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.

Booming to Save the Boomers

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This is the 3rd post in a series on my attempts as a Millenial pastor to engage the different age groups in my community.  On Monday I wrote an introduction to the series.  Yesterday I talked about my difficulties with The Silent Generation.  I argued that the younger clergy should be grieving with them and as I have met them in their grief I have been able to pull some of them to hope as they spend their last days in this tumultuous world.

That has been hard but not impossible.  Compassion, after all, is a biblical mandate and one I feel us younger folks have in high measure.  With that said, my real struggle is relating to Baby Boomers (my parent’s generation).

They were named the Baby Boomers because of the high birth rate during the 1940s and 50s.  However, “boomer” might also define their predilection towards everything noisy, glitzy, glamorous and showy.  A big production, whether a concert, a reality TV show, an action movie or a Promise Keeper’s Revival trumps all else in their minds.

It was this generation that fell in love with Rock And Roll and the crazy concerts that followed.  This generation loved and invented the classic action hero, an unstoppable lone wolf played by Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Mel Gibson who took down an endless number of bad guys, aliens, robots and monsters in movies like “The Terminator,” “Die Hard,” “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones” and the like.

It also took this generation three months of watching Titanic in theaters once a week to realize the movie actually didn’t have a plot.  What it did have was sappy emotionalism between shots of a ship sinking.

But it was also this generation that fell back in love with Jesus.  Before them Jesus was a ticket into heaven.  Christians before the Baby Boomers were much more likely to talk about “God” than “Jesus.”  But the Baby Boomers, particularly the hippies among them, rediscovered Jesus in the 1970s and have led the world back to the gospel stories.  This was an incredible and needed movement in American history.

But no sooner had they fallen back in love with Jesus than the cross became a trademark and Jesus became a product.  Cue the invention of Christian music (and the radio stations that came with), Christian T-shirts, Christian movies, Christian coffee mugs, Christian book stores and, my favorite, Jesus on Facebook.

All of this is bottled and sold in the now classic mega-churches with their business-like church growth models and worship services that resemble rock concerts.

To the Baby Boomers Christianity is a club and Jesus a product to sell.  He is the ultimate Boomer rock star with the ultimate Boomer rock concerts.  He is the Boomer Action Hero that can dodge a million bullets but fire six that magically land in the enemy’s torso.  He is also the fulfillment of all their felt needs.

The Baby Boomers love sappiness.  They are the ones who are currently filling my Facebook feed with horrible and over used cliche sentiments like, “When God Close a Door He Opens 10,000 windows” (add picture of sunlight through 10,000 windows).  They “like” and “follow” Jesus and insist that if you don’t, you are a less than par Christian.  They are quick to forward culture war propaganda and rally behind anybody who is “standing up for Jesus” by re-tweeting or re-posting or re-forwarding whatever out of context Bible verse darts across their screens.

Like their movies, they like their worship services loud with dashes of sentimentalism.  They love perfectly played music and are quick to dismiss an entire service as being “devoid of the Holy Spirit” if there is even one tone deaf note.  My dad calls it a “lack of pastoral leadership.”  I think it is a sign of a great pastor who is willing to put the least and the lowly on the stage.  More on that in a bit.

Their love of glamour redefined the Christmas Pageant and the Easter Plays.  Now we have live camels bringing Jesus in for Palm Sunday.  We have fireworks that go off to announce Baby Jesus’ birth and we actually hammer nails into crosses on Good Friday.  The Baby Boomers love everything that booms.

They are the ones teaching us to be “Spiritual” but not “Religious.”  Religious is a code word for quiet, unassuming, and boring.  In turn, spiritual means loud, crazy, sentimental and booming.

And those are the very things their children, including myself, are rebelling against.

When I hear booming I see superficial.  Clever is manipulative.  Sappy is shallow.  And fireworks at Jesus’ birth betrays the unassuming and secretive nature of the entire passage in Luke 2.

The Baby Boomers replaced pews with chairs.  We are replacing chairs with tables.  They replaced hymns with electric guitars.  We are unplugging the guitars and going acoustic.  They rejected the hymns.  We are bringing the good hymns back but adding a lot more mellow to them.

