Hi. I’m Jill–writer, speaker, pastor, editor, and what my business card euphemistically refers to as a “grace pusher.” We all push something, and that’s my favorite thing.
I talk about a lot of things on my blog and in my books and articles. But usually, they focus on a few main topics. Breaking through fear (and using it). Doing faith with the next generation (and loving it!). Women as half the church. Kindness in the midst of an unkind world. Using the Bible for wisdom not warfare. Justice. Freedom. Grace. Always grace.
I’m the kids who refused to step too far into the back yard after dark. The woman who slept with a nightlight when I was twenty. The person who would still rather face a rabid bobcat than walk up to a stranger and begin a conversation. Fear has been a close acquaintance of mine. After a few very rough years, however, I decided it wasn’t the boss of me. Fear has only the power you give it–and I wasn’t giving it anymore.
Yes–there is God, telling me to live “adventurously expectant.” To look at each day and ask, “What’s next?” Even on the days when I fear what might, in fact, be next.
“Fear not” may be the most common command in the Bible, but fear is also perhaps the most common human emotion. It’s certainly been driving a lot of our national conversation, too.
I don’t want to live life as a grave-tender, so wrapped in fear of what might be that I lose the time in between. Grave tenders may live safely–there isn’t much to fear when you’re keeping up a nice, neat backdrop for dead things. They don’t demand a lot of change. But living among dead things isn’t living at all. The abundant life Jesus promised isn’t safe, but it is an adventure, if we’re willing to leave dead things behind.
I want to live an adventure for God’s kingdom, and I want to do it with you. I want to know who I am, and I want you to know who you are, because of who He is.
I want us both to know the identity God planted in us when he chose to give humans his image. That imago dei, straight outta the garden, is still there. He hasn’t rescinded the deal. He made you and me his ambassadors–shining his image in difficult, dark places. Just like my scary old back yard, only sometimes darker.
I want to see you and hear you and know you–and I want you to know He already sees and hears and knows you. If you’re tending a grave, he wants to pull you out of there into life.
So, let’s join one another. I can’t wait to see what happens here.
PS– I’d love it if you want to hit the button to subscribe or be put on my mailing list!
Two weeks ago, I talked about stories. I’ve been feeling a pull, a call, to write down some stories. To remember, revisit, and reclaim some of my own. This is the first. I have no idea why it came to me first. I don’t question those things much anymore. I hope you like it.
Junk Mail, Couches, and Repentance
The beige rental carpet itched my legs, bare on a rare warm Montana afternoon. Who knew what those fibers were made of or what had made contact with them over years of rental to college students. A newlywed, I figured I had immunity to all of life’s hardship, including infection from dubious rental carpet. Still, I moved to the couch to open my stack of mailbox-warmed envelopes.
I had a new last name and a new home, and the fact that said home sat in the landlady’s basement and had a kitchen so small I couldn’t open the oven and the refrigerator at the same time mattered little to my self-satisfied first months as a bride.
The landlady’s only real intrusion came on random Saturday mornings when the live-in boyfriend decided to practice his elk horn at 4 am. Directly above our bedroom. I don’t know how well he could bow hunt, but his elk horn skills were enthusiastic.
Said new name and home made opening even junk mail in the basement an exciting daily event. Neither age nor experience had yet jaded me to seeing my name and address on an envelope half-way across the country from where I’d grown up and feeling the special adultness of it all.
The couch’s combo of white polyester and black vinyl squares didn’t treat my thighs much better than the carpet had. My new in-laws had given us the couch when we moved from St. Louis to Bozeman for the first year of medical school, with them ten miles away. I didn’t look gift furniture in . . . what pat of a couch passes for a mouth? Point being, with a recession in Montana and no one hiring an English teacher with one year of experience and only one year of commitment to offer, gratitude seemed the sensible option.
I opened Concerned Women for America’s red, white, and blue envelope third. On our meager income, I’d agreed to send a few dollars when I could. We were in a fight after all, we Christians and “them.” Even then, I wasn’t quite clear on who “them” was. But I knew it was true. I listened to conservative Christian radio and focused on my family every day even though we had no children and wouldn’t until we lived on a lot more than a part-time after school program facilitator’ssalary with generous outstanding student loans.
