Low Church Numbers Vs. High Church Numbers: The Stories Are Not Adding Up

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Like many of you, this week I have seen many posts and re-posts of that chart from PewForum detailing the current rises and falls in religious demographics.  (Spoiler Alert: It was mostly just falls.)  The nones stole the show again and rightly so as they are booming.

Click to read full report.

But the second place winner seems to be us evangelicals who have decreased by less than 1% in 7 years.  This is noteworthy because 1% is well within the margin of error, which may mean we shrunk a bit more or that we even (*gasp*) grew.

This was very curious to me considering for the last year I have been inundated with articles claiming that evangelical youth are fleeing evangelicalism at rapid rates and that evangelicalism is all but dead.  I have heard that an overwhelming number of millenials are finding safe sanctuary in more ancient, high church traditions like Catholicism and Mainline Prostestantism.  I had a sneaking suspicion this claim was not true because those articles never gave any sort of hard data.  They just quoted popular millenials and assumed their narratives were normal.

I bring this up because I just got done reading another such article called “Dear Church: An Open Letter from One of Those Millenials You Can’t Figure Out.”  I agreed almost wholeheartedly with the author’s theological standpoint.  I too am sick of flashy worship and very skeptical of “church mascots.”  I really loathe the patriotic moralism that fuels evangelicals.  And I want a higher church and a truer church with more Eucharist and less pyrotechnics.

But I am not meeting too many other millenials who agree with me.  And when I read the actual studies done by people who know how to compile and interpret data, I am realizing that I am a rare breed.  The numbers just don’t add up and have not for some time.

The mainline churches with their liturgies, liberal theologies and well developed ecclesiologies are still hemorrhaging members while the low church, coffee selling, cowboy mimicking, America loving Evangelicals are at least holding their own.

There is a huge disconnect between the narrative that millenials are fleeing into the arms of the loving high church and the data that says high church’s doors are all but closed.

Where did this come from?  I have a few guesses:

1) Nobody listens to the millions of uneducated, never churched.  The dominant stories filling our headlines are almost always the stories of wealthy millenials who grew up in the church and hold master’s degrees, usually in Philosophy or Theology.  These wealthy theology buffs are frustrated that the church of their theology classes is not the church of their childhoods.  I definitely share that frustration but no one who has not taken a theology class does.

Instead anybody who has worked with poor, uneducated, never churched millenials knows their story is vastly different.  They still want the booming worship and religious paraphernalia and silly mascots and rock bands and they are absolutely okay with the patriotism.

If it is true that we are not listening to them, I think that is sad.  After all, us educated church types are always talking up a great game about loving the marginalized and outcast.  Yet we are refusing to hear their stories.  Is it possible that those cowboy church, honky tonk evangelical churches are listening to them better than we are?

2) We assume that because someone’s story is popular, everybody agrees.  Therefore we focus on the blogs that get the most clicks and assume everybody who is clicking has the exact same story.  This is not true.  Those blogs are certainly relatable, but they are not normative.  Take for example my wife, who has read every Rachel Held Evan’s book and is leading discussion groups on them but isn’t about to go join the Episcopals.  .  .I hope.  Likewise, I very much relate to Rachel Held Evans but I am not going to become Episcopal.  .  .unless my wife does.

This is compounded by the reality that a high for Christian blogs is 10,000 clicks.  There are 80 million millenials.  That means if only millenials are reading those blogs (which isn’t true) there are 79,990,000 millenials who aren’t reading them.

3) The Baby Boomers might still be alive and important to America’s religious landscape.  I am not naive.  I know that the Evangelical statistics could have absolutely nothing to do with my generation.  It might be about the great retention of baby boomers, who love everything that booms especially worship services.  These baby boomers might still be alive and still loving their low church, yeehaw praising, mascot leading, rock worship services.  And that might not be a bad thing.  There are still quite a few Baby Boomers who don’t go to church or never have. (source).  And though their attendance numbers are declining, they are mostly declining in mainstream churches.  If the current model of evangelicalism is reaching them or retaining them, than the church is better for it.

Conclusion

I am also reading reports this week that a huge blockbuster movie about superheroes punching robots has managed to fill auditoriums with those from every age.

