millennials

Crossing the Great Generational Divide

By Rev. Mindi

Sometimes we lament the fact that our children grow up and then don’t go to church. Or sometimes we lament the fact that they do go to church, but not to our church anymore. I’ve written before about how we can sometimes treat young adults as if they are still children, but I see this happen more and more in the churches I serve: we remember people as we once knew them, not who they are now. We still remember when they were kids, and sometimes we still treat them like they are children.

More importantly, however, we do not see how we have grown and changed. And aged. In this time, when 50 is the new 40, 40 is the new 30, etc., we have forgotten that 40 year olds are not young adults, but we treat them that way. And sometimes those of us pushing upper 30’s and early 40’s forget that we are technically middle-aged, not young adults. And I’ve heard retirees feel that they are still much younger than they are. Heck, I know people in their sixties and seventies dying their hair weird colors and getting tattoos just like twenty-year-olds are doing.


What does this matter? Aren’t these all just labels anyway?

In the structure of the church, this can matter greatly. It probably shouldn’t, but it does. Teens and younger adults who were part of the church and are now in their 40’s and 50’s are still treated like children. They are still treated as if they cannot make a commitment or be dependable in the life of the church, and sometimes are not offered leadership positions or their offers to volunteer are not taken seriously.

There’s been so much written about churches and generation gaps and Millenials, Millenials, Millenials—while the next generation is getting ready to graduate high school and we aren’t ready for them—that I think we have completely missed the boat on this conversation.

We need to change the conversation from being about one generation, or about how one generation relates to another, but rather how we see ourselves. Are we truly the Church, the Body of Christ? If so, we are one of the last multi-generational organizations in existence. We are one of the last places where inter-generational community can take place.

But it doesn’t. Instead, we tend to stick with those in our stage of life as we have been seen in the church. I believe that these “stages of life” as I am calling them here come into play more often than actual generations.  These are some generalizations coming up, but see if your church doesn’t generalize based on these “stages” either: children and youth (those under the age of 25) young adults (i.e. those who are single and under 50), young couples (those couples without children that are under 50), young families (single and coupled parents with children whose children are under the age of 25 and the parents are under the age of 60), grandparents and those close to retiring (ages 50-70—can be single, coupled, can be parents or grandparents), recent retirees (70-80) and Seniors (80+).  There is some wiggle room in this, but I feel it has less to do with generations as defined in society and more to do with stages of life. And as more and more people live longer, the age range for these younger “stages” has widened. Look at that: all of the stages under 50 are mainly considered "young."

You might think this, just like generation definitions, is just a bunch of baloney. But as more and more people wait for marriage and children, as more and more people choose second careers and go back to school in their 40’s (or 50’s and 60’s), these age ranges are becoming greater. What seems to have happened is that Gen X, Millenials and the upcoming generation have been lumped into one: the “young adult generation” or “young adult stage.”

What does this mean for leadership in the church?  It means that even though you have aged, you might still see yourself in the same stage, or close enough to it. It means that your definition of young might have changed, because you are no longer in your thirties but your fifties. It means that a search committee looking for a “young” pastor 40 years ago was looking for someone in their 20’s, maybe their 30’s. Today, a “young pastor” could be anyone under 50!  It means that sometimes pastors are turned down who are under 50 because they are seen as not having enough experience.  It means that in regional and national denominational committees and boards, one persons’ definition of young may be very different than another person’s definition of young.

My spouse, who will be turning 43 soon, is still called a “young pastor” and a “young adult.”  I am very close to 40. I am still often am asked if I am serving in my first church (I’m at my third call). I'm in a very different place than I was at 24 and out of seminary, but I'm often not seen that way. And my colleagues coming out of seminary are in need of church positions to move into and that can't happen if those of us in our 40's and 50's are still considered young and still being hired for those positions that young clergy need in order to begin following their calls to ministry.

While in larger congregations some of the age ranges in these stages may be smaller (I know some churches that would not call adults in their 40’s young adults, nor would they call families with teenagers young families, but I have seen and experienced this in many churches both as a pastor, as a visitor, and as a consultant), these stages do set our points of view in a certain way. For folks who are in the “grandparent and close to retiring” stage, the “young families” and “young adults” and “young couples” really could be pushing 50 and they would still think of them that way, as “young.”

So what does this all mean? I’ve just created yet another system of categorization and labels that are not helpful, right?

Maybe. Maybe though we can use this to help deconstruct the myths around age and what is “young” and “old” in the church. Maybe we can stop referring to people in their 30’s, 40’s and even 50’s as “young adults” and think of them as adults in the life of the church, capable and gifted for leadership. And yes, maybe some of us on the “younger” side could stop looking at those over 60 as too old and too traditional and too set in their ways, and we can stop making side comments when they dye their hair or get tattoos. We need to find ways of crossing generations and life stages to be the Church, the body of Christ.

The lectionary Gospel text this Sunday is Mark 3:20-35. I wonder if maybe Jesus, who was in his 30’s, was still just seen as a “young adult” or even “Joe and Mary’s kid.” When Mary and his brothers came and called to him, maybe Jesus was tired of still being seen as a young adult or child. Jesus says, after looking around at those who have sat with him, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Maybe we truly need to start seeing each other as our mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, kindred in Christ. If we could see the person who seems too young to be moving into that leadership position as my sibling—if we could see each other as equals in relation to each other—we could give up our need for control and power, our need to put down others as not having what it takes just yet. If we could see each other as part of the body of Christ, as equals—we could let go of these generation gaps and be truly intergenerational, interconnected, integral to the body of Christ.

The Problem With Assuming That It's the Millennials' Fault for Abandoning Religion

By Derek Penwell

[Note:This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.]

I used to work with a guy who had a gift for breaking up with girls. He was so genuine and kind that afterward the girls would invariably leave feeling affirmed and cared for, like George Clooney had just fallen apart on them, relating how unworthy he was of their affections. Masterful. He was the ultimate “it’s-not-you-it’s-me” guy.

If you’re going to get dumped, that’s the kind of person you want lowering the boom, isn’t it?

But most people can’t pull off that level of empathy. Most people struggle between the poles of blame, between “your fault” and “my fault” -- all too aware of the other person’s problems, but also painfully suspicious (if not quite aware) of their own complicity. It’s normal.

Then there are the people at the other end of the spectrum, unencumbered by the decided disadvantage of ever entertaining the possibility that they’re wrong. This is the “it’s-not-me-it’s you” person. These are the folks who believe that no problem is too big or too complicated that -- with the application of a little intellectual candlepower -- it can’t be successfully blamed on somebody else.