Currently, “we” were fighting allowing gays in the military. The slippery slope warnings in the letter, appropriately capitalized, italicized, and red in all the right places, made sense. They had to be true. They came from people that people I trustedsaid people they trusted said were to be trusted—so how could they not be?
“They” would cause morale to drop. Trust would fail among the brethren. Real men would flee the military. Troops would decline, we’d embarrass ourselves in every war, America wold lose its status as world leader, and western civilization would end as we know it.
I’d never get those 2.5 children. All because real men didn’t want to shower with not real ones.
Obviously, I had to do my part.
I don’t think it was that day I began to read a bit between the lines, began to see what hadn’t been explicitly written but what surely had. It took time. A few red, white, and blue envelopes opened. A number of appeals that decried “them” as despicable minorities intent on shoving their agenda into my well-ordered, clearly Christian-Right manicured life.
A few more adjectives that made me pause. It happened one day that year on my scratchy black and white couch. I saw the words and I wondered if Jesus would use them. I wondered whom he would call despicable. Disgusting. Militant. I wondered why I read a lot of words about America and protection and rights and not any at all about Jesus even though all these words in the red, white, and blue envelopes supposedly came straight from his heart.
The discomfort had been trickling in, but I’d ignored it because of all those trusted people. If I couldn’t believe these words, what would happen to my well-ordered, promising future? Who would defend me against “them”? Being young and in love did not protect me from the weary woes of the world—bad carpet or bad policy. I knew this. Who didn’t need a buffer between us and them, me and those who would come for my one-day children, if I didn’t send in my duly-appointed ten dollars?
That day, I didn’t.
Another couch, another day. Many years between, and three children, one of whom sat beside me, sixteen and lovely, but mad as righteous indignation can make an almost-woman.
We could afford a better couch by this time, and I’d bought this one to match my perfect plans for the living room—navy blue plaid, intermingled with forest green and cranberry, shards of gold shot between. The precise colors I’d wanted. Still, perfection is a beast of a slave master, because Pippin the black cat used that couch regularly to sharpen his mouse-catchers on, and all the shouts, claps, and sprays of water in our arsenal had never convinced him to desist.
I can’t protect my couch, let alone my neat world.
I apologized to the girl-woman, she uncertain if tears or spitting anger fit her mood best, so she alternated the two in amazing synchronicity. I unsure of the words to admit I’d been wrong, because words of apology had always hung somewhere between my heart and my mouth, like a breech baby wanting to come out but not willing, and in the meanwhile showing its worst side to the world.
I’d tried to protect her, really to protect me and the perfect world I’d created as a pastor and a mother. She wanted to support her lesbian friends on the Day of Silence, and I’d refused to let her buy the commemorative T-shirt to wear at school that day. I made up some excuses as to why I didn’t want her wearing it, that kids were cruel and crazy and sometimes even allies got attacked, but we both knew they were flimsy at best. She had friends, and she wanted to love them well, and it seemed an easy choice to her.
But not to me.
All those us’s and them’s came pouring back over me, and I understood as I held her I’d messed up not just in my edict but in showing courage to a girl learning to step into her skin and her world. Though I’d refused that agenda twenty-some years before, I lacked the nerve to do it out loud, at least, to allow her to do it out loud and accept whatever ripple effect it had on me.
I had such potential as a right-wing political activist. Nearly went to law school. Could write a potent protest letter when the need presented itself. Knew all the right causes and defenses.
Until I didn’t.
Until I realized that agendas go both ways. We all have them. That we don’t see our own only creates a wider chasm between us and them.
I don’t know if I’ve put my agendas down, but I know now that safe isn’t on any of them. I know that if I can’t imagine my words coming out of the Prince of Peace’s mouth, I’d probably better rethink them. I see his agenda, and I see how we, I, have wanted to use it to create my own.
The exercise should frustrate me. The backwardness of it astounds me.
They’re still around, CWA. The website, nonexistent in those days of red, white, and blue envelopes, still touts defense of family, religious liberty, and national sovereignty. I clicked on the “gays in the military” fact card, but I got a 404 message. No more facts to be had, I suppose, and now I understand that there never really were.
Still, the fact card decrying “hate crime” legislation, the quotation marks intentionally delegitimizing the pain and fear of those who don’t find themselves in the beautiful white straight majority, perches unapologetically on the resources page, daring me to argue with its logic and new veneer of grace.
