Rector's Rhetoric - September 2014
Chris Kenney gave me something to look at a couple of weeks ago on a website called faithstreet.com that both heartened and frustrated me. The article (posted below) has to do with the attitudes of millennials toward the church or, more specifically, some of the theological catch-phases uttered by churchfolk that millennials are now calling into question. I’m sure that there are more than five, but five will do for now. I’m heartened because these are one-liners that irritate me too, even if they happen to be offered with the best of intentions. I’m frustrated because I don’t know how to let millennials know that there’s a church out there that also questions the wisdom of easy answers for complicated living. The first one, the Bible clearly says . . . If you’re itching for a fight, the Bible will supply you with all the ammunition you need. But if you’re really paying attention to what you’re reading, you’ll find that the Bible creates as many questions as it provides answers. For example, you might infer from the Genesis creation stories that life is sacred (as I think most Christians would say they agree), but I can point you to any number of instances in which life does not appear to be sacred at all in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. The Bible has plenty of wisdom in it for abundant living, but one must have a fairly high tolerance for ambiguity on any number of issues. If you think Jesus was always straight forward, try preaching on the parable of the dishonest steward some Sunday. The second one, God will never give you more than you can handle. This phrase is actually, I think, rooted in a Hebrew Bible theology that believed that God was in charge of the whole of life, blessings and curses, good and bad. What befell you, for good or for ill, was a direct result of the Almighty and the testing ground for faithfulness. It might be better said that God will help you handle whatever your given, but even that phrase makes me a little nervous. I’ve known people who have crumbled under the weight of life circumstances that I don’t know whether I would have survived either. Someone may find it comforting to believe that they (with the help of God) could triumph over a personal disaster that someone of obvious lesser character or faith couldn’t survive, but I’m more inclined toward praying the contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer where we petition, “Save us from the time of trial” and hope and pray that it never comes to that. Actually, there is one thing that God gives you that is more than you can handle . . . a Christian life, which is why you’ll always need the grace of God to live it. The third one, loved on. I don’t really get this term and don’t think Episcopalians use it in a clichéd way. We do love our youth, and commit ourselves to them in the Baptismal Covenant which speaks strongly to a serious commitment to their welfare, body and soul. I do love our children, all of them, and even when I do get a little mushy or gushy around them, I make no apologies for it. The fourth one, Black and white quantifiers of faith...believers, unbelievers, backsliders. Again, not terms that Episcopalians typically use. That’s not to say that we don’t have words that divide us into subgroups (we’re not perfect people), but one thing is pretty clear, that whether we profess strong faith or only a mustard seed’s worth, we know (unless we’re terribly deluded) that we all fall short of the glory of God and are in serious need of help. That’s why we keep coming together as often as we can—to help each other, to build each other up, to provide the pastoral care and comfort necessary for healing and wholeness, to lift up the messiness of our personal lives and our collective life before God and dare to ask for a blessing. The fifth one, God is in control, has a plan, works in mysterious ways. I would agree with the writer, that most of us probably believe this in one way or another, but to offer these clichés as pastoral platitudes when someone is having the worst day of their life is just plain stupid and insensitive. The older I get, the less I feel that I know about God’s comings and goings. Some days I feel that Presence and other days I’m hard-pressed to figure out much of anything. I preached a sermon a few weeks ago about the Christian life of faith and doubt, and in particular, Peter’s honesty in confessing, “Lord, I believe! Now help my unbelief!
All in all, I think millennials would have a field-day of discovery if they only knew what Episcopalians believe and do not believe. If these five gripes about the church really do reflect millennial dissatisfaction, then perhaps there really is a 21st century church that they could call home. Right here. The question for us is, (and always has been) how to get the word out?
FIVE CHURCHY PHRASES THAT ARE SCARING OFF MILLENIALS faithstreet.com
The statistics are in. The millennials are leaving the church, and nobody seems quite sure what to do about it. I am one of them. Born in 1983, I belong to the wispy beginnings of the new generation. I turned 30 this year, and I’m raising two small boys. I hold within me both cynicism and hope. I left the church. I came back. Here is what I can tell you about millennials: We grew up on easy answers, catch-phrases and cliché, and if we’ve learned anything, it’s that things are almost always more complicated than that. When I returned to church, it wasn’t because of great programs, alluring events or a really cool “café” set up in the foyer. I went back not because of what the church was doing, but rather in spite of it. I went back because I needed community, and because, thanks to a steady dose of medication and therapy, I was finally well enough to root through the cliché to find it. But not all of us are there yet. For some of us, the clichés are still maddening and alienating. Recently, I asked my followers online for the five church clichés that they tend to hate the most. These were their top five responses:
1. “The Bible clearly says…” We are the first generation to grow up in the age of information technology, and we have at our fingertips hundreds of commentaries, sermons, ideas, and books. We can engage with Biblical scholars on Facebook and Twitter, and it’s impossible not to see the way that their doctrines—rooted in the same Bible—differ and clash. We’re acutely aware of the Bible’s intricacies. We know the Bible is clear about some things, but also that much is not clear. We know the words are weighted to a culture that we don’t completely understand and that the scholars will never all agree. We want to hear our pastors approach these words with humility and reverence. Saying, “This is where study and prayer have led me, but I could be wrong,” does infinitely more to secure our trust than The Bible clearly says…
2. God will never give you more than you can handle” This paraphrased Mother Teresa quote has become so commonplace in Christian culture that I was shocked to learn that it wasn’t in the Bible. Inherent in this phrase is the undertone that if life has become “more than you can handle,” then your faith must not be strong enough. We millennials may be a bit narcissistic, but we also know the weight of too much. We understand that we need help. Connections. Friendship. Sometimes therapy. We know that life so often feels like entirely too much to handle, and we want to know that this is okay with you and with God.
3. “Love on” (e.g. “As youth group leaders, we’re just here to love on those kids.” In addition to sounding just plain creepy, this phrase also has troubling implications. We may understand that we need help, but we certainly don’t want to be anyone’s project or ministry. It may just be semantics, but being loved on feels very different than being simply loved. The former connotes a sudden flash of contrived kindness; the latter is simpler...but deeper. It suggests that the relationship is the point, not the act of love itself. And really, that’s what we’re looking for: relationship—that honest back and forth of giving and receiving love.
4. Black and White Quantifiers of faith, such as “Believer, Unbeliever, Backsliding” Millennials are sick of rhetoric that centers around who’s in and who’s out. We know our own doubtful hearts enough to know that belief and unbelief so often coexist. Those of us who follow the Christian faith know that the world around us feels truer than the invisible God who holds it together. Terms like backsliding that try to pinpoint the success (or, more accurately, lack thereof) of our faith, frustrate us. We don’t want to hustle to prove our faith; we don’t want to pretend. We want to be accepted, not analyzed.
5. “God is in control...has a plan...works in mysterious ways” Chances are we believe this is true. But it’s the last thing we want to hear when something goes horribly wrong in our life. We are drawn to the Jesus who sits down with the down-and-out woman at the well. Who touches the leper, the sick, the hurting. Who cries when Lazarus is found dead...even though he is in control and has a plan to bring Lazarus back to life. You’ve heard us say that we like Jesus but not the church, and it’s not because we’re trying to be difficult. It’s because the Jesus we read about enters into the pain of humanity where so often the church people seem to want to float above it. In the end, it’s not really about what churches say or don’t say. What millennials want is to be seen. Understood. Loved. It’s what everyone wants, really. And for this generation of journeyers? Choosing honesty over cliché is a really great place to start.