Now this shedding of responsibility can come in two different forms. The first type is what I call “the slippery blame-caster” -- able to weasel out taking responsibility for anything that goes wrong by deflecting it onto someone else. This is the person who always seems to be standing behind you when the boss is around, pointing a finger at you when she thinks you’re not looking.

The second type I’ve labeled, “the belligerent blame-thrower” -- unfailingly staking out the moral high ground, convinced that culpability must lay with someone of obviously inferior moral fiber. This is the person who is sure you’ve screwed up somehow, but hasn’t quite figured out your tricks yet -- because you’re a slacker, and who else would do something like this?

I find the belligerent blame-thrower much too regularly in the church. Something goes wrong and this person’s default posture is “it’s not me; it’s you.” I knew a leader at one church who -- if he showed up late for something -- wouldn’t think of apologizing for keeping you waiting, but would proceed to blame you for giving bad directions, or changing the time, or failing to remind him.

I thought about that guy the other day as I was reading an article about whether Millennials are leaving religion because of the treatment of LGBT folks. The author cites a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey entitled, A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues, which indicates among other things that (31 percent) of Millennials say they are leaving religion over LGBT issues. Interesting, but come on, we pretty much knew that, didn’t we?

No, what I found particularly difficult to wrap my mind around emerged as I read the last part of the article. Turns out that, at least when it comes to appearances, fully 7-in-10 Millennials “believe that religious groups are alienating young adults by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.” That is to say, (70 percent) of people born between 1980 and 2000 believe that the church is hostile enough to LGBT issues that it’s driving people away.

On the other end of the age spectrum, however, only “roughly 4-in-10 (43 percent) members of the Silent Generation believe that religious groups are alienating young people, while nearly as many (44 percent) disagree.” That is to say, after looking at the decline experienced by American religious groups over the last fifty years,1 a larger portion of the Silent Generation responded to the trend by protesting, “It’s not us; it’s them. We don’t know why they’re leaving, but we’re pretty sure it’s nothing we did.”

I find this stunning lack of self-awareness on the part of older generations of religious people troubling. Notice I didn’t say that I find the inhospitableness of older generations troubling (although, the survey numbers do suggest that the older you are the less likely you are to be welcoming of LGBT folks). My problem has to do with the apparent inability of older generations to understand how they appear to others. Saying, “Well, I’m not intolerant of LGBT issues, and I’m tired of getting blamed because people misunderstand me” misses the point.

Pro tip: If you don’t consider yourself anti-gay, but you find yourself expending energy repeatedly defending against charges of homophobia, you probably ought to consider the possibility that maybe you’re not just being misunderstood.

This penchant for viewing the problem of the exodus of young people as unrelated to anything you’ve done is very near to the heart of the problem.

Case in point: One of the commenters on the article, a man who appears to occupy the graying edges of the age spectrum, implied that Millennials leaving religion because of anti-gay bias is their problem: “Saying, ‘I am not going to church anymore because of their hostility to gay and lesbian people’ is akin to saying, ‘I don’t eat seafood anymore, so I am not going to eat in any restaurant.’”

Now, the commenter may be right that young people have just misunderstood the message that religion presents on LGBT issues, but that misses the point. If you desperately want young people to help you stem the tide of religious decline, blaming them for not coming to your aid because you’re misunderstood, only soothes your own sense of inadequacy by blaming someone else for it.

“It’s not me; it’s you” is the death rattle of the isolated.


    __________
  1. 1. While I’m thinking first about the majority of those religious groups associated with Christianity, Judaism is also experiencing difficulties around declining membership. ↩

The Rise of the Nones, Again

By Jeff Gill

Millennials, those born after 1980 who are coming into maturity and leadership roles in society, survey as non-religious, or “Nones” in higher numbers than has ever been seen in modern polling.

Depending on whose data you consult (Pew, Gallup, Barna) they come out anywhere from 16% to 29% irreligious. The “Nones” are an even higher number in Great Britain, closer to half. However you read the results, the “Nones” are on the rise among thirty-somethings and late-twentys folk, even as a majority of them are still traditionally religious in many ways.

Indications from most denominations are that the rise of the Nones are making a dent in an already battered demographic category, putting a hole in the middle of the generations sitting in pews, gathered in worship centers, or playing roles in leadership development.

Questions are being asked about how the new significance of Nones will impact denominational bodies, change faith-based institutions, or if their preferences will increase the active resistance in society to organized religion in public life.

In 1804, a group of thirty-somethings gathered west of the Appalachian Mountains to unmake a decision, an attempt they had made less than a year before to find a liberating accommodation with the religious structures of their day.

They wrote and published a “Last Will and Testament” that began like this:

The Presbytery of Springfield sitting at Caneridge, in the county of Bourbon, being, through a gracious Providence, in more than ordinary bodily health, growing in strength and size daily; and in perfect soundness and composure of mind; but knowing that it is appointed for all delegated bodies once to die; and considering that the life of every such body is very uncertain, do make and ordain this our last Will and Testament, in manner and form following, viz.:

 Imprimis. We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.

Barton Stone, David Purviance, Robert Marshall, John Dunlavy, John Thompson, and Richard McNemar were all relatively young clergy (or aspiring preachers and congregational leaders) who had reached an end of their ability to make compromises between their own quest to make sense of divine purposes as revealed in Scripture, the needs of the people around them (to which they felt called to minister in seeking a sense of redemption and forgiveness amidst the harshness of frontier life), and the demands of formal religious tradition mediated through creeds and confessions and catechisms and synods and minute-books and agreed-upon meeting-day agendas.

They decided to throw it all out, except the Bible, and start anew from where their gathered congregations stood, seeking not even a better reading of the Holy Scriptures as to church government, but simply to use their reading of the texts and their common life together to show them . . . “the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus.

And as for the church bodies that had up to that point defined the religious landscape of Frontier America, they said “Item. We will, that preachers and people cultivate a spirit of mutual forbearance; pray more and dispute less…

Contrary to the usual assumptions about “the good old days,” around the year 1800 something less than 20% of the US population were members of a church. Obviously, we don’t have nationwide polling data on religiosity back then, and membership was structurally something much more rigorous than what we know today in mainline traditions (although it’s those traditions that are the heirs of those stringently restrictive bodies; more on that later). But these Cane-Ridge-convened preachers were raised up within those traditions, yet out of the broader intellectual traditions of the era, they found themselves chafing at the network of boundaries that restricted their fellowship, and started tugging at the tightness of leashes on their questing inquiries on the nature and manner of God’s work with humankind.