My Power-points have a dash of clever but that cleverness is more ironic than glitzy.  Instead of a clever background image with three points, I go for black ink on white backdrop with words flying in from everywhere because the clever backdrops take away from the text I want you to see.  Most of the time, I drop text all together and just put funny pictures up there to illustrate what I am saying.  If the pictures are not funny I will make fun of them with a quip like, “That is an actual Polaroid of Jesus’ baptism!”

Beyond worship, many in my age group have abandoned the language of “caring for felt needs” and replaced it with “suffering faithfulness.”  Instead of a Jesus we can trademark, bottle and sell, we preach a Jesus who is fully human and fully God who calls us to a follow Him with sacrifice and service.

But do not get me wrong, this is not a “who is right” and “who is wrong” post or even series.  In fact, I have found as I relate to Christian baby boomers, that there is a very real and deep spirituality underlying their cliches.  For example they are just as likely to post calls for prayer for dying friends as they are to post sappy cliches.  An emotion based faith still can be “faith.”

So I have learned to “like” the sappy cliches that fill my Facebook feed. I affirm them when they post stuff I agree with.  I also look for opportunities to be sappy and “needs based” when the text or my experience allows.  I clean up my Powerpoints from time to time to make them more showy and sometimes I will even talk about the God who dries our tears.  I also listen to Christian music here and there and will quote lyrics in my sermons if I find any that are deeper than “God’s Not Dead.”

I use all of these as opportunities to build bridges from their showy, booming trademarked god to the very real God that meets us in whispers on mountaintops, works through the foolish and powerless and goes almost unnoticed while reconciling the whole world.

I have found this tension to be a very delicate tightrope.  After all, this is the generation who will quickly call your entire faith into question if you don’t listen to Christian radio or re-post the latest culture war on your news-feed.  I found they will even call you “Religious but Not Spiritual” if your sermon is about 2 Kings 12 instead of about “God Cares, Concerns and Creates.”  (Acronyms are everything to them because they combine sentiment with clever.)

But I have found a lot of success as I have learned to boom sentimentalism before I whisper the call of God.  I have also found that with all ages and peoples, that as they age into retirement the Boomers are still looking for something real beneath the artificial world they created.

And I believe wholeheartedly in a God who can provide that for them.

Frustrations of a 30YR Old/Millenial Pastor/Coach Stay At Home/Work Dad

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This is part 2 of a post about being a bivocational pastor in a small rural town.  To catch part one click here.

Right at the end of the Track season a lady in our church had her leg amputated at a hospital 2 hours away.  It would have been a 6 hour round trip to get to her and the family was adamant I be there.  Every fiber in my being wanted to go.  However, I couldn’t find 6 hours of free time.  It killed me.  I felt horrible.  In the end some dear saints from our church made the drive to be with her and all was well.  But this story perfectly sums up the frustrations and challenges of my current life.

Most pastors struggle with feelings of inadequacy but us bi-vocational pastors feel super inadequate.  There are frustrations and limitations all around and jobs left half done.  But as I have sought to be as faithful as possible to my calling, I have found each frustration is also an opportunity.  That is the case in the following 5 areas.

Frustration 1: The absolute absence of an 8-5 workday.  Most pastors didn’t do 8-5 when the professional clergy model was popular but there were days when they could pull it off.  There are never days that I could do it.  Track practice starts at 3 everyday.  Fridays are reserved for Track Meets.  The church regularly schedules events on Saturdays and Sundays are, well, Sundays.  During the afternoons my kids need naps and I badly need them to take those naps so I have to be at home for 2 hours while they sleep.  Weeknights are filled with events at the school, in the community or meetings at the church.  I desperately want an 8-5 workday.  I would love it but it is impossible.

The Opportunity: The absence of a “workday” or “workweek” has forced me to rethink a clergy’s job description.  I think one of the weaknesses of the professional clergy model was that it segmented the vocation of the clergy into work time and off time.  I still guard my Sabbath days and I take vacations but they are not “off the clock” times.  The Sabbath days and vacations are every bit a part of my job description as is preaching on Sunday morning.  I am still every bit as much a pastor when I am home reading a book or while I am coaching Cross Country or attending a city council meeting.

