Reframed: Picturing Faith with the Next Generation
Jill is a writer, speaker, pastor, and mom of three mostly awesome young women. She is a dispenser of grace and a pusher of courage. She also believes in the power of Earl Grey tea, chocolate, a beach day, old musicals, and the Cubs. And God.
While we anticipate the restoration of living things outside our windows, we revel in the reality that Jesus restored all things that were broken, winter-bound, and frozen in the icy grip of sin and separation. His resurrection accomplished in one breathtaking stroke a restoration of all that God originally called good.
Though it’s April when you’re reading this, and hopefully turning to spring where you are, I’m writing during the last days of winter. This morning, I got stuck in my driveway three times trying to get my daughter to her train. We have two feet of snow out there (more or less), and I’m longing for the beach I sat on last week in Puerto Rico, doing nothing but listening to the waves and wading out in them to snorkel for yellow-striped fish and elusive sea turtles.
I unashamedly admit I need that kind of restoration in the middle of winter. Winter in Chicago is not for the weak.
Lately, I’ve been seeking restoration more often.
I loved being back at The Glorious Table this month and sharing this message of restoration and encouragement when Easter time isn’t all the joy we expect it to be. Please jump over there to read the rest.
There is an ongoing struggle in our house. My husband sincerely believes that the garbage needs to go out on Thursday night, the night before the garbage truck comes. This is logical to him. He likes logic and, more than logic, he likes to know when things are going to happen. He is a total creature of habit.
I, on the other hand, have a different viewpoint on when the garbage needs to head outside. When it’s full. Or, worse, when it stinks.
Some times of year, it can really stink.
I like my schedules, but if something stinks, it needs to go, regardless of whether the city has scheduled its demise that day or not.
He has habits; I have reactions.
So there is another part of the story we started last week that piques my interest. And my nose.
After Jesus goes to Lazarus’ tomb, the conversation between him and Martha that we began last week continues.
When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled. “Where have you put him?” he asked them.
They told him, “Lord, come and see.”Then Jesus wept.The people who were standing nearby said, “See how much he loved him!”But some said, “This man healed a blind man. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”
Jesus was still angry as he arrived at the tomb, a cave with a stone rolled across its entrance.“Roll the stone aside,” Jesus told them.
But Martha, the dead man’s sister, protested, “Lord, he has been dead for four days. The smell will be terrible.”
Jesus responded, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believe?” So they rolled the stone aside. Then Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. You always hear me, but I said it out loud for the sake of all these people standing here, so that they will believe you sent me.”
Then Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!”And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound in graveclothes, his face wrapped in a headcloth. Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him go!” (John 11.33-44)
Jesus is the resurrection and the life. That means that there is nothing in our lives that is so dead Jesus cannot resurrect it. Not any big deaths in our lives, and not the small deaths either.
Nothing is too dead for resurrection.
Not financial issues
Not child issues
Not job issues
Not relationship issues
Not sin issues
Not medical issues
—Nothing is too dead for resurrection.
But here’s the thing. Sometimes, we have to bury those things before Jesus can resurrect them. And sometimes? They will stink.
Jesus asks Martha if she believes who he is—the resurrection and the life. His real question, though, is this—Do you trust me? No matter what happens, do you trust me with your brother’s life—and yours?
We cling to those things that need resurrection, don’t we?
We know the marriage needs intervention, but we’re comfortable, at least, in our dysfunction. We don’t want to give our inch. What if he takes a mile? What if the immense work of changing the way we interact doesn’t change anything? What if we open up something that vomits all over us and never, ever goes back into its safe can?
Letting Jesus roll the stones out from in front of our messy marriage will stink, and we know it. But if we don’t bury what’s comfortable, we’ll never know the resurrection to what’s beautiful.
We know our relationship with our kids is tenuous, but listening and learning is hard. Believing the worst of them is impossible. Believing the worst of ourselves is uncomfortable. Learning boundaries and giving freedom threaten to break us in shards.
It stinks when we struggle with those we love most. But if we don’t bury what we have, he can’t raise it to what it could be.
We know we need to change some things for our health, or we need to accept that parts of the way we’d like to look or be are not going to happen this side of resurrection bodies. (I do not want to accept that.) Learning to live with physical limitations (not to mention saggy boobs) stinks.
But if I don’t bury my need to look and feel 35, how is he going to resurrect what is and make it what it can be? (Also, if I don’t bury my need to binge eat macarons and chocolate.)