Exact parallels between distant historical eras are always illusory. What’s dangerously tempting here is that we are talking about what a proper historian would call “a mere two hundred years” and within essentially the same cultural framework.

If anything can be said by way of comparison here, it’s that one should be careful about overstating how much “None” is becoming a central force in society, let alone among Millennials; likewise, it’s simply not true that all our pioneer forbearers were faithful practicing Christians. In the episode so beloved in our Stone-Campbell Movement history called “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery,” a group of young believers in 1804 saw an opening to a de-structured, open to doctrinal innovation, non-hierarchical faith community, in a context of general un-belief, or at least un-practice.

Today, young adults are asking questions like “why buildings?” or “why residential seminary training?” And definitely “why denominational structures that act as filters and reinforcers of social norms?” They are not all abandoning belief in God, or even casting the Bible aside as irrelevant, but the social context today is adding urgency to their choices about what presumptions they will or must accept. Millennials, and not a few others who are older demographically, as well as those younger are finding presumptions and preconditions rather beside the point in their religious journeys, within or without formal structures.

On the other hand, after the dissolution of the Springfield Presbytery, those young reformers who wanted to base their church structures entirely on individual experience relating the Bible to personal choices – they ran into some problems. Of those first six leaders named above, four of them ended up in the Shaker movement, a millennial communitarian fellowship with some, shall we say, idiosyncratic views on the relations of men and women. Barton Stone did not make that particular journey, but seeing so many of his one-time colleagues make such a shift based on nothing more than their personal reactions of the moment led Stone to become much more accepting of a certain amount of church structure, even though he never quite made up his mind on how much there should be.

Likewise, today’s decentralized, deconstructed, non-doctrinal Christians know it isn’t just an evangelical talking point to acknowledge that experience alone is not a sufficient guide for faith and practice. We all get our context from the culture, and the intervening two centuries since Cane Ridge have shown that culture’s ebb and flow of norms can suddenly take populations into frightening places of belief and action.

If Nones are ascendant today (and I believe the evidence is that while they are growing in number, they’re still far from dominant in society), the role they play is primarily as a counterweight to received wisdoms of all sorts. The example of Cane Ridge and the Springfield Presbytery’s self-dissolution suggests that where large numbers of a community are actively disengaged from sectarian conflicts, space is opened up for new reconciliations and innovative community forms that are not closely linked to what had gone before. You see developments that are more revolutionary than evolutionary.

Those revolutions can go astray (ask Robespierre, or Kerensky). And we’re still trying to sort out if the Occupy movement’s radical unstructuredness was a bug or a feature. But a religious revolution does have a tendency to look like heresy or un-belief to most of the believers being revolted against, let alone to the authority structures being subverted. Unless we’re heading for an atomistic, purely individualistic form of faith and practice (“keep it to yourself, new-style Christians or old-school”), whenever groups of believers come together they will have to find a model for guiding their common life without letting individual enthusiasms or passing fads tug them to and fro.

The early Stone-influenced “Christian churches”, and the Campbell-guided “Disciples of Christ” out of their own comparable journey, ended up falling back on their historic Reformed traditions of congregational life, and left the revolutionary moment as only having empowered them to shut down the authority of synods and presbyteries. Their revolution decapitated some figures from their past, and ended up promoting a relatively un-reformed Reformed model (and only a part of that model) into authority beyond what it was ready to handle . . . not dissimilar from the way Napoleon went from Little Corporal to First Consul after the French Revolution.

Which might suggest to Millennials looking to their history, as they begin another “Great Sorting”, that Cane Ridge et alia show us that for every aspect of our traditions we jettison, we should be as intentional as possible about crafting what it will be replaced with. Trading kings for Napoleonic heirs didn’t work out too well for France, and trading bishops and synods for ruling elders and congregational autonomy meant that the vacuum of authority and influence was filled for the Disciples of Christ with priorities that probably were in no way what that earliest generation intended.

If you read the “Last Will and Testament” in full, it is inspiring and bracing from the perspective of today to see how much emphasis on freedom of conscience and of interpretation is built into the reasons Stone and his associates decided to shut down even the authority structure that they themselves had created. They closed down a process that still, in their opinion, had the potential to close off sincere inquiry and potential outreach by their frontier faith communities. What they did not create was a new covenant, a clarifying consensus that would protect and defend such individual inquiry beyond their immediate context, while also securing and defining the boundaries of a healthy, functioning community.

The Millennial generation is in a key position relating to today’s “Great Sorting” that most denominational bodies and institutions are experiencing. They are coming into leadership just as decisions are being made about what to discard, what to keep. Equally important are the decisions reached for the replacements for that which we set aside, because history suggests that the best answer is rarely “None.”

 

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him where you think the church’s role should focus at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Last_Will_and_Testament_of_The_Springfield_Presbytery

 

The Wrong Question

By Rev. Mindi

A post on CNN’s Belief Blog by Rachel Held Evans on “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church” has gone, as they say, viral. There are several posts out there responding to Evans as well, ranging the gambit from she’s absolutely right to completely disagreeing with her reasons of why they are leaving.

However, I think it’s the wrong question. Maybe it’s the right question from her point of view—growing up in the South, coming from an evangelical background—but for those of us coming from the mainline, it’s the wrong question for us to ask.  Because Millennials, like many Gen Xers before them, haven’t been in the church to begin with.

I’m one of those stuck-in-the-middle generations, on the late end of Gen X, but if you ask my husband who is five years old than me, especially when we reference music tastes of the 80’s and 90’s he sees me as more Millennial than Gen X, whereas people a few years younger than me see me as Gen X and not Millennial. Us late 70’s babies are caught in the gap, but we have experienced what has happened in both generations to some degree.

Most of us in the gap have parents who are Boomers or late-Boomers. Other Gen Xers parents were from the Silent Generation or early Boomers. While we don’t all stick with our generation typecasting, people who grew up in the Silent Generation and Early Boomers still went to church on a regular basis and raised their kids to do so.  During the Depression and WWII, church was the refuge for the poor and the place to pray during the ultimate crisis of war.  The church had a prominent role in people’s lives because there was nowhere else to go. People who grew up in those years turned around and raised their children in the church. Church was steadfast. When the world didn’t make sense, the church made sense of the world. Church was the center of hope.  The Silent Generation that suffered together during the Depression and sacrificed together during WWII was loyal to the church that had remained.