The Field of Honor flags hang still as I walk among them, their stripes melded together with not a hint of breeze to break the humid, stifling July early evening. Yesterday, they fluttered and flew. Today, nothing. I wish they would, walking between poles in the slightly curved display of hundreds of flags.
It would be a better photo op, at least.
A few years ago, I zip tied these flags to the poles, along with a couple dozen other volunteers in the VFW multi-purpose room. I purchased one for my dad. I thought he would be proud to have his name there, giving passing people the chance to thank him for what he had done long ago on a ship in the South Pacific.
I toured that ship last summer. I walked the same decks he had as a boy in 1944. Yes, a boy he certainly was. Sixteen year old—probably the age of one of the cafeteria servers in the black and white photos that hung in the bowels of the ship-turned-museum. For all I knew, that photo was my dad. I didn’t know what he looked like at sixteen. I didn’t know what he had done on that ship.
I don’t know how much of his choice to enlist resulted from patriotism and how much stemmed from a deep desire to get away from home. Regardless, for two years that teenaged boy who would be my father walked those decks, heard those guns, ducked enemy fire, and committed acts of both bravery and horror of which he never, ever spoke.
Maybe the flags hang silent for a reason.
For the first time in the twenty-two years we’ve lived in our little community, I didn’t march in the July 4th parade. (Technically, it’s July 3rd here, but who wants to be technical?) I heard the celebration from my backyard, the usual pre-parade chaos of sirens and drums, not quite ready for prime time. I usually heard it from a much closer proximity.
I’ve walked that parade route as a 4H volunteer, a community theater board member, and, most recently, as a library participant. Possibly as a garden club member, too, tossed in one year for fun. I’ve walked it in rain and in scorching heat. Once, we walked it in a thunderstorm, but that disbanded quickly, and I spent a couple hours locating my children who had fled the 4H float and taken refuge in that same VFW hall.
It seems community can’t get rid of me here. Part of me missed the chaos and camaraderie; part of me appreciated the relative quiet and definitely the air conditioning.
Seventy-five years ago, my dad stepped on a ship that must have been the largest structure that southern-Illinois-bred boy had ever seen, sporting a new buzz cut and a uniform doubtless too big. He fought a regime that only believed in human dignity insofar as the humans looked like white northern Europeans and thought like they were instructed. Which means, they didn’t think. They chose to look away. They chose to scapegoat their personal fears and woes. They chose to excavate multiple reasons why what was happening must be so. It had to be a deep dig.
There is nothing, nothing on the face of this earth or in heaven, that justifies treating an image of God as anything less than that. We must dig far to find those things, because they do not lie anywhere easy in God’s good world.
A few years ago, I bought that flag and its memorial, waterproof pouch for my dad, and they put his name on it. They printed the years he served the US Navy, 1944-46, and I remembered that pouch when I walked the metal stairs and touched the cold bunks of the USS Iowa. What he did there died with him, but I knew he had grown up quickly in those years, and I knew he understood why he had gone.
This year, I chose not to walk the parade, because I could not step in time to a theme of “Let Freedom Ring” when it does not and is not for so many. When boys my father’s age on that boat are in cages and babies have to defend themselves in court. When parents who only want their children to live have them stolen instead. When people die because they dreamed of freedom, and even to request it was denied.
I wanted to, but I couldn’t.
I think that choice also honored my dad. Dad believed in fairness. He believed in treating humans as fellow humans. He believed in fighting evil and naming it for what it was, even if that fight for him began more as a way to leave his parents’ difficult home than as a declaration of human rights. He believed Teddy Roosevelt.
I knew from the age of twenty-eight that I might die the way my mother did. An ultrasound confirmed the hereditary kidney disease that had taken her, her sisters, and her mother far too young. That day I began to understand what it means to live in fear of dying, something most twenty-somethings don’t have any business understanding.
Our hearts sometimes can’t hear our heads through the fog of fear. Though my head knew that medical science had progressed in those years since my mother’s death, my heart knew only its own experience. If I died at the same age she had—fifty—I would leave a youngest child the same age her youngest child had been when she died. That child was me.
See the rest of the story today over on THE GLORIOUS TABLE. Do we want to live in fear or do we want the victory lap?
A volunteer at their church dropped off copies of last Sunday’s sermon with my father-in-law, asking him to bring a few to their neighbors in the assisted living apartments, neighbors who were also church members.