We know He’s calling us to something more, higher, deeper—in faith, in work, in calling, in hope. But taking the steps toward that means burying what is for the dream of what might be.
It takes courage to let Jesus roll away the stones we’ve carefully placed in front of the smelly messes of our lives.
Oh, but look what can come walking out of the tomb if we let him.
Resurrection. Life. Renewal. Restoration.
All the fullness of life.
Do you know why “This Is Me” became the runaway hit song from Greatest Showman? Because we all know the feeling of hiding our mess. We know what it’s like to be afraid of revealing all that we are, the good, bad, and ugly, to a critical world.
We all long for the resurrection and life, not just in the future, but now, right now, in our mess today. It’s just that sometimes, we don’t long for it enough. At least, not enough to bury what is and let Jesus handle the smell.
Martha looks him in the eye. She knows it’s going to stink. She’s never experienced an actual resurrection before. It’s got to be frightening. She buckles in, nods her head, and says, “Yes, Lord. I believe.”
Our parents dutifully sent my sister (8) and me off to Sunday school every week (well, semi-dutifully) with a quarter in our right fist and shiny shoes on our feet to see what we could learn. We didn’t go to the church service afterward, and no one came with us. I have only hazy memories of a blue flannel Jesus and some woman telling me he was good.
One afternoon, my sister and I rode our bicycles in circles around the garage, and she told me all about the things she had learned—how Jesus loved her and died for her and rose again.
I told her it was all baloney.
I didn’t believe a word of it. I have no idea how I was so certain of that at six, but I suspect that I figured my parents must not really have believed or they would have gone with us. Also, blue flannel Jesus was terribly boring. Also, I probably didn’t like that my big sister knew more than I did.
It all seemed pretty clear at six.
Who knew that, long after I’d quit walking up the street to that little Presbyterian church, God had plans to capture me with his love anyway? Little atheists don’t know as much as they think.
Last year, we explored herea series of questions God asks. Today, because Easter and all. we’re going to look at a seemingly straightforward one:
Do you believe this?
Backstory: Jesus receives a message that his dear friend, Lazarus, is deathly ill. His sisters Martha and Mary, also his dear friends, are looking for him to come set things right. They trust him to show up big for them—but he doesn’t. In fact, Jesus chooses to wait a few days before setting off to see his friend—days he knows are precious.
When Jesus arrived at Bethany, he was told that Lazarus had already been in his grave for four days. Bethany was only a few miles down the road from Jerusalem, and many of the people had come to console Martha and Mary in their loss. When Martha got word that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him. But Mary stayed in the house.Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.” “Yes,” Martha said, “he will rise when everyone else rises, at the last day.”
Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?” “Yes, Lord,” she told him. “I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God.” (John 11.17-27)
I’ve always loved this story, because it displays raw emotion mixed with real faith. Martha grieves—real grief, real tears. Real terror, because with her brother gone, who was going to take care of her and her sister? She knew what happened to two young women alone in that world. Her emotions ran out of her like spring rain swelling a waterfall. She is hurt, scared, grief-stricken, and confused.
Confused that the one she knew could help her didn’t come. She knew it—look at her words.
“Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
She is too painfully aware that Jesus could have chosen to come, and she might not be in this despair. She is aware of something too many of the disciples don’t seem to be. Jesus is Lord of life and death itself.
She knows this.
This is why her response is so incredible to me. She knows he could have, she knows he didn’t, but she still chooses to believe.
Jesus’ response is perfect.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?”
Do you believe this?
Jesus could not ask this question at a worse time. This is not a philosophical question for Martha. Everything is in her heart and her eyes. Her world is shattered. If there is a resurrection and a life, and if this man is in charge of it, it has to mean more in this moment than an “I’ll fly away” Hallmark special effect someday in the clouds.
It has to mean something now.
Why? Because he asks her this question before he does anything.
Her brother has not yet been raised from the dead. Jesus has shown no hurry to do so, or apparent interest. Yet he’s asking her if she believes right now, in her grief, in her heartache and horror, before she ever sees her brother unwind those graveclothes from around his face.
She’s known him for years. This family has the ease of old friends. The question is, does she really know him? Does she know him well enough? Has she studied his life, looked at his heart, listened to his words enough to really believe, even in this impossible moment?