But the Boomers grew up without that connection to the suffering and sacrifice, without the recognition of the church as a beacon of hope and steadfastness in a time of utter turmoil and hopelessness of the Depression and the War. Church was something they had to do because their parents raised them in it. Church became the place of conformity, of rigidity, of unchanging in a changing world. In fact, many of the reasons shared in Evans’ piece of why Millennial are leaving remind me of what I have heard from those growing up in the 60’s in mainline, mostly white churches in the U.S., perhaps only to a slightly lesser degree. The church of my grandfather that had been a place of hope and encouragement and where people banded together to know they weren’t alone in life’s struggles, was a place of stifling conformity for my mother and her generation.

And what I know of many of my peers, us late-GenXers and into the Millennial, is that our parents decided not to raise us in church (my mother changed her mind when I was nine and brought us back to the church). Our parents decided they didn’t want to force on us what they felt was forced on them. Our parents wanted to give us the freedom to choose, and in doing so, we opted out. But we were never really given the option of staying in because, except for Christmas and Easter and maybe other special occasions, we never went. Or, if our parents had a better relationship with the church when they were growing up, we were given the option upon our baptism or confirmation. So ironically, we would make our statement of faith in the church and then never return.  The option of staying was never really taken serious enough by our parents to begin with.

I think the challenge for many of us in mainline church leadership today is not how to keep Millennials from leaving the church, nor how to get Millennials back into the church, but rather, how do we pass on our faith in ways that don’t repeat the mistakes of the past two generations? How do we pass on a faith that allows for questions and exploration while at the same time gives a grounding for hope and assurance?

Thankfully, and hopefully for our future, we won’t have another Great Depression followed by a World War that would cause our country to be in such upheaval that everyone’s daily lives are affected by it. There probably won’t be another scenario in the U.S. in which so many people felt the pressure of the depression and then the war, including the notion of self-sacrifice, in which people felt like they were connected more deeply together in the well-being and survival of the country. The church was a centerpiece of hope, a stronghold in the community for grieving, a place where one another’s burdens were shared in a real and tangible way.

But somehow, after the War, we shifted away from this. Instead of the church being the place everyone turned to for stability, the church became a place of control and conformity, at least among Euro-American white churches (note the very different role of the black church in the Civil Rights movements during the same period of time, and that assumptions made about who is leaving the church are generally speaking about Euro-American churches).  And it’s no wonder that our parents didn’t want to bring us up in a church that was conforming and boring, or at least wanted to give us a choice about it because they felt they did not have a choice.  The church had lost out being a beacon of hope and steadfastness in a world of change, and instead, to keep that image up, turned to control and conformity within its own structure.

I’m not a church historian. But it seems to me this great shift happened more than a generation ago and is not a Millennial issue.  And if we want to know how to reach out to those who have had little or no grounding in the church and do not seem to see any reason at all to attend church, perhaps we need to rethink church (again, a topic of many viral posts, including posts on this site).

When we look back at Acts 2 and 4, we see a model of a church in which people come together and share what they have with each other.  Worship was not a separate act of their daily lives, but rather a communal act in which prayers were shared, bread was broken, and possessions shared with those who had need. Perhaps we just need to dream it up again, a way of being community that is beyond what we are doing now but not so far out of reach. And, as I’ve shared in my own thoughts on this matter here before, I hope we don’t make the assumption that those outside of the church have no community, let alone a spiritual community. Let’s not go rush out and offer community without observing the community that may already exist.  Instead, perhaps we can come together, insiders and outsiders, church and unchurched, and dream something new together, and find a way to pass down our faith that includes opportunities for change and choice without having to chuck the whole thing. We need to build up that kind of community together that withstands the challenges of the world and offers hope, a sense of belonging, and is steadfast in a world of constant change, without changing steadfastness into conformity.  We need to live out our theology in a way that shows hope, faith, and love, that also does not require conformity, rigidity and condemnation of others. 

Dear Church . . . Letters from Young People about Welcoming Everyone (6)

Some time back, I received from a youth worker a packet of letters written by young people at a retreat.  These letters were written to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), urging its people to open their arms to everyone, in particular LGBTIQ people.  I asked permission to publish the letters, without the identities of the authors being revealed.  I was given permission to use them in this way.

One of the emerging realities of the culture in which we live is the dawning awareness that young people—across the theological and political spectrum—overwhelmingly believe full acceptance of LGBTIQ people is self-evidently a good thing.  At the same time, young people are leaving the church in droves—a significant number of them over the issue of the exclusion of LGBTIQ folks. 

As it prepares to make big decisions at General Assembly about how it will include people at the table, it is important for the Disciples of Christ to hear the voice of its young people on this issue.  Consequently, [D]mergent will be publishing one of these letters every Sunday morning from now through the month of May.

This letter is from the youth worker.

~Derek Penwell

Letter from Sponsor (1).jpg
Letter from Sponsor (2).jpg

Dear Church . . . Letters from Young People about Welcoming Everyone (5)

Some time back, I received from a youth worker a packet of letters written by young people at a retreat.  These letters were written to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), urging its people to open their arms to everyone, in particular LGBTIQ people.  I asked permission to publish the letters, without the identities of the authors being revealed.  I was given permission to use them in this way.

One of the emerging realities of the culture in which we live is the dawning awareness that young people—across the theological and political spectrum—overwhelmingly believe full acceptance of LGBTIQ people is self-evidently a good thing.  At the same time, young people are leaving the church in droves—a significant number of them over the issue of the exclusion of LGBTIQ folks. 

As it prepares to make big decisions at General Assembly about how it will include people at the table, it is important for the Disciples of Christ to hear the voice of its young people on this issue.  Consequently, [D]mergent will be publishing one of these letters every Sunday morning from now through the month of May.

Please take some time to listen to what our children are saying.

~Derek Penwell

Youth Letter 6 (1).jpg
Youth Letter 6 (2).jpg

Dear Church . . . Letters from Young People about Welcoming Everyone (4)

Some time back, I received from a youth worker a packet of letters written by young people at a retreat.  These letters were written to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), urging its people to open their arms to everyone, in particular LGBTIQ people.  I asked permission to publish the letters, without the identities of the authors being revealed.  I was given permission to use them in this way.

One of the emerging realities of the culture in which we live is the dawning awareness that young people—across the theological and political spectrum—overwhelmingly believe full acceptance of LGBTIQ people is self-evidently a good thing.  At the same time, young people are leaving the church in droves—a significant number of them over the issue of the exclusion of LGBTIQ folks. 

As it prepares to make big decisions at General Assembly about how it will include people at the table, it is important for the Disciples of Christ to hear the voice of its young people on this issue.  Consequently, [D]mergent will be publishing one of these letters every Sunday morning from now through the month of May.

Please take some time to listen to what our children are saying.

~Derek Penwell

Youth Letter 4.jpg

Dear Church . . . Letters from Young People about Welcoming Everyone (3)

Some time back, I received from a youth worker a packet of letters written by young people at a retreat.  These letters were written to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), urging its people to open their arms to everyone, in particular LGBTIQ people.  I asked permission to publish the letters, without the identities of the authors being revealed.  I was given permission to use them in this way.

One of the emerging realities of the culture in which we live is the dawning awareness that young people—across the theological and political spectrum—overwhelmingly believe full acceptance of LGBTIQ people is self-evidently a good thing.  At the same time, young people are leaving the church in droves—a significant number of them over the issue of the exclusion of LGBTIQ folks. 

As it prepares to make big decisions at General Assembly about how it will include people at the table, it is important for the Disciples of Christ to hear the voice of its young people on this issue.  Consequently, [D]mergent will be publishing one of these letters every Sunday morning from now through the month of May.

Please take some time to listen to what our children are saying.

~Derek Penwell

Youth Letter 3.jpg

Dear Church . . . Letters from Young People about Welcoming Everyone (2)

Some time back, I received from a youth worker a packet of letters written by young people at a retreat.  These letters were written to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), urging its people to open their arms to everyone, in particular LGBTIQ people.  I asked permission to publish the letters, without the identities of the authors being revealed.  I was given permission to use them in this way.

One of the emerging realities of the culture in which we live is the dawning awareness that young people—across the theological and political spectrum—overwhelmingly believe full acceptance of LGBTIQ people is self-evidently a good thing.  At the same time, young people are leaving the church in droves—a significant number of them over the issue of the exclusion of LGBTIQ folks. 

As it prepares to make big decisions at General Assembly about how it will include people at the table, it is important for the Disciples of Christ to hear the voice of its young people on this issue.  Consequently, [D]mergent will be publishing one of these letters every Sunday morning from now through the month of May.

Please take some time to listen to what our children are saying.

~Derek Penwell

Youth Letter 2.jpg

Dear Church . . . Letters from Young People about Welcoming Everyone

Some time back, I received from a youth worker a packet of letters written by young people at a retreat.  These letters were written to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), urging its people to open their arms to everyone, in particular LGBTIQ people.  I asked permission to publish the letters, without the identities of the authors being revealed.  I was given permission to use them in this way.

One of the emerging realities of the culture in which we live is the dawning awareness that young people—across the theological and political spectrum—overwhelmingly believe full acceptance of LGBTIQ people is self-evidently a good thing.  At the same time, young people are leaving the church in droves—a significant number of them over the issue of the exclusion of LGBTIQ folks. 

As it prepares to make big decisions at General Assembly about how it will include people at the table, it is important for the Disciples of Christ to hear the voice of its young people on this issue.  Consequently, [D]mergent will be publishing one of these letters every Sunday morning from now through the month of May.

Please take some time to listen to what our children are saying.

~Derek Penwell

Youth Letter 1.jpg

‘No Religion’ on the Rise: 19.6% Have No Religious Affiliation - Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

If you continue to labor under the misapprehension that a significant shift is underway when it comes to age demographics and religion, it's time to wake up.  Continuing to lay the decline of emerging generations in commitment to Christianity at the feet of "slacker" theory—in which young people are adjudged merely lazy—is itself an exercise in laziness.  Young people are leaving the church on purpose.  We would do better to ask why they're leaving than offering excuses that fail to give them a reason to stay.

Here's an excerpt from the Pew Forum Report:

The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans – sometimes called the rise of the “nones” – is largely driven by generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones.4 A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation (32%), compared with just one-in-ten who are 65 and older (9%). And young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives.

These generational differences are consistent with other signs of a gradual softening of religious commitment among some (though by no means all) Americans in recent decades. Pew Research Center surveys conducted over the last 10 years, for example, find modest growth in the number of people who say they seldom or never attend religious services, as well as a declining number who say they never doubt the existence of God.

Source: http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones...

Why We've Got Bigger Things to Worry About than the Death of Denominations: Community and Ministry in a Post-Denominational World

By Derek Penwell

Congregations in a Post-Denominational World

We live in the most mobile, and often the most disconnected culture in the history of the world. Young people are told from an early age that success in life requires a college education. After graduating college, often with a mountain of student loan debt, young people find themselves in the awkward position of having to find jobs less according to vocational and personal compatibility or prospects for advancement or even for geographic proximity to family and friends than for whether a job will pay them enough to pay back the back.

Consequently, with few exceptions, we’ve created a society that requires the possibility of mobility as the price of admission. Follow the money.

“It says here that you are exceptionally well qualified for this position. If we offer you the job, are you prepared to move to our Schenectady branch?”

“Do you have anything in the midwest? I’d kind of like to stay closer to my family.”

“Next.”

This mobility has resulted in paradox of young adults who aspire to independence, yet eagerly desire to maintain interpersonal relationships. This paradox places a new set of demands on the church.

Congregations must recognize that young adults aren’t looking to “join.” They appear less interested in community as a tool to accomplish some other purpose than in community as a place to make and keep friends. This raises challenges for congregations in what appears to be a post-denominational world seeking to provide a safe place where friendships can be made and community can develop among young adults.

On its face, this attachment to friendship for its own sake can cause alarm in older generations in the church who’ve traditionally understood church to work in almost the exact opposite way. In the past denominations helped provide the kind of social stability I’ve been describing, a world in which friendships endured because people tended to stay in the same places.

Denominational loyalty was a hallmark of this social stability. After becoming a part of a denomination, either through birth, conversion, or transfer of membership, people tended to identify with that denomination indefinitely. There was a time when it was common to hear someone self-describe as a “fourth generation Methodist,” for example. Today, denominational loyalty seems a quaint bit of nostalgia, like the gilded memories of neighborhood soda fountains and day baseball.

The religious stability that existed as a result of denominational loyalty served as a foundation for a stable world in which people could count on friendships that endured over a lifetime. Emerging generations, however, tend to have much less invested in particular denominations than older generations, viewing churches through the consumerist lens of cost-benefit analysis.[1] They care much less about denominational history or doctrinal purity. As a result, they certainly seem to care less (shockingly so to longtime denominational stalwarts) about the survival of the traditional denominational bureaucracies that underlie mission work and educational initiatives.

A Conversation (Brief Interlude)

I had a conversation recently with the new co-chairs of our outreach ministry. Both women had joined our church and our denomination within the last five years. As we reviewed the budget, one woman looked up and said: “What is this line item?”

“Oh, that’s the money we send to the denomination.”

“Really?” she said. “That seems like an awful lot. It’s over half of our outreach budget. What do they do with that money?”

“Well, that money goes to support the mission work of the denomination.”

All that money goes toward mission?”

I was getting a little uncomfortable. “Not in the strictest sense, no.”

“In what sense then?”

“Part of it goes to overseas mission. Part of it goes to mission here in the U.S., our advocacy for justice, support for ministries of compassion. Part goes to education. Part goes to support ministerial search and call. Part comes back to the region. Part goes to cover the administrative costs.”

“Sounds to me like a big chunk of it goes to paying people’s salaries to administer programs that have nothing to do with the kind of ministry we’re trying to do right here.”

Really uncomfortable, I said, “Look, we have a historic commitment to support the initiatives of our denomination. That’s just the way it works.”

“Fine. So, what do we get in return?”

“Lots of stuff.”

“Like what?”

“Well, we get the satisfaction of supporting and belonging to something on a national, even a global level.”

“Hmmm … I’d like the satisfaction of actually doing ministry. That’s a lot of money for something that sounds curiously like institutional maintenance. Just think of the amazing things we could do right here with that kind of money.”

“You’re just going to have to trust me on this one. Ask ______ and ______. They’ve been around forever. They’ll tell you we’ve got to do this.”

Part of the reason we are in a post-denominational world, and part of the challenge facing mainline denominations going forward is wrapped up in that discussion. It’s going to be harder and harder to make that argument to people who have no broader sense of the scope and breadth of denominational history or it current vision for mission. As ______ and _______ grow older and become less involved in the life of the congregation, the people capable of making the argument for maintaining the institution will be fewer and fewer.

Couple that with emerging generations that have very little denominational loyalty and very little in the way of an impulse to join institutions, and you have a recipe for increasing difficulty for denominational survival—if what you mean by survival has to do with maintaining structures, with their administrative and personnel costs.

Back to Congregations in a Post-Denominational World

In the denominational world older generations often saw participation in the church as a necessity for salvation, as way to get involved in a worthy cause, or as a socially approved activity. In other words, the church was viewed as instrumentally useful in the service of larger projects (i.e., getting to heaven, doing the work of compassion and justice, networking, etc.), and friendship was an outgrowth of associating with other people to achieve these other ends.

Older generations, because society and one’s social networks tended to be more stable, could count on friendships that endured over a lifetime due to geographic proximity. You could make friends in kindergarten, graduate high school, and go to work together in the factory, mine, or quarry. If you didn’t work together, you went to work on the farm, and your friend started up down at the family drug store in your hometown. Or, if everyone went to college, you and your childhood friends often returned home to set up shop, hang out a shingle, or join a practice among the same familiar faces. You could often count on knowing the same people, having the same friends over the course of your life. Chances are that, after having grown up, you belonged to the same church you and your family had always attended.

In other words, older generations didn’t need the church to make friends—they already had a whole network of friendships developed early on. People could join churches based on a variety of factors—denominational loyalty, worship style, doctrinal purity, commitment to justice, or connectedness to desirable social networks—and trust that friendship was available, whether from the institution or among their antecedent social networks. I call this affiliate community. People affiliate with a group based on some prior commitment to an ideal or project.

“You guys do VBS? Great! My kids are little hellions.”

From these affiliations community can grow as people join together around some higher calling.

“This place is great! I see your kids are hellions, too. Maybe we could get them together while we go to Krav Maga. It’s the official self defense system of the Israeli Defense Forces, you know.”

That’s not to say that older generations didn’t make friends at church via affiliate community; they did. Recognizing the implicit expectations of social stability among older generations, however, helps to point up the different need the church fulfilled in the past. Church, for older generations, is where you go to get stuff done, and if you make friends along the way, so much the better. But if you can’t count on social stability to make and keep friends, the church becomes a different kind of place altogether.

Young adults, because they live in a world where social stability can no longer be assumed, need to be more creative about developing and sustaining personal relationships. I call this kind of association attachment community, where people come together because of a need to attach themselves to a group of people for the purpose of cultivating friendship.

“You guys drink beer? Outside of work , I don’t really know anybody in this city. I’ve got to find some people to hang out with. Otherwise, I think I’m going to go Krav Maga on somebody. It’s the official self defense system of the Israeli Defense Forces, you know.”

The church has an opportunity in this itinerant culture to be a place for making friends.

“That’s not what the church is for.”

Why not?

“Because, the church has more serious business to attend to than whether some young person has anybody to go bowling with on Friday night.”

The smart-aleck response that comes to mind is: “Really? How’s that working out for you? Got young people knocking down your doors to get in?”

The more measured response is: “Perhaps, the church in a post-denominational world needs to imagine itself differently. Instead of understanding itself as an institution that needs to attract people to get things done, it should begin to see itself as a gathering where God promises to be, and where people can flourish as the communal beings God created them to be.”

A gathering where God promises to be, where people can flourish as the communal beings God created them to be.

What do I mean by that?

The gathering, of course, has to do with the deep yearning for community I’ve been describing. The purpose of this gathering is to draw people God loves together so that they can draw strength from one another as they seek to find their lives, which allows them not only to live but to thrive.

“Put that way, the whole thing sounds like another attempt to use the church to meet individual needs—in this case, the need for community.”

I can see how it might first appear that way. Bear with me a moment, and let me see if I can be more clear about this.

The kind of reorientation of purpose I’m describing—one that views the church first as a gathering seeking to live out its purpose as human beings created for friendship in community, I think more nearly describes the kind of church described, for example, in Acts 2:44–47:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke break together at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Now, it may very well be that this earliest description of the church is nostalgic, an idealized account of something that never really existed, except in the imaginations of those who longed for a church that only seemed possible in simpler times. This charge is not particularly damaging to what I’m trying to describe, however, because the “ideal” is precisely what I’m after. If the question is “What should the church be?” it seems plausible to go back to the earliest idealized accounts of what the church was supposed to look like.