Because he couldn’t leave mom alone, I volunteered to bring around the stapled stacks of paper.
I don’t write out sermons. No one could ever bring my notes to the people who couldn’t come to church. Our generation has turned to the podcast and the Facebook live, and it, too, is good. But different, and not offered hand to hand by someone whose hands you know.
The walk down the hallway should have been simple. Efficient. Quick. Until I started noticing the peoples’ doors.
Each apartment came with a small table next to the door in the hallway. Some tables had the generic items. Flowers. Easter decorations. The predictable duel of Vikings-versus-Packers memorabilia common in certain parts of the upper Midwest.
But some stood out.
I lingered near a corner table covered with an antique globe and some clearly foreign pieces of memory. A bronze elephant. A sliver of driftwood. An embossed puzzle piece, and others. Who lived here? Where had they obtained their treasures? What stories could they tell?
A lover of travel, I wanted to knock on the door. What would they tell me of their life before this small apartment and limited mobility? What corners of the earth had they seen? What had they learned? What did I need to know before I, too, came to live in a place where my globe-circling days were likely complete?
I can’t imagine them ever being complete, yet here sits the concrete evidence that this occurs.
I stopped at a wall that held photos of sailing ships. This table held a rusted item I couldn’t identify but which was clearly part of life on a boat. Above them hung a title that simply claimed—Captain Ron.
Captain Ron lived behind this door, and of what was he still captain? I wanted to know.
I wanted to know Captain Ron. Wanted to hear his stories. I wanted to see the photos of the places he’d been,feel the spray of salt water and cool wind as I listened to his tales. I knew I’d like Captain Ron. How could I not, with my addiction to salt water places? He knew them, so many more than I did, and I wanted to see them through his memory.
I noted the music enthusiast with the sense of humor. (“Bach later. Offenbach before.”) My sons-in-law would love an hour with him, trading bad music puns and laughing in cadence.
I stood at the lighthouse painting, wondering if the person had, like me, an ambition to see ALL the lighthouses, and how far that ambition had been fulfilled.
Walking between doors, I began to take photos. These things on the tables and walls had been chosen. When all of their long lives had to be reduced to a small apartment and a few trinkets on a table, it seemed to me that what they chose had to be immensely important.
What would I choose?
If I had to define my entire life to strangers in a hallway, what would I choose?
One of my stained glass crosses? A garden trowel? Certainly a photo of our family, and probably one of us somewhere exploring the world, learning about other people and learning about ourselves, and almost certainly a goofy one. A stack of Lord of the Rings, Les Miserables, and Pride and Prejudice, all together, as if they’re inviting another read? I’m not sure how many reads are left in the copies I have. Perhaps by then I will have found out. Maybe a beautiful pen to signify writing, because really, who’s going to look at an old laptop and feel as if it’s life art?
I don’t know. I know it’s good to think about it now, though. To think about the race’s end and what I want to leave as the mark of who I was. If I don’t think now, I might not become that person I want to downsize to a nightstand-size table and a few square feet on a wall.
I can see, from the walls, that the stories of those people mattered. They still matter. It probably wasn’t great the heroic deeds that mattered, though. It was the rolling waves and the spray in the faces of Captain Ron’s family and friends. It was the tossing lures into the water for walleye together. It was the 369 steps up the lighthouse with your kids, urging one another on and proving that together you were better than standing alone.
Those are the stories. The stories, as Sam Gamgee says, that mean something.
Photo by Paulius Dragunas on Unsplash Photo by Rebecca Aldama on Unsplash
This is what I get when I type “loyalty” into the search. Dogs and Starbucks. Sounds about right.
I looked up “loyalty” in my photos site, and I got Starbucks and dogs. Sounds about right.
The fourth, and likely-final-but-you-never-know, conversation between generations regarding the church, faith, and how we can put it all together.
What does it take to create loyalty?
Jill: We talked about loyalty last week. But the conversation is unfinished. What key elements do you need in a church to feel it’s your home? To want to be loyal to it?
Emily: What do Millennials want to feel loyal to church? Community. We want to be accepted as we are, which can be good and bad. Everyone wants a community they can belong to, though. We just need to make it clear that this is a community that goes both ways, and that while we accept everyone, we also push everyone to look at issues in their lives, and it’s difficult to do this without sounding unwelcoming.
