Becoming Absent to Save the Absent Generation

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This is the fourth and final post in a series on my attempts to relate cross-generationally.  After the introduction post on Monday, I wrote on Tuesday and Wednesday about the older, Silent generation and the middle aged Baby Boomers.

I want to finish this series with a unique post about being a Millenial Pastor who is trying like crazy to understand and relate to those my age.  .  .and failing miserably.

I was born in late 1984, two years after they stopped making Generation X babies.  My older sister was born in early 1981, right before they started making Millenials.  The chief difference between her and I is that she didn’t have a home computer in High School and didn’t take a laptop to college.  I had a computer in my room and bought my first laptop a few days before my freshmen year of college.  More than that, my sister was in grad school when Facebook was invented and I actually had an account a full 3 years before she got one.

However, as I read the descriptions of Gen X and Millenials I find that I land somewhere between the two.  You might call me an X’d Millenial or a Milleniax or a Xillenial.

Despite my commonalities with both Generations, I am a kid who grew up in the church and am now a leader in it.  Concerning spirituality and morality I am fairly traditional.  I pastor an old-school traditional church that opens every service with a hymn.  I don’t play the electric guitar (or acoustic) and I still think that waiting until you get married is in your best interests.  I do not swear, nor do I have any tattoos, nor do I drink alcohol.  And the older I get, the less inclined I am to watch violent or pornographic television.  I couldn’t watch more than a few episodes of Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead or Orange is the New Black.

All of this makes me unique because the average Gen X or Millenial will not attend a traditional church nor follow its traditional morality.  They didn’t wait until marriage.  They love those graphic and obscene television shows.  If they do go to church it will be to a church that brews organic blends, not Folgers and plays super emo, mellow choruses while sporting their newest tattoos of religious iconography.

But not many Gen Xers or Millenials go to church.  In fact, regarding the church, they are an absent generation.

This makes me a very rare breed among my peers.

More than that, the young adults in my small town all ready have 3 kids from 3 different partners.  They are addicted to everything from cocaine to marijuana to tobacco to alcohol to video games.  They do not know who King David or Isaiah or the Apostle Paul are.  And their tattoos are certainly not of a religious nature.  They all believe in God but beyond that they don’t understand religion nor have a use for it.  And, to be honest, as an ordained religious icon, I do not understand them.

I say all of this in the way of confession because my congregation hired me to bring in the young adults and I do not know how to even begin to bridge the gap between my traditional morality and their libertarian lack of values.

Last summer we started a Tuesday night dinner group for young adults at the church.  Over a month it grew to 15 and died just as quick because those attending moved away or got evening jobs.  During those dinners I struggled with whether I should even bring up Jesus or just continue to talk about video games, hunting, firefighting and sports.  In the end Jesus went unnoticed and they all checked out of church.  But don’t get me wrong, the result would have been the same had I been overly pushy about Jesus.

They claim to love our Sunday services but they are always too hungover to get out of bed to come.  They say they will come to church events but always end up finding a reason not to.  They say they want a children’s program but when we start one they do not show.  They say they want a nursery for their children and when we opened one, they took their kids into the service with them anyway and continued to complain we were not “toddler friendly.”

Meanwhile they wallow in bad decision making.  They can’t find a place to live because nobody will rent to them because they trashed the last 20 apartments and screamed at the last 10 landlords.  They desperately want to work and some are hard workers, but they have no idea how to treat their coworkers and bosses so nobody will hire them.  They are all in complex and miserable custody battles for their children with ex-partners, parents and grandparents.  The more details I hear, the more I am sure none of them should win custody.

The end result is they complain about their self inflicted “bad luck.”  I help them dig out of their latest mess, all the while hoping it will mean they will own their bad decisions and turn their lives over to a loving God.  It hasn’t quite happened yet with any of them.

I know this is not the case for all Gen Xers and Millenials but it is certainly the norm in my small town.

So I do not have any easy solutions here except to say at least I know their names and consider them friends and all that happened outside the walls of my church.  In a very real way I have had to become absent to reach out to these absent generations.  I am not just talking about the now old trope of a minister spending more time out of the office than inside of it.

I am talking about leaving the religious establishment of my youth.  I am talking about choosing to forget about things like Bible Quizzing and Mission Trips and Summer Camp and Private High School and Christian University.  I have to forget those memories and pretend like I know nothing so save those who don’t know nothing.  I have to re-imagine my life as if it had been devoid of things like potlucks, VBS, G rated movies and two loving parents.  Instead I have to picture how my life would be with cocaine, abuse, neglect and X rated porn.

This does not mean I start getting tattoos and smoking cigarettes  and drinking myself into oblivion.  It does mean I pretend I have no idea who Paul the Apostle is so that I can help my peers discover him for themselves.  It means I do not preach at them concerning the dangers of alcoholism, or even cocaine, but instead ask questions about what such use is doing for their lives.

I don’t defend their employers and landlords but listen to their complaints accusations against them.

And I certainly don’t take sides in their custody battles.

Pulling this off is incredibly difficult, especially since my patient compassion for them has yielded no measurable results.

Yet I have found that if I meet them where they are at, then at least I keep the conversation open.  And I hope without much reason that when they are ready to move forward I can introduce them to a God and His church that longs for them to be reconciled.

Happy Halloween!  May the presence of our Lord together with All the Hallowed Saints be with you this weekend.

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2 thoughts on “Becoming Absent to Save the Absent Generation

  1. Marissa

    I’ve been thinking about this for a couple days. First, I think it’s awesome that you are actually in relationship with people so far removed from the church. I think that’s really hard for pastors!

    Second, the first thing that came to mind was Brad Kallenberg’s book, Postmodern Evangelism. He lists three things that must accompany (signify?) conversion: identification with a new community, a paradigm shift, and acquisition of a new vocabulary. I don’t want to expound on these in great detail, but I think they are absolutely essential to any kind of significant and lasting life change. And I don’t know how they could happen without a community to welcome new participants, redefine paradigms, and teach new vocabulary. I don’t know that traditional church is necessarily the answer (although I do think that potlucks are pretty awesome for just about anyone), but if not traditional church, I think some type of faith community has to engage young adults (or people of any age) for us to see God’s saving work take place in their lives.

    One more thing–I read an article in Christianity Today that was really eye-opening. (Maybe I’ll try to find it and link it.) The author said that lots of churches have college-age ministries and that the make-up of the church is becoming increasingly college-educated. Meanwhile, high school graduates who go immediately to working full time are being left behind by the church. They struggle financially, many to the point of homelessness and inadequate nutrition. They work weekends and nights, making them unable to attend Sunday morning services. I really appreciate your post because I feel like you are seeing those people that many church leaders are blind to. A lot of the “we’re losing the millenials” outcry is really directed towards financially well-off, college-educated, stable young adults and not the young adults who are struggling or failing to make ends meet and find themselves in increasingly dead-end jobs, relationships, and addictions. In our own context, I suspect that we have quite a few more of the latter, and I’d really like to explore more about what ministry looks like in that context.

    • Hey Marissa, I think you hit the nail on the head and that is why I focused on the uneducated, low income group in the post. I do find that Christian Smith has done a good job of finding them and interviewing them in his ongoing project. However, the way of compiling traditional statistics leaves out the transient populations because their phone numbers and addresses change constantly. They are really hard to get a hold of. So the statistic books necessarily focus on the middle class and educated. But there is a lot of uneducated millenials out there whose experience of the world is vastly different.

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