It would seem you don’t need the Holy Spirit or liturgy or sacraments to fill up a venue.  You just need theatrics.  And if the theatrics of evangelicalism are keeping their pew chairs full, it means absolutely nothing.

Because our God given call is not to fill auditoriums.  We are definitely not called out of the world, equipped with good gifts, empowered with the Holy Spirit and sent out so that we can draw in the millenials, or the baby boomers or even the silent generation.

We are called, equipped, empowered and sent so that we can love.  If love works, praise the Lord of Love.  If Love does not work we still serve the Lord of Love.

And my frustrations with evangelicalism have nothing to do with their failure to fill pews.  We have always been very good at that part and still are.  My frustrations stem from our failure to fill the world with love.

All of the generational headlines are dominated by this idea that the church should do what works.  But if church is about what works then it is not about what loves.  And if we don’t love, we have nothing and are nothing and will accomplish nothing.

Why I Stayed in the Church of the Nazarene

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I have a few hours this morning with not much to do, so I am spending it jotting down some thoughts.  Unfortunately for the first time in awhile, I have several ideas for blog posts and not much time to write them all.

I am reading a book on Christian nonviolence entitled “What About Hitler?” but I am not through with it yet so can’t review it fairly.

I am also ridding my garage of a mouse infestation.  This has yielded all kinds of reflections about the brokenness of creation.  I might get those posted tomorrow.

Also my family is moving in two weeks to a new ministry assignment.  The move, like all re-locations, is teaching me a lot about discernment and the theology and practice of ministry.  I will post some of those thoughts over the next few weeks.

But all week long I have been involved in an ongoing discussion about the unique experiences of millenial clergy in the Church of the Nazarene.  My friend Danny Quanstrom has done several surveys of young clergy and is preparing to share his findings in several venues.

The discussion ranged from student loan debt (another topic for a future post), difficulties in finding assignments, the ridiculously bureaucratic licensing process and greater theological frustrations.

Out of that discussion, my friend Ric, who was educated by the Nazarenes but now pastors a UMC church, posted a blog detailing why he left the church.

Two huge factors dominated his narrative.  The first is that Ric never felt strong ties to any particular Nazarene congregation, just to the Universities.  He claims, and I believe it, that his professors were better pastors to him than his actual pastors.  The second factor was the growing divide between our universities and local congregations.  Ric had a growing sense (as did I) that he was undesirable as a pastor because he graduated from seminary.  This feeling was confirmed by a disastrous licensing interview where Ric was publicly shamed for not being able to quote the right Bible verses.

Ric’s story resonates with mine on several levels.  I too had to endure a licensing interview where I was asked awkward questions about the differences between the Church of the Nazarene and the Baptists or Assemblies of God.  The questions were not threatening but they did highlight the large chasm between our academic institutions and our congregations.  Our universities are not concerned with teaching us why we are better than the Baptists and Assemblies.  Their primary concern is teaching us how to think biblically and theologically.  But this older interviewer wanted to be certain I could argue in our favor.

More than that, before college I attended a private Christian High School that had been started by a Nazarene church.  Currently the High School is non-denominational and the student body composed of equal parts Baptist, Nazarene and Assemblies, with a few others thrown in.  My New Testament teacher was a Calvinist.  He taught us the New Testament and did a great job.

My Old Testament professor was a Nazarene lay person who taught us Republican politics and apologetics, particularly 6 day creationism.  I do not recall opening my Bible once in the two years of classes I took from him.  Instead he regularly named and listed off professors at the Nazarene universities that we needed to avoid at all costs.  These professors taught theistic evolution and voted for Democrats.  They could not be trusted.

With that said, I went to the University, took Bible and Theology classes and thoroughly enjoyed them.  I actually remember the point where I realized my High School teacher was full of crap.  It wasn’t a huge “aha,” paradigm changing moment for me.  Instead, it was a, “I always knew he didn’t know what he was talking about” moment.  Still, I was aware before most of the animosity between the university and some laity.

Unfortunately some university professors did respond by using class time to publicly shame students who graduated from my high school by responding to legitimate questions with, “You graduated from that high school didn’t you?” and then asking the student a series of questions no Freshmen would be prepared to answer.  In hindsight, I question their wisdom in doing so, though I was never a victim of such a barrage.