Jill: When we Boomers talk about loyalty to a church body, we are also talking community. The two are not separable to us. The church we are in is our community.
“Community” may be your new buzzword. Yet almost all the Boomers I’ve talked to in my research also cited it as an important value in church. Everyone wants that family feeling. But if you’re not feeling it, either we’re doing it wrong, or that word doesn’t mean what we think it means.
Emily: Mandatory Princess Bride reference.
A huge value of our generation when looking for a church is “Does it feel friendly?” Companionship, social events, comfort, friendship, welcome. The Boomers I interviewed all mentioned as important church considerations. Basically, I think we all hope to find our best friend at church. We all hope to fit in there and find people we can be like, talk to easily, and rely on in times of need.
We still operate under smaller circles of interaction than you do. Yes, we are on Facebook, at least some of us, but we do not really have the global “families” that you do. Ours are closer to home. We still look to our nearest outlets for friends and companionship. The family comes first. Work is often second. Somewhere in there, the church is a consideration, especially if the family doesn’t work out the way we had hoped. And when we go there, we seek an atmosphere like that iconic TV show of the 80’s, Cheers—a place where everybody knows your name.
Emily: Never heard of it.
Jill: Never actually watched it. But—those younger than us found the same thing in Friends. The difference was, in Cheers, they still went home to family in the end. In Friends, those people were the family. A not so subtle shift.
In an era when family was fracturing, before we began to redefine it, Boomers were left trying to figure out whom they could rely on if new mobility led them far away from their families of origin or outside forces strained their marriages. Not surprisingly, churchgoers developed a strong reliance on church to fill that need.
So community is a huge issue for both generations. A defining value. But I suspect you would define it differently than we have. I wonder if you would delineate a difference between friendship and community. And—I think you would be right to do so.
Emily: Well, you’re right about Friends in some regard. The concept behind Friends is independence and community outside of immediate family—a building of a chosen family. It’s odd that the show is called Friends, then, instead of family. Perhaps it’s because all of the main characters have messed up relationships with their actual family, and so the Central Perk regulars decide to hold Friendship up to a higher standard than their memories with Family.
Jill: Most Boomers, like Millennials, say that they yearn for a place to be real, to tell the truth and be accepted with their messy lives. But again, you aren’t getting that vibe from us. Truth is, I don’t either, so something is clearly more important to Boomers than the genuineness we claim to want as much as you do.
I think perhaps it’s because we value safety even more. Where you find it safe to be among peers telling true tales, we find it safe to pull in privately and keep our stories to ourselves.
Where your response to a frightening, unpredictable world is to say “What the heck, let’s go kayak a waterfall, it’s all the same,” ours was to wall ourselves off and play Risk with our lives, strategizing political and social moves to protect our territory (while preferably expanding it). So those values of authenticity and community? We like the sound of them, but we want to define the terms.
Emily: As a Risk enthusiast, may I just say this is game usually ends in multiple people upset and one winner lording it over everyone else. Until the next game. When everyone gangs up on the last winner.
Jill: Our version of community in the 80’s revolved around this concept of separation from society and formation into our own subculture. We had community—insofar as we had it with people just like ourselves. Unfortunately, this leads not only to a lack of communication with or even comprehension of people not just like ourselves. I think we’re reaping what we’ve sown there right now.
It also generates a fake community where people pretend to be what they are not and believe what they doubt in order not to be voted off the island.
Emily: Because of what we fear, we value honesty. We don’t understand why we can’t admit–-at least to friends-–to having problems. Isn’t that what the point of a friendship is? Sure, there are going to be people we’re totally fake with because we kind of hate them and kind of want them to leave us alone. But true friends should be allowed into our ugly cry souls.
Jill: When your community and friendships are all composed of people like you, stepping out of line is terrifying. Ugly crying? We’re afraid of that. What if we’re found out as imposter perfect Christians?
We insulated ourselves into our Christian bubble in the last century. Then we reaped the consequences of living in that bubble, where any suggestion that one might not have the perfect Christian life could threaten to pop our secure atmosphere.
So we value friendly—but we value MYOB even more. We want friends to do church events with, but we don’t want too much intimacy. We’re afraid of vulnerability, and you don’t appear to have those issues.
So both generations long for someone to really know us and yet fear that knowing could threaten our fragile community. It’s more threatening to us, because our communities are smaller and less fluid than yours.