That’s what he asks all of us, isn’t it? Have you studied me? Not about me, but me? Have you learned my heartbeat? Do you know what makes me joyful and what gives me sorrow? Do you understand what I am capable of? If you do, do you believe I am the resurrection and the life?
Now. Before I do anything in your life to prove it.
He’s asking her for a personal trust. He wants a relationship that can weather the storms ahead. He needs Martha to believe him no matter what happens, not for him, but for her.
If Lazarus had remained dead—if Jesus had chosen not to raise hm back to life—would Martha’s answer have been the same?
“Yes, Lord. I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God.”
Blessed is she who has not seen and yet believes.
Even when we don’t see, do we know enough of who he is to believe?
I am the resurrection and the life.
I am the raising up.
I am the Not Dead.
I am death you don’t win.
I am the death where is your sting?
I am the “no one can stop me from raising myself or you.” Raising you to and from all manner of things. If you believe before you see.
That’s been hard for some of us in this season. With news of people murdered while worshiping, children slaughtered while learning, white supremacists marching, and babies stolen from their terrified parents, it’s just hard some days to remind myself that I follow a God who proved there is no situation he cannot resurrect.
But I do believe this.
In fact, in light of the insanity that surrounds us, believing he is in control of all things not being dead is the only theology that makes any sense at all. (And my friend, we all have theology. It doesn’t matter if we believe Jesus is baloney—we still have one.)
Unlike my six-year-old self, I do believe this. It’s all there is to believe in a world that needs hope. It’s the only thing that can bring our deaths out of the grave and unwrap them before our eyes.
During this series on young voices in the church (which will soon be interrupted by the most wonderful time of the year, Good Friday and Easter), I want to rerun some work I did with a very familiar young voice—my middle child. Here is one of our conversations on the topic of intergenerational faith. I loved it. I hope you do.
What is the church?
Is it local or global? Made up of a stable body or fluid? Can a few people in a living room be considered the church, or is it more than that? At what point does the “church” become the “Church”? And which deserves our loyalty, if either?
Do Millennials and Boomers really have completely different answers to these questions? As “they” are leaving “our” churches, or as “they” are shutting “us” out, can we worship in one body whose parts we all recognize? Or are the current battle lines merely going to make a corpse of that body?
In our very random quest to answer these questions, we somehow landed on a warfare metaphor. This does not mean we believe the generation are at war. At least, we hope not. Nevertheless, the metaphor gives some good insight into what we might be doing wrong we we try to do church together.
The Fear of Death
Jill: Are our two generations really at war when it comes to the church? In the seeming battle to determine who “owns” the church and who will lead it, how do you see your generation responding?
Emily: Not a war, but let’s run with that metaphor.
We Millennials know that sometimes abandoning a battle is another way of winning. Like that story they tell in history class about how Russia killed Germany’s plans to invade simply by retreating and burning everything in Germany’s path.
We are Russia. You Boomers are Germany. You may think, as you gain more traction and pass more old-fashioned laws, that you are winning. But we aren’t leaving behind anyone or anything for you to build on.
Eventually, your resources will run out. And then we’ll be back to reclaim our place, free of your restraints and rules. High ground isn’t much good without a shelter to keep out the wind. Moral superiority won’t help build a fire.
So stop fighting us. We’re younger, stronger, and larger. There’s no way you could win this if it became an all out antagonistic fight. Diplomacy. Recognition that we are a source of power. These are the new trades of war.
Jill: Actually, I think traditional Boomer leadership is more like the UK than Germany. We already occupy the territory; we’re not out to conquer it. But we will bloody well (See? We’re British here) hold that ground and not back down, should any stronger forces try to storm the gates.
We will bar the gates and wait you out for as long as it takes. Yes, we will grow old and grey inside our churches, but we will still insist it is your loss because you would not cooperate.
Unfortunately, the churches that do that Will. Die.
How can we pick one or two verses out of the overarching story of God and claim we follow God’s purpose?
No Enemies Here
What we’re missing is that if you are Russia, you are our allies. (At least, if we maintain the WWII history here. One must suspend disbelief of all history since then.) You’re not our enemy.
You don’t need our stupid little island; you’ve got access to an entire Eurasian landmass if you retreat and do your own thing. And one day, those of us who are left will come out from behind our walls and discover that there is no longer anyone there. That’s my little world conquerors metaphor, there.