In fact, perhaps one point where Ric and my stories differ is that although I deeply respected my professors (or tried my hardest too) I was never really liked by them.  I have spent much time trying to figure out why that was.  I was then and am now hard to like and I could have done way better at reaching out to the professors and showing my respect for them than I did.  Still, they gave me an incredible education and rewarded my efforts with good grades and treated me with respect in class.  I own and read all their books and wholeheartedly support what they are doing for the church.  I just never would have called them my pastors, with one exception, namely my youth pastor.

That exception is probably why I stayed and why Ric and many others left.

I attended the church next door to our college campus.  The youth ministry there was incredible.  We went on mission trips to Mexico and discipleship retreats to monasteries.  We regularly had intensive spiritual formation retreats that involved fasting, studying Scripture, serving the poor, prayer labyrinths and the like.  My youth group had Ash Wednesday services and Holy Week services, all of which were completely rare in the COTN at the time.

On top of that I was a very nerdy Bible quizzer, which more than any Biblical or spiritual benefit, connected me to the other churches on our district and gave me some of the best friends I have ever had.

My senior year of High School, the Children’s Pastor arranged with my Youth Pastor for me to teach 4 year old Sunday School, which led to future leadership in the Children’s Ministry.

And the year after I graduated from High School my youth pastor was hired as a professor at the University.  Yes, that is a plot trope stolen right out of Boy Meets World but it happened.

So my positive relationship with my youth pastor carried over into college and continues today to yield incredible fruit.

With all that said, when I went to seminary, I became aware that my youth group experience was entirely unique.  In comparing notes with other students from around the country I realized that while I was fasting for Holy Week, other Nazarene teens were hiding Easter Eggs.  While I was spending 24 hours in silence at a monastery, other Nazarenes were bowling.  While I was memorizing John to compete at Bible Quizzing Nationals, other Nazarenes were watching Veggie Tales.

At the same I had a growing sense that I was not going to find a pastorate, at least not right away.  The economy was in a downturn and there was so much animosity being expressed towards the University and the Seminary that, like Ric, I supposed I was anathema.

But the opposite happened.  Through God’s providence and guiding, (or maybe just dumb luck) I was hired as a pastor on my home district in a church I had no prior relationship too.  I was ordained shortly thereafter and look forward to a long and fruitful ministry as a Nazarene.

In conclusion, there are a few things that make my story unique from others’ stories.  The first is that through Bible quizzing and an incredible youth group experience with an amazing youth pastor I had very strong ties to the church.  I do not believe that is the norm.  In fact, most evangelical youth ministries are incredibly shallow.

Second, I was involved in congregational leadership (albeit very minor) when I graduated high school.  Note that was not youth group leadership.  It was a position in another ministry in the church.

Third, even with those two things going for me, I am still a member of the Church of the Nazarene because a congregation took a risk and hired me to be their pastor.  If that had not happened I very well could be United Methodist or Wesleyan by now.

I know that what I just wrote is hardly an endearing vote of affirmation for our denomination but it is a story that should be told, if not to highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of our current context and the unique frustrations of Nazarene clergy who are educated in our universities.

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.

Becoming Silent to Save the Silent Generation

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I am the pastor of a small church in a small, rural town.  This means the “young people” in my congregation are 60 years old.  The middle aged are in their 70’s and we have a few older types in their late 80’s and early 90’s.

One of the older members (mid 80s) loves talking about how “those young people” are destroying society.  According to her, they are all lazy.  Not one of them knows how to sew or cook (“They don’t even teach that at college any more!!”).  Instead they just sit around and watch TV all day and microwave their ready made dinners.

At first I was grossly offended, thinking of myself as one of “those young people” but over time I realized that when she said “young people” she meant “everybody younger than her” and everybody younger than her is, well, everybody.

Her attitude is indicative of the deep frustration the Silent Generation has with everybody younger than them and every cultural development since 1960.  Although their lives have born witness to America’s rise to global dominance and they experienced the greatest economic prosperity the world has known, they are still a very bitter and hurting group of people, something Fox News has learned to market and use to make incredible amounts of money, but little actual “news.”