The Boomers are good at facade. I guess the Millennials are too, judging by Facebook. You are the masters at a public versus private persona. The difference is, I think we were supposed to believe that they were the same thing. We were really supposed to be in private what we were in public. And heaven help us if what we were in public was not the perfect image of a Christian family. For a generation that had studied the family so intensely and vowed to protect it above all else, to admit ours was a mess? God knows that just wasn’t done.
Hence, authenticity is a church issue with deep roots.
This is the third installment in our conversation about church, the next generation, and where the two do (or don’t) meet.
Jill: Let’s talk values. I suspect that at the core of some dissatisfaction between the generations is a difference in basic values. What we might have considered super-important you might not. Abortion comes to mind—a huge, perhaps the hugest, issue for my age group, is more nuanced for you, and there are other values that drive your votes and activism.
What do you value most?
Emily: Millennials value efficiency. I have been called into my boss’ office multiple times to fix what, to any 30 year old or younger, would take less than two minutes to figure out. But this technology is “too much for them to understand.” It’s only gonna get harder to figure out, honey. Better start now.
Oddly paired with technological efficiency, we also value seamlessness and minimalism. Not the sleek black and white minimalist tendencies of the early 2000’s; our minimalism focuses on eliminating obsolete technology and apps quickly and–-you guessed it–-efficiently.
We are ruthless. If an app has a bug, developers have a set amount of time to fix it before users get frustrated and bored and move on to find something better. That amount of time is not long. Except for a few staples (banks, Facebook, Twitter), an app will lose its novelty. And some staples might even be in trouble. When there is a multitude of options available to me, my loyalty is hard to buy.
Jill: Ah, loyalty. That dangerous word that sends shivers along the spines of many church leaders. Statistics and stereotypes say your generation is not loyal to institutions, brands—basically anything. True?
Emily: Millennials are not loyal. We like things that are nearby (to wherever we are), efficient, and culturally aware. If we are to stay with a brand, we want it to continually be evolving and changing as we do. I’m not sure, since I’m not a boomer, but it seems to me as if boomers value quality, communication, and privacy. I am less likely to go “shopping” around multiple places to find the right thing.
There are so many mediocre products that it doesn’t bother me to not have the best quality money can buy. That doesn’t appeal to me at all. I want easy, quick, and—if it fits—quality.
Jill: So, the opposite of your father.
Emily: Uuummmm . . . Now, I’ll do some research. I’ll know what brands to steer clear of for ethical reasons, what’s well made and in my price range. But I won’t narrow it down to one specific serial numbered product. I’ll probably pick a brand or two and go from there. Then it’s down to style and ease.
If one store offers free shipping and the other I have to go into the actual store, it’s a no brainer. Even if there’s a shipping fee, it still might be worth it, depending on the product.
Jill: So one of your values is also time? That goes with efficiency.
Emily: Time=Money has never been more true, and I’d rather have my time free than my money.
Jill: This loyalty thing, though, strikes one of our deepest fears – the rootlessness of the Millennials. You don’t believe in institutions and feel no loyalty to them. With that, though, comes danger. To toss out institutions—marriage, family, church, denomination, company—is to trash not just a thing you can replace but a history.
Yes, we have made a mess of some of those institutions. They are not what they ought to be. But to disregard them leaves you without a foundation. There’s nothing to build on except those dreams of yours and some crowdsourcing on the internet that told you you were probably right. Given the centuries of stability behind those institutions, that’s a rather paltry substitute for them.
Yes, you can retreat and wait for the ground to burn. But rebuilding will be far more difficult than you believe without any blueprints.
Emily: But I would say this is not necessarily a Millennial trait. It seems to me that many of the late Boomer/early Gen Xers are choosing kids or sports or highly held personal opinions over church community as well.
We just took it one step further, never fully connecting with any church community so that we could feel free to go off and not have anyone chase after us.
Jill: Personal experience as a pastor makes me say you are correct on this. I have watched it play out as our obsession with a child-centric culture, aided and abetted by a Christian culture that encouraged that value, allowed for abandoning church for family activities. We even tacitly gave it approval, implying that putting the family first was Biblical and healthy practice.
In real practice, what we have done is convinced our children that whatever they find valuable, be it sports, school, work, or sleeping in, has a viable right to precedence over the community expression of Christian faith.