Emily: An excellent metaphor. Way to run with it. It’s a similar idea with dystopian novels–in almost every novel is a world whose leaders are corrupt and horrific–-a position of power that was often set in place as a means by which to counteract a specific threat.
Yet years after the threat is extinguished, the extinguishers are still in power, power has inevitably corrupted them, and everyone just deals with it because it’s all they can remember and anyone who “remembers” differently disappears.
Now, I’m not saying we’re living in the apocalypse. I’m not even saying it’s coming this week. I have no idea when it’s coming. (No one has any idea, actually.) But we need to recognize that our actions will always push the world in one of two directions ( I am loathe to use the pendulum simile, but there it vaguely is), and sometimes it’s really difficult to be certain that the action we choose really will push that pendulum the direction we were expecting it to.
Discipleship as a Missing Link
Jill: “We Millennials know that sometimes abandoning a battle is another way of winning. We aren’t leaving behind anyone or anything for you to build on.”
It sounds like your strategy is to withdraw and create your own version of church, where the judgment and antagonism you often feel doesn’t have to be faced. You’re going to “unfriend” the Boomer church so you no longer have to deal with their drama-filled statuses. In fact, that’s what the church sees happening.
That’s a key we Boomers need to grasp. We know all the data about 60-75% of Millennials leaving the church. But often, we dismiss that data with the glib assurance that you will behave as we did. You will return once you start to settle down and have kids. You’ll yearn for the security of a church and a belief system that stands through the ages. And brings you casseroles. That’s our assumption, because that’s what we did. Except in your case, it will be gluten free, vegan, locally sourced casseroles.
Emily: Oddly, in our world of multi-accepted truths, it’s becoming harder and harder to be Christian and to belong to The Church. This is only partially because of the stigma attached to The Church.
The other part is–-in a catch-22–-because going to church is no longer the norm, we therefore need to know what we’re doing. We no longer have the excuse that the service is in Latin. Science and Christianity have declared a centuries old war on each other and I’m not even sure who started it.
We need to know our faith in order for us to be able to defend it. And, for better or for worse, that is just too difficult/time-consuming/pointless a journey for a lot of people. Those of us who are still in the church are stronger for it, but most days we’re as much at a loss as you guys are about how to get the rest of the gang interested in working for their parents’ faith.
We don’t want to be discipled into knowing about God. We want to be discipled into knowing him.
Jill: So part of the reason you’re leaving is that you haven’t been discipled to know what you believe. You can’t commit to “church” because you have to know and believe in what you’re getting yourself into to be comfortable jumping in. That’s fair.
But your inherent skepticism, coupled with that technology-induced immediate gratification thing, don’t allow for “knowing” anything. That makes our job a bit rougher.
Emily: But it’s not our fate to remain blind. We allow ourselves to be blind by repeating actions and ignoring consequences, without taking time to study and learn God.
How can we buy a present for a friend when we don’t even know what kind of coffee she likes? How can we know what kind of getaway weekend our parents might appreciate if we don’t listen to their interests and get involved in their lives?
How can we pick one or two verses out of the overarching story of God and claim we follow God’s purpose?
We don’t want to be discipled into knowing about God. We want to be discipled into knowing him. Then, we might stay and find somme common ground.
In this series on young voices, I am blessed to have Hannah Pannell with her consideration of church and her generation. I love it! Don’t tell me the young have no depth of theology. This woman knows exactly why she needs her community, and she knows it fromreliance on scripture. Read on and be blessed.
After graduating from high school, I attended a large Christian university. I quickly found myself involved at a local church. Girls on my floor often remarked that finding a church that felt right was difficult. After a year, many of my friends were still attending a different church every Sunday.
Eventually, someone asked me how I had found a church that felt like home. My answer was simple: I hadn’t. My church was not a perfect fit for me, nor did it immediately feel like home. I had connections, but mostly I just kept showing up.
For the first year, I went to nearly every service and event the church offered as I tried to get to know people. By the time I graduated, my dearest friends were people from my church small group. We prayed together, cried together, forgave each other, and loved one another.
Don’t get me wrong–my time at that church was anything but easy. I made mistakes, which made community with people I had hurt and been hurt by incredibly difficult. Many Sundays I sat in my car and cried before going in, but I went in anyway. My decision to stick with a church doesn’t make me any holier, or even right, but it did teach me a lot about God’s people and this gathering we call church.