Still this generation experienced an amazing amount of comfort.  They worked 40 hour weeks for livable wages in strong institutions.  They were the first to have access to an ever growing industry of health care.  In fact if they were born just 20 years earlier they would all have passed away all ready.  As it is they are still alive and physically active.  They also were the first to buy easiness and comfort in the form of microwaves, televisions, personal computers and cell phones.

And yet, quite ironically, as a generation they are struggling with depression.

As comfortable as the world has become during their lives, it has also changed drastically and not always for the better.  They bought their televisions to watch “Leave it to Beaver” and “I Love Lucy.”  Now they turn on the TV and channel surf for hours trying to find something “wholesome,” only to be disgusted by the likes of “The Walking Dead” and “American Horror Story” and “Sons of Anarchy.” 1

The microwaves made cooking easy but it also made their children incredibly obese and, coupled with the cordless phones, gave many of them cancer.  Buying a car in their teens was a rite of passage.  Now their grandchildren and great grandchildren won’t buy cars and many won’t get driver’s licenses because of things like “pollution” and “high gas prices.”

They also spent their lives working for institutions that are crumbling around them, whether they be billion dollar corporations, local plants and mills, mom and pop shops or even Christian congregations.

More than that their children (late Baby Boomers and early Gen Xers) have mostly rebelled against their values.  After all it is their children who are watching “The Walking Dead,” microwaving all their meals and championing the anti pollution causes.  It is also the Baby Boomers who are in power while most of the institutions collapse.

Hence my wonderful congregant’s consistent complaints about “those young people.”  She grew up in an idealistic world but somehow couldn’t sell the idealism to her children and grandchildren and their friends.  And now as their eyesight dims and their hearing fades and their bones begin to crack, the Silent Generation finds it difficult to stay optimistic.

My first exposure to Christians in the Silent Generation was actually through my wife.  She worked in a once great women’s ministry that was founded in 1935 and over the 20th century netted millions of dollars and just as many members.  But currently this ministry is struggling to stay afloat and reinvent itself for the new world.  The average age of my wife’s coworkers was 62 and the work environment tended towards toxic.  The average conversation centered around “the hostile, evil, liberal culture” and “those young people who are destroying everything.”

As my wife and I reflected on the bitterness and rage of these older women, I realized that underlying all that frustration was a deep sadness.

They grew up in a simple world that made sense.  If you worked hard you made money.  If you saved you earned.  There were only two super powers on the world stage and the enemy had a face and a name.  Their values were absolute and most people agreed with them, even though they couldn’t sell them to their children.

All of that has now changed and change implies loss as much as it does gain.

Therefore the Silent Generation is a generation in mourning.

They are currently in deep despair because they just don’t understand what has become of their utopia.  In light of this, I have found it is not my job to argue with them or defend “those young people.”   It is not my duty to rage against the world they called a utopia (although as I have argued elsewhere, it was anything but).  It is not my right to try to defend the values and decisions of their children and grandchildren.  It is not even my responsibility to tell them to “get over it” and accept this brand new world, even though doing so is in certainly in their best interests.  It isn’t even beneficial to use high brow academic words (like “post enlightenment” and “paradigm shift”) to articulate for them what has happened.  Those words mean nothing to them and I found that when they do understand them they just get angrier.

Instead as with all pastoral care to the grieving it is simply my job to be silent for the silent generation.  I endeavor to be slow to speak and quick to listen.  And I hope to listen in ways that will help them process and articulate their emotions and fears and frustrations.

The stages of grief come into play here as well.  As a generation they got stuck at the anger stage, though some are still bargaining and others are just plain depressed.  As their pastors and counselors we should be helping them negotiate their way to acceptance and to hope.  I have been able to pull this off with a precious few and the results have been magnanimous.  Instead of getting together to lament the world that was and rage against the world that is, they get together to work towards a better world to be.

Certainly keeping them hopeful is no easy task, especially as their bodies and minds begin to fail.  But I am optimistic that careful attention to their grief can free them to enjoy the last few years of their lives as they head to eternity.

Becoming Multi Generational to Save the Multi Generational

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The Cross Country season ended last Friday and this week finds me working from home so that my 2 year old daughter can work on her potty training.