This is a bit of what Kenda Creasy Dean says in her research,
“Teenagers tend to approach religious participation, like music and sports, as an extracurricular activity: a good, well-rounded thing to do, but unnecessary for an integrated life. Religion, the young people in (this study) concurred, is a ‘Very Nice Thing.’”
We modeled this, Boomers. And now we want to excoriate those kids when they grow up and take it to its logical conclusion. We told you connection and worship was important, but we did not model it. And as your generation is wont to do, you stood back, asked “why?,” and shrugged it off.
Emily: It’s weird. The word “Christian” is hard to connect to because we don’t remember how to use it as a noun. Christian schools, Christian life, Christian values, the Christian Community. The word stimulates a mental image of a maple syrup glaze under which hypocrisy and pride intermingle.
Christ-followers. I don’t know who coined it, but let’s get on board with that.
Jill: I like that a lot. We’ve used it as an adjective when it was meant to be who we are.
But I’m going to push farther.
I’m not convinced that a new paradigm is going to be the answer, either. When will it get old? When will new terminology be old terminology? When will a new time become an old one? I suppose you’ll tell me it will, and I should not count on anything lasting for long anymore. But it’s so exhausting to think about so much change all the time. Plus, when is it just novelty for its own sake?
Trying a new way when you’re talking about architecture or medicine or a sushi restaurant is one thing. It’s another when you’re thinking about something as foundational to human existence as family or Christianity.
Your generation’s need to reinvent excites us when it’s dealing with hunger. It frightens us to the core when you’re reinventing doctrines and beliefs based on little more than what your peers say they prefer to believe.
We do want to see loyalty to the church, with a capital ‘C’ and without, because we know that’s your tie to historical stability. In the discussion of value differences between Boomer and Millennials, this is huge.
This is what frustrates Boomers. We don’t see you making the kind of commitment to a church body that we believe is necessary. Yes, maybe a commitment to Jesus, or belief, or some hazy thing called “spirituality.” But to the flesh and blood motley group we call our church family? Not so much. They seem as interchangeable to you as fast food joints and as unnecessary as a VCR.
Emily: I think the problem is that we don’t see it as different than choosing a new sushi place. I mean, ok, in some regard yes, we do. But, as you’ve already pointed out, we have a hard time committing.
I don’t think we have a problem with loyalty. We just don’t want to be loyal to something only to find out it wasn’t what we expected. We want to take pride in what we commit to, and it scares us to think that if we commit to something and it ends up doing something wrong, that we might be held accountable. We don’t like the idea that we can be held accountable for an action not done by us, but by a community we believe in. It makes us feel like we don’t know how to discern what is important or right, and it makes us more unlikely to trust the next thing to come along.
Jill: So for the church to earn your loyalty, it has to be a little more like TOMS shoes – you know where your money is going, you see transparently what they do with it (sort of), and you can morally get behind those values? You’re even willing to invest a little more than you normally would because you are proud to be associated with that company?
Emily: Sure. And there has to be continuity in behavior but also a willingness to try new things—for instance, TOMS isn’t just shoes, anymore. It’s expanded to sunglasses, bags, and backpacks, too, each with a different mission. It hasn’t put aside studies that show the importance of local economy and it works to build relationships within each community it provides for. As far as I am aware, back in 2006 it was just a fun startup that sent shoes to kids. The company has learned and changed and become more aware of the people around it.
That is what the church needs to do. Theology studies should come from theologians and ministers, but those studies that rely on society must come from that sphere first. This could even mean taking ideas from (gasp!) secular writers.
Jill: Or, gasp, mothers and daughters (or any women) with random (well-researched and intelligent) musings.
In early April, we started a discussion between me and my daughter on the church, the generational divide, and world peace.
Not really that last one. But it sounded good. In a good lead-in to Mother’s Day, we then talked about what we appreciate about one another’s generation. Now, the saga continues.
What Are We Teaching Our Kids???
Jill: Let’s talk about the idea that we don’t really have to worry about the next generation returning to church. You will, as every generation has done before you, come back after a requisite season of rebellion.
I’m a little concerned about that laissez-faire attitude for a few reasons.
First of all, church is increasingly not a core value in our society, or in your generation. Being a good person and showing love are what it’s all about. Unfortunately, those values are divorced from a foundation in knowing God, largely because we Boomers in the church have taught that being good is the goal. We’ve told you that Jesus wants you to be good, when really Jesus wants you to be his.
