By Paul V. DeMarco
I wrote in a previous column about my disappointment over the decline of my denomination, the United Methodists. We are not alone. Our shrinking membership is paralleled by the majority of other church groups in America.
Longtime church members tend to blame external forces – the banning of prayer in schools, ever-loosening morality, competition from sports and other entertainment, and the evaporation of Sunday as the Sabbath day.
But I lay the burden squarely at our own feet. It’s not Jesus’ fault; his life and teachings remain perfectly relevant. We Christians, like the original disciples, have failed to understand who He was.
Teenagers, which is the group one must convince for a church to survive, have an intense need to belong. The church seems like a natural fit for them. It offers a family of usually well-meaning people who hold up a suffering servant as their Lord. “Come to Me,” He says, “all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” This is a compelling invitation to teens, whose lives are often a tumultuous search for identity.
But we have bollixed up our evangelism so badly as to obscure the profound love that Christ offers. Ask young people what they think of Christians and many will tell you we are hypocritical and judgmental, especially towards LGBTQ people. Unfortunately, their criticisms are too often accurate.
The “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach has failed miserably. Too many of us cannot hide our palpable distaste for people that Jesus asked us to love the most – the different, the despised, the immigrant, the homeless.
Those of us who wish the church to endure have essentially two options. The first is to keep doing what we are doing, claiming that we have been right all along and that any deviation from traditional Scriptural views (from a Bible that endorses polygamy, the death penalty for adultery and homosexuality, second-class status for women, and implies that the earth is roughly 6,000 years old) is the work of a permissive, Satan-infused culture. Good luck attracting young people to that view of the world.
The second is exemplified by Salkehatchie Summer Service. “Salk” as it is known to participants, was started in 1978 by John Culp, a United Methodist minister. Rev. Culp was led to gather adults and teenagers to renovate substandard homes in Hampton County as a way for participants to live out their faith. It has grown from that single camp to more than forty camps in every region of South Carolina.
Salk allows young women and men 14 or older to test-drive their faith in a potent and beautiful way. The rhythm of the week is both invigorating and exhausting. We awaken in darkness, pray, eat, work, eat, work, eat, worship and fellowship, sleep, and awaken to do it again.
Young people of every generation, but this one more than ever, are not content to accept and obey. They are adept at seeking information and opinion through the web and social media. They have many skeptical questions about traditional beliefs and scriptural inerrancy.
The focus of Salk is not words on the page but people in their homes. Poverty does not need to be believed in. It can be observed and wrestled with. Most Salk campers have never been confronted by the kind of poverty they experience at Salk. They are invited into homes with buckets arrayed to catch rain through leaky roofs, rotten floors, gaping windows, and unsafe porches. Conversations about poverty that they have heard from us adults are often superficial and tend to the extremes of “lazy and shiftless” or “industrious but oppressed.“
At Salk, campers often spend hours with the homeowners, sometimes working side by side. This can result in a reversal of the description of a “poor person” to a “person who is poor.” Campers can no longer talk about poverty without acknowledging its humanity.
Differences are accepted at Salk in a way they might not be back at the teen’s high school. Gay and transgender youth participate in Salk and are embraced-literally. It’s impossible to make it through the week without being hugged dozens if not hundreds of times. Every year, I look forward to my first embrace from a towering young adult who renews our friendship by bear-hugging me and lifting me off the floor.
That said, Salk has a diversity problem. Its leaders and campers are primarily white. The lack of diversity is a symptom of the churchwide racial divide. My challenge to Salk would be to make real John Culp’s founding vision in which teams of black and white Christians working together were to be the rule, not the exception.
If young people are going to choose faith, to respond to that desire for meaning that Methodists believe has been planted in all our hearts, the places they will gather to worship and serve will likely look like Salk. The new church will be a community that reflects the fullness of God’s creation, seeks out those who have been made to feel unworthy, and makes the building of God’s kingdom on this Earth its core mission.
Paul DeMarco is a physician who resides in Marion, S.C. He is a layperson who has been participating in Salk since 2008. His comments are his own and do not reflect an official position of the United Methodist Church or Salkehatchie Summer Service. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org For more information about Salk, go to https://www.umcsc.org/salkehatchie/.