Put more practically, the absence of a “workday” means I spend less time worrying about how many hours I “ministered” and focus more on making every moment count for my calling.  The upside of this is I don’t feel guilty (or I shouldn’t) when I don’t “work” 40 hours in one week.  The downside is that I have to think about how I spend even my free time and I definitely have to constantly be asking myself how I am fulfilling my calling at any given moment.

Frustration 2: Pastoral calling suffers.  I think pastoral calling is important but I can’t find time to do it. especially when I am coaching and definitely now that I have 2 kids.  Carting one kid around is difficult enough but taking 2 is near impossible.  My daughter goes to daycare at least once a week and I try to cram as many homes in as possible during that day but more often than not something else comes up and I have to put that person’s house on the list for next week.

The Opportunity:  I think as creatively as possible when it comes to connecting with people.  I send emails, write cards, make phone calls and attend evening community events that I know church people are going too.  I have had meetings in my living room while the kids were sleeping.  And I keep regular office hours every morning so my kids can play in the next room or on the floor of my office while I meet with people.  And usually when someone is the hospital I can find a way to get there if I work hard enough at it.

Frustration #3:  I have no real social life.  Let’s face it, there are not many social events in a small town for a young person.  Everything closes by 8pm and the nearest movie theater, Starbucks and upscale restaurants are a half hour away.  Also, having a master’s degree makes me different from most people my age in town.  In fact my closest friend is 60 miles away and the next ones after that are 170 miles away.

Opportunity:  I am not sure if there is an opportunity here other than taking advantage of clergy conferences, making the 60 mile drive to see my friend at least once a month (some months he comes here) and using Facebook, Twitter, email etc. to stay in touch with as many friends as possible.  I also invite friends to come visit me in my town but few take me up on that offer.

Frustration #4: Student loans.  You read it right yesterday, I pay $500/mo in student loans.  Yes that is overpaying by a few hundred dollars but that over-payment is so worth it, it is almost necessary.

Opportunity: Live by faith and hope.  The reality is I am lucky to be able to overpay them and though I hate sending that money off, I do it knowing that the debt was worthwhile because without it, I wouldn’t have the life I have.  My education was invaluable and it has helped me more than I ever could have known.  Still, I hate those dumb payments.

Frustration #5: Exhausted Sunday mornings.  I know every pastor deals with those Sundays out of the year where they have zero energy but I have more of them.  They increase during the sports’ seasons where many meets happen on Saturdays.  The next day it is everything I can do to get out of bed, go to church, smile at people and give an energized sermon.

Opportunity: God is never exhausted.  I am incredibly inadequate and very limited.  But the one who called me is not.  Even on the Sundays when I have no energy, God is still fully present.  Even on those Sundays when the congregation is half asleep and I have a pillow under the pulpit for when that last person nods off, God is still fully active in our lives and in the world.  My low energy Sundays remind me of that truth.

Therefore, I would actually count these frustrations as blessings because they remind me that the fate of the world (and the church) do not rest on my shoulders.  Instead, I am called to be as faithful as I can be with the details of my situation.  I seek to use every moment to plant tiny, little Kingdom seeds, resting in the hope that God will make them grow.  And certainly God has and does and will continue too.

Confessions of 30yr Old/Millenial Pastor/Coach Stay at Home/Work Dad

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Over the weekend I ran across a number of articles and blogs about bi-vocational ministry, especially as it relates to a rural, small church and its declining (or non existing) budgets.  Since I am a bi-vocational pastor in a rural, small church that doesn’t have or need a budget, I thought I would weigh in.

The challenges affecting the traditional* job descriptions and salaries of professional clergy are many.  There is the declining church membership and declining percentage of giving per church member (source).  There is also the upcoming (or all ready here) clergy shortage (source).  Then there are greater theological and ethical concerns which my friend Marissa brings to bear here.  Outside the church there is the decline of the middle class and the vast changes in the 21st century work force, which you can read a little about here.  There is also the crisis of higher education (source).  Lastly there is the reemerging factor of the working mother (or put more politically correct, the double income family).