My generation is cited as being nearly non-existent in the church, and as seeing the largest decline of all demographics. I seem to be an anomaly. Although I’m still in my early twenties, the church and I have been through a lot. My parents are church planters. I have had a backstage view of ministry. I have seen the ugly, the extraordinary, the hard, and the mundane. I have never walked away, though, and I love the local church more deeply today than ever.
Here’s why this millennial is sticking it out:
God expects us to be part of a local body of believers. Our salvation in no way hinges on church involvement, but our sanctification does. I know at times great hurt and confusion may necessitate a break from the church. In no way do I want to discount the difficulty of finding a good church, but sometimes we are the problem, not the church.
No church is perfect and neither are we. So take a break, do some digging and healing, and then get back in the game. Many millennials claim the global body of Christ as their church. The kingdom is a powerful group of believers, but it does not replace living with other believers in love and accountability.
Instead, God call us to “not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25 NIV). Nearly every great act of God in Scripture takes place within the context of believers gathering together. After all, God promises, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20 NIV)
At the 2016 Passion Conference, pastor Louie Giglio called attending and serving in the local church a “radical act of defiance.” He introduced sixty thousand young people to the idea of radically defying the low expectations society has set for us. There’s always been some rebel in this pastor’s daughter, so his words clicked for me.
As a generation, we like to swim against the current. Our rebelliousness can fuel cynicism, or we can defy the odds and be the generation that reawakens the church. You lose credibility critiquing from the sidelines. However, when you’re a key player, people listen to you.
Perhaps if we want to see our churches changed from the inside out, we need to be inside. Maybe millennials need to write a few less open letters to the church and instead need to build credibility by filling seats each Sunday and serving throughout the week. If we want to influence the heartbeat of the church, we have to be part of it.
If we’re honest, church isn’t really about us. Discipleship is critical, but without evangelism, there are no disciples. Our churches must insist on an outward focus. We cannot expect the people who most need us to show up at our doors each Sunday. Instead, we must go to them. We have to meet them where they are and infuse hope into their lives. Then we invite them in, we save them a seat, we hold their hands.
Relationships allow us to practice love, accountability, forgiveness, and reconciliation. If we stick it out long enough and let the Lord work, relationships are mended and disagreements settled because we share a common bond and mission. Walking away when things get tough doesn’t allow for reconciliation. Perhaps this is why Scripture calls the church the bride of Christ. Working out our relationship with the church mirrors a marriage relationship. We miss the growth if we walk away.
At its best, the church is a bunch of messed-up sinners. With all of our broken, jagged edges, we inevitably cut each other deeply at times. This is the cost of doing life with broken people.
Hannah Pannell is a wonderer and a wanderer. She is a southern-speakin’, Jesus-lovin’ coffee consumer who writes about life, whether pretty or messy (usually leaning toward messy). She is the daughter of two amazing, brave, church planting Jesus followers, the sister of an amazing worship pastor, and a lover of Jesus. She blogs at thissweetlybrokenlife.com.
This woman. She’s been my mom for over thirty years. I’ve called her mom since the day I married her son. Easier, I suppose, since I no longer had one. We’ve been very different people for those thirty-some years, except in our mutual fierce love of our children. I know she didn’t understand me in the beginning or, really, for quite a while.
But she loved me. It didn’t matter. Honestly, when your son marries a 23-year-old who knows a lot about Shakespeare but not about life, you can assume she won’t even understand herself for a good many years.
Kneeling by her bed and crying last week, I listened to her soft voice, almost inaudible from dehydration, tell me those things we seem to only tell when we know we have limited time to speak them. I heard, “You’re one of my girls. You’re my daughter.” And I will treasure those words for as long as I have my own breath.
She deserves her loved ones around her, fiercely protecting her this time, and she has them. Children and grandchildren, being the loving humans she taught them to be. I see her nearest granddaughter drop by regularly, her grandson sitting at her side whispering kind words. I watch my own daughters paint her toenails, hold her hands, and caress her hair.
I am undone by this.
It’s the hard work of 85 years to have family like that. There is a legacy that will remain a thing of beauty long after breaths are taken and heartbeats cease.
I’ve never walked with someone at the end of life. I’ve lost a lot of people. Both parents and two sisters. But they all were there one moment and gone the next. No preparation. No ability to say all the things that need to be said and hear all the things that need to be heard. No time to process all the feelings that come with this downhill walk, and no choice in whether you want to make it.
