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‘What will we tell them?’

Online Synod School is a virtual hoot. And, as always, it’s inspiring and thought-provoking

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Rodger Nishioka of Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas, spoke Monday to more than 300 Presbyterians meeting online for the first-ever virtual Synod School. (Photo courtesy of Village Presbyterian Church)

LOUISVILLE — Having as much fun as they could via Zoom, more than 330 Presbyterians gathered from across the country and across borders for the opening night of Synod School Monday. They were treated to a childhood faith story from the Rev. Dr. Rodger Nishioka and laughed with — not at — a Synod School mainstay, the Rev. Burns Stanfield and his online band of tie dye-clad musicians.

Stanfield, senior pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Boston, has, along with other members of his talented family, used the annual Synod of Lakes and Prairies week-long event as a family reunion every summer. For the first-ever online Synod School, Stanfield performed a composition he called “Zooming in the Love of the Lord” and sang updated lyrics for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” A sample lyric: “Now I’m Zooming with my sisters, and my brothers and my friends, and we all can Zoom together, ‘cause the circle never ends.”

the Rev. Burns Stansfield

Nishioka, senior associate and director of Educational Ministries at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas, had this lighthearted question when he learned a virtual talent show is scheduled for Tuesday evening: does “virtual” modify the show or the talent?

Nishioka’s talk built on the “What shall we tell them?” theme found in Psalm 78:4: “We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and God’s might, and the wonders that God has done.”

In his book “Faith Shaping: Youth and the Experience of Faith,” Stephen Jones talks about two ways youth gain their faith, Nishioka said: through nearness and through directness.

The first way involves proximity to faithful people doing faithful things, from being present for Synod School and worship to watching people serve in missions around the world.

Directness, Nishioka said, are direct moments, the times we’re invited to talk directly about what it means to be faithful. Jones, a Southern Baptist, said Christians of his ilk “need to lighten up. We do directness over and over and over again,” Nishioka said. “How’s your walk with the Lord? Sometimes, just give it a rest.”

But for Presbyterians and others who mainly rely on faith development through nearness — practically through osmosis, Nishioka said — Jones urges the direct experience as well.

“It really is a combination of both,” Nishioka said. “What will we tell them? We will show it to them by being faithful people. There are moments when we need to be direct about our faith in Jesus Christ.”

Then Nishioka shared a crucial faith-building moment he experienced as the 16-year-old preacher’s kid living in Seattle, where his father had been called to serve a Japanese Presbyterian congregation.

“I had done the whole church thing all my life. There was never a time in my life I didn’t know that God loved me,” Nishioka said. “But at 16 I was tired of church. We were the first ones there and the last to leave.” Besides, by the time the family returned home on Sunday afternoons during the fall, most of the televised National Football League games were over.

One Sunday, the teenager told his father, “I’m not going to go to our church today.” His father told him, “OK, Rodger.” Oh man, the boy thought. I should have tried this years ago!

Just before the rest of the family left for church, the father sat down next to the boy. “What will you do?” he asked his son. “I’m going to watch football all day,” Rodger replied. “I misunderstood,” his father told him. “I thought when you said you weren’t going to our church, that meant you were going to some other church today.”

“This is Seattle,” he told his son. “We have lots of churches with lots of space. Go anywhere you want to.”

“I said, ‘But all our friends are at our church,’” Nishioka recalled. “He said, ‘OK. Better get dressed.’”

Later, his father told him, “Rodger, you know I love you. I love your mother and your brothers. As much as I love them, I am doing my best to love God even more. You know that the way I think we show our love for God is by going to church. Then he used the ‘d’ word,” Nishioka said. “I would be so disappointed if any of my sons didn’t try to show their love for God in the same way.”

“I was 16, and that was the first time I recall hearing my father say that this whole being a pastor thing wasn’t a job. It was about loving God,” Nishioka said.

“What will we tell them?” he once again asked those gathered online. “We are going to tell them about the wonders of God. We’re going to tell them what Zoom means in a whole new way, and we’re going to put an end to Zoom fatigue.

“What will we tell them? We’re going to tell them that faith is a gift and not to neglect the gift that is in you, and to be around faithful people. That’s what Synod School is all about — doing faithful albeit crazy things, and to be direct — even you pastor types, perhaps especially you pastor types. We are going to say to our children, ‘OK. You know this, right? I don’t go to church just for my job. I really am trying to change the world for Jesus Christ, and I’d really love for you to be part of it.’

“That’s what I hope we’ll tell them.”

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