While at home I am reading a book that compares and contrasts ways of doing youth ministry.  I will write a fuller review of that book on Friday (hopefully).  I am also pulling together our annual All Saint’s Day service and working on a sermon for the following Sunday on 1st Corinthians 9.  All of these have me thinking cross-generationally.  Cross Country led to many great insights about today’s youth that will certainly inform my reading of the youth ministry book.  Our All Saints Day service has me thinking about the wonderful contributions of the elderly who have passed away recently.  And 1st Corinthians Chapter 9 contains every evangelist’s and missionary’s favorite Bible verses that certainly relate to the age groups:

To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.1

Over the last 2 and a half of years I have endeavored to become old to save the old and young to save the young and middle aged to save the middle aged.  This has not been easy but it has been beneficial.

The reality is that in the last 80 or so years the world has changed substantially.  For one example, the oldest members of my congregation remember buying their first refrigerators.  Those slightly younger remember their first televisions.  The middle aged remember that first microwave.  I remember my first computer while the teens and kids remember their first tablets and smart phones.

Of course technology is only one way to illustrate the change.  I could also talk about the changing family structures, the changing geopolitical borders and the changing of language itself.

In fact within a month of starting my pastorate I had a conversation with a Baby Boomer where he annoyed me by complaining about Bill Clinton who apparently made us more vulnerable to an attack by Russia.  I spent a lot of time wondering why he cared so much and why I was so annoyed about it.

In the end I realized that Russia was not the bad guy when I was growing up, except in James Bond movies and even James Bond spent more time befriending them than killing them.  However in the world of my older friend, the Russians were enemy number 1 and any show of weakness to them was enough to discount an entire 8 years of Clinton’s Presidency.  (Well that and the extra marital affairs)

That realization, that my world was incredibly different than my older parishioners, has led down many rabbit trails of small discoveries.   Another “aha” moment came when I realized none of my board members were getting my emails because they only check their emails once a month.  On the other end of the age spectrum, I also noticed the young adults and teens were ignoring my emails because email is for Spam.  Snapchat and Instagram are for meaningful connections and Facebook is as antiquated to them as VCR’s are to me.

All of these examples are illustrations of what sociologists call “the cohort theory.”  That theory simply claims that it is easier to categorize and understand someone based off of the year they were born over against where they were born and who they were born too.

It should go without saying that “The Cohort Theory” has its limitations.  For example, I have also discovered that a love of firearms extends across generational lines in my town but if you travel to the nearest city the hatred of such is multi-generational.  More than that, marks of adult maturity (budgeting, work ethic, control of addictions, emotional health, etc) seem to be easier to categorize by family, not by age or region.

Still, in a world that has changed remarkably over 100 years, there is great value in understanding people based off of their generation.  By comparing and contrasting the different age groups in my community I have found more practical applications than I anticipated.

So this post is the introduction to a week long series about learning to be old to save the old and young to save the young while also giving the middle aged their due.  Along the way I will recount my discoveries in attaining a local phone number so the elderly will believe I belong here, learning what this Instagram thing is all about, trying to understand Baby-boomer cynicism without becoming cynical and putting together Powerpoints that entice the young without letting the old know how addicted to technology I am.

Spoiler Alert: I have learned the cartoon-y the Powerpoint the better.  Also make fun of them some of the time but not ALL of the time.

See you all tomorrow where I will discuss becoming Silent to save the Silent Generation.

How the Internet Taught Me to Like Teenagers

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Internet lists ruin my life.  For example I was recently looking at a list of the best video games of all time and Final Fantasy 6 wasn’t even in the top ten.  That annoyed me.  Another list said “Inception” wasn’t even in the top 50 movies of all time and that angered me.  Still another list said that the worst Star Trek movie was “Star Trek 5” and.  .  .I actually agree with that.

Still my lovely wife recently showed me another list of church sayings that supposedly get us young types (millenials they call us) all bent out of shape.  Being a Millenial pastor, I eagerly clicked on the link and revved up my righteous indignation drive, sure I was going to agree with the author on all accounts.  I quickly perused the article getting ready to yell a hearty amen and pump my fist in the air as the author called us out on all 5 dumb churchy sayings.