I do want to.
I had this discussion with my daughter recently about our two cats that passed. One quickly and with no warning, the other with a diagnosis a few months before. Which was worse, saying a sudden, unwanted goodbye, or dragging through the daily hurt of watching it happen and being helpless? We mourned out kitties—we loved them so, and two in quick succession was too much. We both knew we were talking about more than the cats. We both agreed warning was better.
Yet we don’t know how to take this slow walk down the hill, a quicker walk than we had hoped, really. We don’t know when to laugh, when to cry, and we’re figuring out that both are OK, and they happen when they happen. We hate the tug-of-war between our lives here, jobs that demand us, lives that need living, and our longing to be there, sharing every minute we can. We don’t how to dance that choreography, and we realize no one does.
And what of this man? He’s walked beside her for over sixty years. When I tell him he’s a good man and a great husband, he merely says, “Well, it was all in those vows.” Indeed it was, but I’ve seldom seen anyone live his promises so well. He knows that a man’s promise is where his character is determined. But I don’t think he’s thought that—he’s simply done it.
I know this is supposed to be a series on young peoples’ voices. But these words needed to be said. Maybe these words need to be said to young people, not by them. I know marriage isn’t so popular anymore. I know suspicion of institutions leave the next generation wondering if it’s worth the risk. Commitment is frightening, and there are no guarantees. If there’s anything we have taught the next generation, it’s that they should always demand guarantees. Never try anything that isn’t sure to succeed.
Silly us. Why? That was such a foolish lesson. These are the lessons we needed to teach. The lessons of time. Long-haul belief in the family you’ve created. Faith that others will cling to after you’re gone. Love regardless of comprehension. Commitment to people who change, hurt, and confuse you, because they’re your people, and we keep hold of our peoples’ hands. Even, especially, when they have no idea where they’re going.
I’m glad she knows well where’s she’s going.
Men who delicately wipe their spouse’s forehead and hold her hand and walk with her through the pain of loss. Because they promised to.
If only we had taught you that, rather than “success.” Because that right there is what success looks like. Like my mom and dad.
Today’s post comes from a dear friend and divinity student, Kirsten Trambley. Kirsten surprises me always with her creative thinking and passion. I can’t wait to see what she does with her degree and her wonderful heart. Here are her words, in answer to my questions about the next generation and faith.
Disclaimer: I have chosen to interview young people of several traditions for this series. Their beliefs may not be the same as my beliefs. That’s okay. Dialogue is the best way to understanding one another and living in the peace and unity that Jesus spoke about. Yay for not all thinking the same.
If you could tell us one thing about your generation, what would it be?
Millennials are not ignorant, uninformed airheads. We are pushing 40, we are past college, we are not only entering the workforce but becoming established in our careers. As a middle millennial born in the early 90s, I can attest we are not a pack to be defined as one but an evolving mystery of knowledge with care for justice and change that is already being employed. We are not “leaders of the future”; we are people who have been leading for over a decade, many even longer. We love to learn from older generations, yet we have much to learn from the generation below us. GenZ’ers are fantastic, phenomenal, witty, quick-thinking, problem-solving, fun, amazing children of God.
What do you need from older generations?
We need openness. One does not necessarily need to be open-minded because I’m not one to say that I’m always right. But, with open listening and open dialogue (I think we used to simply call this conversation), we can see each other – not as sides, parties, progressive vs. traditional – but as humans alongside each other on the journey. We are in this together for life and for meaning-making while searching together for faith, beliefs, and sacred texts. We need to hear the positions of reason, scripture, tradition, and experience from older generations in order to balance our understanding of the world and the ways in which we work to move forward.
As a youth leader, we need intergenerational work. To bring life into a dying church, we can’t cluster into age segregation. Rather, it must be intergeneration to engage youth with a reason to find their sense of purpose within a religious community. I need different age groups working together to make my work with youth be productive, and I need friends of different ages in my life to share their perspectives of experiences and interpretations of my experiences to help guide my path.
What are your dreams for the church / faith?
One of the Drew Theological School professors, Mark A. Miller, who is the director of Craig Chapel and the composer-in-residence has a song that I love, “I Dream of a Church.” The modern hymn opens with, “I dream of a church where everyone is welcome. I dream of a place we all can call home.”