Rules versus relationship.
According to that flawed theology, “praying the prayer” and leading a good life are the elements of being a Christian. Not surprisingly, younger generations have latched on to leading a good life and largely dispensed with the praying the prayer part. It sounds like magical thinking to you, and there is therefore no need for it in your efficient, ethics-based world.
Will you really, like the Terminator, will be back?
Emily: Did they have children’s ministries when you guys were kids? When did Sunday School in the modern sense become a thing? I mean the time when it just became a place that kids were sent because otherwise they would be bored or would cause a disruption or wouldn’t understand what was going on.
That’s where your “do good” stems from. “Be good for mommy, and daddy, and Jesus, too.” True and simplistic as it might be, it lacks action. It lacks depth. It lacks roots.
So, yeah, you’re right. Without the roots leading us back to the church, we can go off and do more than we ever got to in Sunday School (or Children’s Ministry, if it’s a hip new church) and without the restraints of the church to tell us who or what to do good for. It leaves us in control over how we use our resources.
Jill: Well, I remember my parents sending me up the street to Sunday School. I vaguely recall something about a guy in a blue robe involving lots of flannel.
According to Christian History, the original philanthropic Sunday Schools always had an aspect of religious education, as they used the Bible for learning to read and write. They also imported moral behavior into the curriculum. When the government established mandatory public education in the 1870’s, churches moved to teaching solely Christian doctrine and behavior rather than general education.
Given that Rational Theory (i.e., human society is perfectable through the use of reason) still coursed through the church’s veins at the time, moral education would certainly have been the focus. Be good for mommy, daddy, and Jesus, indeed, has a long history.
Sally Lloyd-Jones, author of The Jesus Storybook Bible, laments the present disinterest in church among children she has interviewed:
“These are children in Sunday schools who know the Bible stories. These are children who probably also know all the right answers — and yet they have somehow missed the most important thing of all. They have missed what the Bible is all about. It is a picture of what happens to a child when we turn a story into a moral lesson. When we drill a Bible story down into a moral lesson, we make it all about us. . . . When we tie up the story in a nice neat little package, and answer all the questions, we leave no room for mystery. Or discovery. We leave no room for the child. No room for God.” –Sally Lloyd-Jones
So she seems to be saying what you are. We need to start young to let children explore the Bible story — not simple or simplistic Bible stories, but the entirety of the Big Story. We need to let them ask questions, see how the smaller stories, and their story, fit into God’s big picture, and give them something to do about it now.
Emily: I mean, I wouldn’t recommend certain stories from the Bible told straight up to four year olds (Jezebel comes to mind). But when the Bible becomes a tool or vehicle with which to deliver a human-devised moral, it not only puts God in a box, it puts us into a box too. And that box can get kind of constricting as we grow, until finally we break out and, believing the box itself is religion, we walk away, refusing to ever be constrained again.
Jill: There’s this book by some lady where she says something like this.
“Research tells us that 75 percent of young people in our churches today will leave them when they leave home. Why? Because they increasingly believe that church is irrelevant to their daily lives and out of touch with the culture. In other words, they don’t see the point. And in ever-busier lives, everything we spend our time on has to have a point.
What would happen if, instead, our churches taught kids from the time they could walk that they were ministers? That they were the hands and feet to make the church relevant? That the ends of the earth weren’t as far away or impossible to impact as they thought? I truly believe we could turn those statistics upside down.” –Jill Richardson, Don’t Forget to Pack the Kids
Emily: Blatant self-promotion.
Jill: Yeah. But I completely agree with you. Teaching kids to “do good” divorced from the grand story of why only creates people who know how to follow rules. Once they internalize those rules, who needs the church to continue doing good? You can cut loose from the strings now that you know the rules. Plus, you can create your own rules. Christian education has got to be about a connection to the story more than a moral to it.
Emily: But the box isn’t God. I think we worry that if we try to teach kids God as God is, that their heads are going to explode. Or maybe our heads will explode if we have to start thinking of God as God is.
Jill: So if we want future generations to stay in church, we need to start connecting them to the whole gospel, and the whole God. We need to teach them how being Christian isn’t about rules and being good but about the entire creation to redemption story of why we are trying to do good things and what our role is in the story.