Loyalty, Time, and Sushi

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Photo by Cory Bouthillette on Unsplash

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.

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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.

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Photo by Rohit Tandon on Unsplash

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.

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Photo by Jaelynn Castillo on Unsplash

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.

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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.’”

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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.

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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?

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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.

Change Happens

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While I was spending my time sailing, sunning, and writing pages and pages of thesis proposals that would get rejected and repurposed EVERY OTHER MINUTE in California this June, our front yard got a makeover.

Out with the Old

We called the city because one of the venerable old elm trees in the front yard looked ready to tumble onto our also old (if not equally venerable) house. The trees are technically on city property.

They came. They saw. They said that all three trees were bad and would be meeting the saw blade. (Insert sob emoji here.) A fourth elm sat just inside the property line, and it was in worse shape, so we struck a deal with the contractor to take it down for cheap while he was there.

Upshot—the entire front yard went from shade to full sun in a few hours. I returned home to a driveway I didn’t even recognize.

In with the . . . What?

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I do love light, but unfortunately, my front garden does not. We had planted it as a shade garden and filled it with hostas, coral bells, ferns, and the like. Now, they are baking. Turning yellow and crusty. They are not happy. It’s too hot out there to move them, and so they sit in the sun, as I hope and pray they survive long enough to be set somewhere  more understanding of their needs.

Meanwhile, an interesting thing is occurring in the back yard. There, the trees are growing. The spruce that was as tall as I am (and that’s not very tall) when we moved in now towers over its surroundings. If I wanted to get all mathematical, I’d go out there and measure the hypotenuse and the shadow and tell you exactly how tall it is. But, did I mention it’s hot? And I am not all mathematical as a general rule.

The ornamental pear tree we planted that was supposed to be remain small isn’t. Upshot—things that were planted in full sun, like our rose garden, no longer are. They’re also unhappy about the turn of events.

 

What is my point in all this?

My own back yard tells me that seasons change. Things never remain as planned. What we once thought would be forever isn’t, and what we thought would never be sometimes is. What worked once for us doesn’t work anymore. Usually, we keep trying it anyway, desperately hoping that we will not have to adjust to a new reality.

New Normals

  • Our bodies change or get injured. What was once easy isn’t.
  • Our kids leave home and our marriages turn in toward themselves and find hollow cores where communication and commitment once filled the space.
  • Our kids leave home period, and that’s enough change for any of us who love having their laughter and surprise and support floating through our days.
  • We move from single to two people, from two kids to three, and every addition is a glorious gift but still one we have to adjust to and whose learning curve may be steeper than we think we can climb.
  • We move to a new home, and its exciting and terrifying, adventurous and lonely, all at once.
  • Our faith turns into doubt nibbling away at the corners of our hearts and minds. What were once easy answers don’t come quite so quickly anymore.

Change doesn’t have to be bad to discombobulate our lives. (I love that word.) It just has to be what it is.

Different. New. Unknown.

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It can scorch our days like a July sun or it can shade our nights with extra darkness. It doesn’t matter. It just messes with what we thought we had stable and safe.

If I refuse to adjust to the new normal of our yard, the plants out front will die. They will shrivel and thirst and scorch and wither. They weren’t made for the sun. The plants out back will languish without the light they crave. They, too, will die. They weren’t made for the shade.

If I accept that normal isn’t coming back and I move them? I can create an entire new design out there. I have a chance to start over. I can make beautiful out of a new situation.

Create Beautiful

We can spend our time resisting whatever our new normal is, or we can embrace it. Now, I’m not advocating giving up on something that matters. I wouldn’t hang up my marriage if it changed. I can ( and might) plant a new tree in the front yard. I can opt to fight for those plants and that arrangement, because they’re important. Fighting is an option. It’s one I’d always take if change threatened something that truly mattered.

But, some things have just run their season. It’s time for a new one. Some things are better off for a new season.

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What if, for instance, I embrace this new empty nest that threatens? What if I stop seeing it as a threat? I can sit in my home and mourn the emptiness. (I will, some days.) I can guilt them into not ever moving farther than five miles away. (I have tried.) I can Snapchat my children incessantly until they block me. (I don’t recommend this.)

I can learn new ways to love them like crazy from a distance, pour my heart into other young people here who need someone, and renew career aspirations that have been put aside. I think that may be the better option.

On a larger scale, what if we accepted that “A Christian America” isn’t going to happen? The season of churchgoing as normal is over, and we pastors (and all Christians) have an uphill climb to be relevant or wanted. People aren’t going to beat the door down of my church.

I could demand things go back to the way they were. I could throw up my hands and gnash my teeth about the current state. I could toss blame all over the place and find scapegoats to label and denounce.

I could embrace a different culture and find my way to create God’s image of beauty within it. I know which is the ultimately more productive choice.

What if a new normal has brought something into your life that also brings worry, fear, anxiety, or sadness? How can you grow into that today? How can you look at your new season and find the beauty in it? What do you need to embrace in order to grow in this season rather than wither?

I hope and pray you find it. If I can help, let me know.