In a service at Drew, Miller recently said that everyone is welcome “as we are all pilgrims on the journey.” Sometimes, I see this welcoming as an act of inclusion via the work of Jen Hatmaker (whom I have read and followed online for a few years, my link to Jill), but sometimes inclusion feels too much like “us” having power. I agree with those who say the church needs a divide so we know where / with whom / on what we align, though I also think we have a place for great hope of a church that radically works together despite its differences as I have learned from Bishop Karen Oliveto, the first openly-gay bishop of the United Methodist Church.
We could divide over racial desegregation, women in leadership, human sexuality, etc., but we are already divided on ableism that literally keeps people out of our buildings or on issues of migration that separate our families. While I dream of a church where everyone is welcome, my current contexts are very left-leaning. We won’t deny people based on physical or identity factors, but our views on social factors are well-defined and dividing. There is conflict among moderates and conservatives in my liberal progressive spaces, and it’s not always handled with respect toward all. The ideal would be for all to come together under a common good. I am determining the reality of where I sustain hope for this shared well-being or if I lean toward the divide.
What’s your greatest fear for the church?
We are cutting off people because they are not the majority, the privileged, the people with social capital. When we limit and say Christianity can only look like / be like / enacted like / live like one certain understanding to experience God, we cut off the marginalized.
We lose the voices and experiences of women when we deny their callings or do not intentionally include gender-balanced leadership.
We ignore the faith of those identifying as LGBTQIA+ when we discount their Christianity for being in the queer community, even if they display the training and skills needed in their positions.
We exploit people of color when we lead all-white churches, have tokenized people of color on church staff, and / or we say we “don’t see race.”
We harm children and reject their faith when we don’t allow them to participate and lead in worship because of their age.
I can continue to give examples for days, but it concludes with the fear that leads to exclusion. We cannot be an ecumenical body of Christ if we are not communally affirmed in our faith and in living with the divine Spirit in each person simply on the basis of humanity.
If you could contribute one thing, what would it be?
I desire to contribute many things as a theological student with some skill in a lot of places.
I hope I’m funny. I hope I’m relatable and honest with myself and with others. I hope I’m contributing to engaged thought through writing. I hope I’m creating change through social action in “big” things like rallies or marches and in “small” things like adapting worship service liturgy on art and justice or providing resources for engagement in immigration rights.
Even with all of this, my greatest contribution in my current context and in the past seven years of my work is to mentor youth. I work to provide hope, a place for creativity, space to explore faith, somewhere to ask questions without always coming to an answer, and opportunity to be involved in the local church and in demanding justice. I’m analyzing my work every day for its potential long-term effects and for finding resources for meaning in life to connect that with the quest of our youth. Engaging with the younger generation is beautiful, overwhelmingly-pressured, and an honor.
What do you love about the Bible?
I love that the library of books of the Bible that I’m reading through my current lens as a progressive theological student are entirely different than the one cohesive book that I read as a young person who was given a conservative story from the same text. I think the books really have space for that varied interpretation, and that honors each of us in our place with God.
Some pieces of the story are too cool to not recognize. I love discovering that Genesis has two creation stories and finding the references to early cultures’ origin texts. I love that the canon includes four different readings of the life of Jesus the Christ. I love that the books include divine representations as feminine and gender-neutral and masculine, warrior and lover, crucified and resurrected, Creator and Sustainer, and encompassing ideas of what God can be.
I love how the books that I’ve read have real-life locations that I have visited in Turkey. I love that I don’t understand or believe all of the writings to be historically true because that contains an unexplainably holy mystery. I love that I don’t have to purposefully engage with the text every day for it to make an impact on who I am and how I live my life. I love that I can read the Bible entirely differently than I did one, five, eleven years ago, and I still find a sacred nature within the text.
I have great hope and hurt for the church. I don’t know what exactly it means in my life right now, but – as hard as I’ve tried – I can’t shake it away or abandon its purpose. It’s a messy bunch of weirdos, but it’s our mess.
Kirsten E. M. Trambley is a second year Master of Divinity: Social Justice Advocacy student at Drew Theological School. She is originally from southernmost Illinois where she worked with youth in a public high school, an ecumenical biannual camp, and various churches and small groups. Kirsten puts her faith into ministerial action by working with youth, engaging with social change, and expressing herself creatively through visual and performance arts as well as through writing. Through her leadership, she persists in encouraging courage, creating community alongside storytelling and partnership, and working toward God’s call for liberation, justice, freedom, peace, and love for all.