To try to tackle all of these issues in one blog or article would be a weary task and one for which I don’t have time.  However, all these issues and more certainly come to bear in my own biography.  So my goal today and tomorrow is to throw my narrative into the mix and use the hard date of my life to offer clarity, advice, predictions but most of all compassion.

As my unnecessarily clunky title suggests, I am a 30 year old bi-vocational pastor and father.  I pastor a church of about 90 people where only about 45 show up on any given Sunday.  My church is in a rural small town in Eastern Oregon.  It is a fairly impoverished town with 10 percent of teenagers homeless at any given time.  My wife works full time for a university in a town 20 miles away and we can only afford daycare once a week.  Our families live nowhere near us so my 6 month old son and 2 year old daughter accompany me everywhere.  The church lets me live in a rather large parsonage that nevertheless is aged and has many structural problems.  They also throw in a cash salary and a modest spending account.  I receive no benefits because my wife gets them through her job.  In addition to being a pastor I am also paid a fairly decent salary for coaching the local High School’s Cross Country and Track teams.

My wife and I came out of college and seminary okay with just $30,000 in student loans.  We pay $500 a month on them and hope to have them paid off by 2020.

With that basic biographical information in mind, I want to say that I love my life.  I am doing what God called me to do and I am doing it where God called me to do it.  I am doing what I spent 8 years in higher education to do and I have felt nothing but confirmed in my calling since I got here.

There are some great blessings in my current life.  There are also severe limitations and unique challenges that I will tackle tomorrow.  But today I want to count off some of the blessings.

1) My local congregation is incredibly understanding.  I have friends who are pasturing other churches and they are not so lucky.  One congregation told their pastor that if he took another job in order to pay the bills they would reduce his all ready meager salary, which ironically would mean he would have to take a full time job over a part time one and give the church even fewer hours.  My church couldn’t be more different.  They arranged for me to be a coach before I got to town.  They helped my wife find a job.  They have never once complained about me missing ministry work because I have been tied up in family or coaching duties.  They are an incredible blessing.

2) My wife’s job doesn’t just pay the bills but helps her keep her sanity.  My wife grew up in a suburban town and has had a bit of trouble adjusting to such a rural setting.  However, she is one of those wonderful women who is called to be a working mom.  Not only does her job save the church $1000/mo (which is a fifth of the annual budget), but her job gives her friends, a sense of purpose, professional development and that coveted sanity.

3) I love coaching.  Being a coach is an extension of my calling.  In fact, whenever bi-vocational ministry came up in seminary I fretted because I thought I didn’t have another vocation.  So it was quite miraculous when God opened up the opportunity to use my distance running knowledge in town.  When I get to teach teenagers how to train hard, eat right and treat their bodies well, I am not just doing a second job.  I am shepherding them into a better way of life.  Also, the connections with kids and parents in the community have been invaluable and helped me pastor my own church flock a bit better.

4) I would be a pastor for free.  When my church board hired me they guaranteed me I wouldn’t starve to death.  And that was really all I needed.  In fact I didn’t really take the financial package into account.  I was more worried about whether God wanted me here and I figured if God wanted me here the rest would fall into place.  And it has.  God hasn’t let us starve and we have more than we need.

5) The ladies who babysit my kids have become surrogate grandparents.  I can’t say enough about the women who have stepped up to watch our children while I coach and pastor.  The conversations with them and the ability to speak godly peace and truth into their lives would not happen without my kids.  To be sure, they also speak a fair amount of godly peace and truth into my life as well.

So my life is choatic but not overwhelming, challenging but not impossible, difficult but quite enjoyable and I thank God for such a high calling and the means to carry it out.  However, I do think the church needs to rethink the professional clergy model and tomorrow I aim to do just that.  Click on back then!

*Note: I use the word traditional here very loosely.  What we understand to be the traditional salary and description of a professional clergy is only about 50 years old.  In a 2,000 year old tradition that isn't long.