youth Institute brings to this campus high school students from across the country, and in their enthusiasm and commitment I see real hope for the future: those youth are out there waiting for you. I am also heartened by a recent article from, of all places, the Wall Street Journal! This piece describes adults in mid-career who, realizing the sterility of a life devoted solely to success in the world’s terms, have returned to a life of faith to find new direction and meaning—some even winding up in seminary! Many of you come from that demographic, too—and there are many more out there in the world, seeking and hungry, whom we must reach!
How dare we send you out? How dare we not send you out? You came to us in the first place, not because you were looking for a stable career path, but because you were compelled to come, by the leading of God’s Spirit. We have seen the gifts of the Spirit in you through this time we have shared together, learning and growing in God’s grace. With you we have discerned the shape of God’s call on your lives, and it is our prayer that we have helped to form you in the pursuit of that calling, grounding you in Scripture and in the tradition, helping you to grow intellectually and spiritually. Now, we too are compelled by that same Spirit to send you out, eager to see what God is going to do in and through your ministries. Go forth, sisters and brothers, in the joy of our Lord, and know that the blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, goes with you!
The Rev. Dr. Steven Tuell, James A. Kelso Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament