silent generation

Sacred Work

By Rev. Mindi

When I was preparing for ministry in seminary, I imagined engaging the sacred when I raised my hands in prayer during Sunday worship, or lifted up the bread and cup. I remember practicing baptisms in my Baptist polity & theology class, and while we laughed and splashed each other in the baptistery of the First Baptist Church, I remember the first time I held someone in the water, and baptized them in the name of God the Creator, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

In the years to come, I found those sacred moments were found much more often in sharing a cup of tea with someone in their nineties, sharing prayers of blessing and thankfulness for a life lived over one hundred years, and holding the hand of a woman who had been in worship on Sunday morning and had suddenly passed away by the next morning. Sacred moments were not the ones I had practiced and prepared for, but rather the unexpected.

And after even more years I have recognized the sacred in late-night laughter at youth lock-ins and campfire singing; in the curious questions of children in worship; in the tear-filled prayer requests during Joys and Concerns.

Today, however, the sacred was found in holding a pencil and trying to multiply decimals with a fourth grader.

We began an after-school program today at my church, one that we have been preparing for now for months, but it took this long to get students to come—and they came. And they had fun and want to come back. I had to erase and start again a few times—as the new math curriculum breaks things down into steps—but in those moments of brushing away the remains of the eraser, I had that feeling that this was a sacred moment. A moment in which an adult was listening to a child and learning as the child taught the adult how to do new math.

However, it wasn’t just me. As I looked around the room, longtime members of the church and new volunteers from the community were taking turns reading with these students, helping with homework and playing games, getting to know each other. We always assume mentoring is to help the younger generation, but I’m convinced that the adults were the ones who may have had a spiritual awakening today.

We prepare for sacred work in ministry; but those sacred moments most often happen unexpectedly, and in my experience, between generations. Someone once said the church is the last institution in which we naturally gather together across generations. Maybe instead of trying to figure out why certain generations don’t want to come to church or don’t want to associate with others, as the plethora of articles in church life over the last five years seem to suggest—we ought to be celebrating our inter-generational nature and finding ways of connecting and finding sacred moments there.

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. 

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.  ↩