The idealized church in Acts 2 describes a group of people, the primary description of which underscores the desire to be “together.” The impulse to congregate makes a great deal of sense for the early church when you consider that this newfound faith left them at odds—both with the Jewish faith of their childhood (which very often meant from their families and friends) and with a hostile political culture (which had just made a political example of their leader/rabbi by a very public execution).

Moreover, the author of Acts draws attention to their common life together, characterized by their willingness to share everything. When referring to this passage many commentators focus on the economic component, particularly the phrase indicating that the community, which “had all things in common” would “sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” This inclination to pool their goods is extremely important and shouldn’t be glossed over. However, I think the passage is speaking about more than just the willingness of the early church to run church sanctioned yard sales.

Sharing all things in common apparently also included their time and their affection for one another. The text continues, pointing out that “day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people.” In other words, they became friends.

They hung out together. They ate food together. They sought one another’s company.

What came out of all this congregating? That is to say, what is the progression of events set down by the author of Acts?

Those who believed came together. They shared a common life, including their resources, their time, and their affection. They spent “much time together,” breaking bread and enjoying one another. Out of all this togetherness emerge two things: worship and expansion.

It seems important to note that worship appears, at least in part, to be the communal response to God’s having called these people to share “much time together.” Having broken bread together with “glad and generous hearts,” the first thing the author of Acts says they do is start “praising God.” Worship, at least in this telling of it, breaks forth from a people who love each other and take every opportunity to be together.

What happens next? People see all of this comity and friendship and fall all over themselves to be a part of it. The opportunity to make friends, to find shelter from an often hostile world, to be a part of a community held together by something greater than a collection of individual interests appears so attractive that “day by day” new people show up and want in. In this way, the church isn’t just a collection of individuals seeking to get their social needs met; it’s a polis that helps people to identify what their truest needs are.

It strikes me that the church today might take its cue from this earliest idealized description of the church.

What Do I Envision?

In a mobile society I believe the church needs to begin to think first about how to bring people together, to cultivate relationships that are difficult to form as people grow older. That is not to say that churches need to leave behind their commitment to worshiping God or to seeking justice or to educating and forming the faithful. It is to say that those things can be the product of communities called to together by God, rather than places that seek to form communities for the purpose of accomplishing those things.

Am I saying it’s wrong to gather people together to accomplish some greater goal, or that working together can’t produce community? Absolutely not. At times when people can assume a stable culture where friendship and community is a durable product of being located in a single place over time, I think associational community can work just fine. But in a time when the culture seems to force dislocation and rootlessness, when friendships are often fleeting and difficult to cultivate, being a place where the initial appeal revolves around getting things done is going to be a hard sell to emerging generations.

Something like a pub or coffee house ministry—almost cliché in some circles and misunderstood in others—if not viewed as just another slick marketing tool to bait and switch a desirable demographic into the church, has the virtue of providing a non-threatening space in which people can gather to make friends. The focus is first focused on creating space and not on creating new members.

“Fine. But what if those people don’t ever join the church?”

What if they don’t? They weren’t scratching and clawing to get in anyway. Why not just do it because it’s the right thing to do? People who have no other community need a place to belong. Whether the church ever benefits from it, why not just provide it as a service because we’ve been called to minister to a world struggling to keep its head above water?

In a post-denominational world, the church is going to have to learn to love ministry, service, loving people because that’s what we were created and called by God to do. It should quit spending all its time figuring out all the angles by which it might benefit from ministry. Ministry is not a marketing tool, designed to sell something; it’s a vocation, a way of life.

Whether or not denominations survive intact should be of less concern to us than that the gospel is lived out. And if our highest priority is living out the gospel, then we’re going to have to spend more time thinking about how we can produce great and interesting ministry out of the stable foundation of community, and less time worrying about how to prop up flagging institutions.

  1. (http://www.kon.org/urc/v10/gargiulo.html)  ↩

Following Jesus

A post from the archives.  This article first appeared June 14, 2010.

“If you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do.”

-Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution

Following Jesus.  I think it boils down to that, really.  I have struggled for some time with the realization that when the church fails—as it often does—it fails most egregiously in giving people the resources necessary for the outrageously radical act of following Jesus.  My reading of emerging/ent theology has led me to conclude that there is increasing energy around the simple idea that followers of Jesus ought to embody the revolutionary spirit found in the Gospels.  I sense a growing dissatisfaction with the traditional view of the church as either a clearinghouse for heavenly bus passes, or as a respectable organization whose primary function centers on affirming middle-class American values.  People, especially young people, are having trouble squaring the Jesus they read about in the Gospels with the infinitely malleable Jesus they see placed on offer by popular Christianity—Jesus as personal genie, Jesus as chief security guard at the courthouse of private morality, Jesus as a cheerleader for free-market capitalism, etc.  Jesus, stripped of the layers of religious spackling used to domesticate him, is irremediably subversive.

Subversive.  That appeals to me.  Of course, I’d like to continue writing clinically, about the religious climate shift underway at the hands of restless “young people,” fed up with a tame Jesus.  I’d like to make it sound as though I’m just a disinterested observer of religious trends.  But the truth is that I too find myself growing dissatisfied with that image of Jesus.  After all these years of a Jesus who I thought would help make me _______ (holier? kinder? more spiritual? more self-actualized?), I’ve come to believe that Jesus has a more cosmic, more interesting agenda in mind than super-tuning my soul.  On my way to spiritual superstardom, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to squeeze past Jesus, who stands in the middle of the road pointing to the weak, the homeless, the sick, the widowed, the displaced and un-embraced.

I’ve tried.  I’ve put forth a valiant effort.  But I can no longer envision Jesus the way I once did.  I can’t, for the life of me, picture Jesus saying, “Healthcare isn’t a right; it’s a privilege."  I can’t figure out a way to get Jesus to say, “Homosexuality is a capital crime; but fleecing the poor is a misdemeanor.”    I’m trying to track down, but as of yet have been unable to find, where Jesus says, “If you fear someone will strike you on one cheek, dial in a Predator drone.”  The church has too often been asked to give religious cover to moralities that were conceived absent the theological reflection provided by the church.  I find that the chasm between the revolutionary Jesus of first century Jerusalem and the domesticated Jesus of twenty-first century America grows more difficult for me to span all the time.

