Kylie Ray Tesalona slid into the world nine seconds after 2017 clocked in as the new year. That made her the first baby born on U.S. soil in the new year.
People on tiny Guam were ecstatic. Her parents, Mina and Allen Tesalona, considered her a miracle. Kylie’s grandparents flew all the way from the Philippines to celebrate. A local bank donated $500 for a future college fund. It seemed the entire community poured what riches and love it had into Kylie’s life.
In our church in Littleton, a lovely, elderly widow sews a quilt for every baby born or adopted to our congregation. People visit and provide meals. Then some time later, we officially welcome the child into the community through the sacrament of baptism and invite the child to be loved by God through her family and the congregation. In so doing, we dedicate ourselves to lives of loving God and neighbor in front of the child in such a way that he can someday do likewise.
One of our children, whom we baptized at age five or six, had a dream the night before her baptism. She told her mom and dad she saw God at her baptism.
“What did God look like?” her dad asked.
“Like the people in our church,” she answered without knowing the theological depth of her dream.
If Kylie Tesalona was not born into an already Christian/church-going family (which is likely), she may never have the opportunity to be loved by God in such a way that she would describe God as looking like her congregation. Statistically, she may never even connect with a church. And even if she was born into a churched family, she may walk away from faith and never return.
How can I make such a prediction? Statistics.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 3,952,841 babies born in 2012 on U.S. soil. And according to the statistics gathered by David T Olson in his book “The American Church in Crisis,” Evangelical church attendance (our only way of cataloging how many people are Christians) is not keeping up with population growth in America. In other words, while around three million babies are born every year, the number of those attending Evangelical churches is on a steady decline. We’re losing ground.
Further, as is natural, Kylie’s parents—and most of the parents of those three million babies—are young, the generation we’ve labeled the Millennials. That means that Mina and Allen probably don’t attend church. Pew Research found that 35% of the younger generation are religiously unaffiliated. And two-thirds of those raised unaffiliated will remain so. Further “the new survey finds that most generational cohorts actually are becoming less religiously affiliated as they age.”
But I don’t really know if Kylie will come to know Christ and thrive in a Christ community called church. Our sovereign God knows and loves her. For all I know, she may have already been baptized into a covenant community that is loving God in front of her so she can one day love God in return. Kyrie Eleison!
I tell you Kylie’s story because like you, I have a way of not seeing the need of those around me. I get locked into my day and forget, that God’s finest work of art and daily creation is not a sunset or massive redwood or starry night but rather the human being next to me in the checkout line or in the car tailgating me. My neighbor! I’m simply trying to put a face and story to the thousands of our neighbors who do not know Jesus.
What if we could reach out with the kind of unpretentious love Guam did to the Tesalonas? Maybe you and I would look like God to them.
The church is in crisis. But a sparkly new program to reach out to families with new borns will not solve the crisis. We’ve done that for years. Guitars replaced organs. That started the worship wars with-in the church but those outside barely noticed. We’ve tried every variation of small group ministry. Evangelism has exploded. But again the various programs reached few new people.
Transactional programs are not the answer. That’s because the question is: do we love our neighbors enough to share life and Jesus with them? That’s a transformational question. A heart question. And transformation of our hearts is what God longs for. Transformation that sees us loving God and our neighbors in sacrificial ways. In ways that may not benefit us. Jesus did not come and change Judaism by reform. He transformed humanity by giving himself away.