In the final analysis, the good news of the reign of God is not first that the well taken care of will be even more well taken care of in the next life.  The good news of the reign of God is that God’s reign is present wherever the homeless are sheltered, wherever the hungry are fed, wherever the rich give away their money and power in defense of the poor, wherever the forgotten ones gather to be remembered and embraced, to be told that as long as we follow God not one of God’s children will be left to die alone and unloved.

Being the Last "Buggy Whip Salesman of the Month"

By Derek Penwell

One time Merlin Mann said “Being the last ‘buggy whip salesman of the month’ is great in the short run, but then what?” The point, of course, is that if you haven’t been paying attention all along to the changes taking place in the world and making adjustments, what looks stable and safe today will eventually be only a historical footnote. I get the impression that many congregations are heavily invested in selling buggy whips. At this point I could give the obvious screed against “traditional churches” that haven’t given up hymnals for more “modern” music delivery systems, or who’ve failed to give in and hire a tattooed minister who drinks only micro-brewed beers and shade grown coffee.

I could do that, but as I’ve said before, I think that misses the point in so many ways .

Instead, I prefer to focus on the issue philosophically.

“Oh great. Here comes another completely unreadable bit of ‘musing.’ Why don’t you say something useful?”

Ok. I hear that, but I think this is useful—perhaps not in the sense of telling you whether to sell your church building and rent space at the local Cinemark, but in the sense of telling you why you should constantly revisit the question of why you should or shouldn’t.

“Clarity, sir.”

Let me try this: I’m speaking on a strategic, rather than a tactical level—meaning, I’m talking not about the decisions a congregation makes, which will vary according to context, but about the way a congregation makes those decisions. To put a finer point on it, I’m not even speaking about the process for making decisions. Instead, I’m speaking about the philosophy congregations use when making decisions, the context in which decisions get made.

Now, you may say that most congregations don’t have “a philosophy” about decision making. I would argue that they do, but that it’s rarely explicit, and therefore rarely subject to interrogation and revision. That is to say, most congregations don’t take time to think on a meta-level about decision making.

What do I mean?

Most young people—that elusive demographic that churches constantly seem to be seeking, consisting of Gen-Xers (1965–1980) and Millennials (1980–1999), who appear to have taken a pass on the church—think about decision making in a completely different way from their elders.[1]

“Hmmm …”

People from the Silent Generation (people born 1925–1945) and the Baby Boomer Generation (people born 1946–1964) grew up in a changing world. But much of that change came on a macro level over a sufficiently extended period of time. Technology changed. The work performed by the labor market changed. Political ideologies changed. However, those things all changed at a rate slow and steady enough for people to adjust.

The watchword for these generations (especially as it relates to vocation) is stability.

Though the world was beginning to change more rapidly by the time Baby Boomers showed up, they had a close enough relationship to stability through the world their parents had built, that they had a view of the world that assumed stability as a backdrop.

For the most part, Baby Boomers were free to leave a nest that was culturally and economically anchored. Low divorce and unemployment rates made for a world in which it was safe to explore.

“Yeah, but what about the 1960s? Wasn’t that all about change?”

Of course. But the 1960s were the apotheosis of cultural adolescence. Experiment. Drop out. Fight the system. Question authority.

But what is characteristic of adolescence? Adolescence is a developmental stage in which boundaries are challenged—sometimes fiercely—so that identity can be established. In commenting on the cultural shift underway in the 1960s, we often focus all of our attention on the “challenging” done by Baby Boomers, without devoting sufficient attention to the “boundaries” that made those challenges intelligible qua “challenge.”

Stability is the ether in which challenge and exploration can take place.

I can drop out and backpack across Europe or take a year off to pursue my muse as a sitar player while working in an Alaskan fish cannery, because I know that if it all falls apart, I can go home and get a job in the family business. Or if my family doesn’t have a business, then at just about any of the other tedious endeavors I’ve tried so ceaselessly to escape. Even if I’m just a factotum or a ridiculously over-qualified vacuum cleaner salesperson, I know I have somewhere to land, because the world I’ve inherited is predictable, firm, safe.

The generations that follow behind the Baby Boomers, (Gen-X and the Millennials) don’t have that same luxury. Generationally, they don’t have the same expectations of a stable world. Two indicators that kept the world safe for their parents have shifted dramatically for young people—divorce rates and unemployment rates (especially among minorities) have risen dramatically.

The world, to Gen-Xers and Millennials, doesn’t represent stability. It’s much more uncertain.

Think about technology.

Try this one on for size.

Time elapsed to 1,000,000 users:

AOL—9 years

Facebook—9 months

Draw Something—9 days

When you add into the equation the exponential speed with which technology is reshaping the world, you get generations of younger people who have no other expectation than that what is now, most likely will not be tomorrow—whether that’s socio-religio-political institutions or iPods.

What Does This Have to Do with Congregations?

The difference in generational understanding about something as simple as what kind of world we live in means that appreciating the way people come to decision-making in congregations is crucial. That is to say, dear reader, understanding decision-making philosophy, the meta-level questions around the way decisions get made, can prove remarkably useful.

If you find that young people in your congregation are frustrated when you try to bring them into leadership positions because of what they perceive to be institutional timidity or stodginess, this may be why.

If you find that older people in your congregation are frustrated when you try to bring young people into leadership positions because of what they perceive to be casualness toward the institution or brashness, this may be why.

If you are conditioned to believe that the world is largely a stable place, any change is a potential threat to that stability.

If you are conditioned to believe that the world is constantly changing, then change isn’t threatening; it’s an inevitability.

So, if you want young people to begin to come behind and take up leadership roles in your congregation, you’re going to have to make peace with fact that they care much less (shockingly, scandalously less) than you do about saving the institution. They don’t have any real expectations that the institution (at least as it’s presently constituted) will be around anyway.

All of which is to say, congregations (and denominations) need to quit worrying about saving the buggy whip industry, and start thinking about the need buggy whips satisfy, and how that need can be met in an increasingly fluid world where change isn’t the enemy; it’s the air we breathe. Being the last “buggy whip salesperson of the month” is great in the short run, but that bronze plaque is going to become an anchor much sooner than you realize.

Part two next week: Never let the guy with the broom decide how many elephants should be in the parade.

  1. I realize that speaking in general ways about something as large as generational differences is fraught with peril. I think as a heuristic, however, it can prove enormously helpful.  ↩