Holding my fist poised by the side of my head, I read the first paragraph which told me I should hate the words, “The Bible clearly says.  .  .” and, to my delight, I do hate that phrase, despite the fact that I use it quite often to prove my point about what the Bible clearly teaches.  Still, people who disagree with me about the Bible’s clear teaching shouldn’t say that, especially if they aren’t a Millenial.  So I belted out, “Aaaaaa-mmmeeeennn!” while pumping my fist multiple times.

With my fist hanging victoriously over my head, I read the second phrase “God will never give you more than you can handle.”  Here my fist dropped a little because while I seldom use this phrase, I do hear it a lot and it has never annoyed me.  But I got to thinking that maybe that phrase isn’t nearly as true as people claim and that maybe not everything in life does come from God, like cancer or tornadoes or dumb internet lists that don’t recognize Final Fantasy 6 for the greatness it is.  I was starting to feel reflective instead of indignant.

With my fist un-clenching, I read paragraph 3 where the internet told me I couldn’t “love on” anybody, especially youth groups and young adults (of which I am one).  This was perplexing because over the last two years I have been trying to start ministries for both teenagers and young adults at my church.  In exasperation I would call my former youth pastors, describe to them the teens and adults in my community, and ask the age old question, “What do I do?!?!”

And they would reply with one phrase, “love on ’em.”  At the time I knew exactly what they meant and so went about the business of loving on ’em, which in practice took the form of saying “hi” to them at the park and in the grocery store and asking them, “how are you?” and pretending to care when they answered.  Then I would go home and check off another “loved on person” in my notebook.

In fact I got so good at “loving on ’em” that they sometimes felt loved enough to ask me questions about God and the Bible.  Occasionally they felt so loved upon that they would ask me to fill out reference forms for college scholarships and summer jobs.  I was that good.  It was like I had a Masters in Loving On ‘Em instead of a Masters in Divinity.  In fact, I was so confident in my loving skills that when the lousy internet told me as a Millenial I should be offended by that phrase, I nearly broke down crying.

Because, here is the thing, the internet is right.  “Loving on” is degrading and insulting and a bit creepy.  It is a cheesy and ridiculous sentiment and people my age and younger can see right through fake sentiments to the arrogance which feeds them.  They want nothing to do with those types of adults.  And the reason “love on ’em” took off as a church phrase is that us evangelical Christians have a fair share of pride hiding behind our sentimentalism.  Those who grew up in the church really believe today’s youth (churched and unchurched) are worthless and the only way to make them worthwhile is to “love on ’em” which really means, “throw love down to them from our position of superiority.”

But the youth I work with aren’t worthless.  Surely, they have their unique set of difficulties like abusive homes and the drug scene.  I also wish most of them were not as sexually active as they are and they also struggle to connect with each other.  But behind their brave facades and smart phones, they are quite likable.  They have interesting hobbies, kind personalities, wonderful humor, and a hearty work ethic.  They care about their families and friends, even if they don’t always know how to show it.  They want to succeed and do well in a world where arrogant adults are stacking the chips against them.  In fact, the more I get to know the young adults and youth in our community, the more I find that God has been at work in their lives long before I met them.  In fact, that echoes the title of this website, “Go-Before Grace” which eludes to “Prevenient Grace” which goes before us.

It isn’t enough to love on them, as if they needed our proud pity.  Instead we should be kind and compassionate and bear with them in love (in fact, the Bible clearly says that.)  To me, this means coming alongside them, enjoying their presence, listening to their joys, cares and concern and choosing to walk through life with them no matter what.

I think this is relevant because the churches I have been a part of are saturated with the types that want to “save the youth” and not always in the theological sense.  These are the people who volunteer for youth group so that they can throw down the love that will “teach them respect” and show them how to “work hard” and convince them to “stop taking drugs.”  But the youth I work with are plenty respectful, work harder than most adults I know and not all of them do drugs.

I hurt for the churches who let those adults near their teenagers.  These proud teen sponsors are doing way more harm by “loving on ’em” than the world has all ready done.  And I would venture a guess that the particularly troubled youth and young adults among us never had anybody in their life who liked them for who they were.

So instead of “loving on ’em” I want to just like them.  This might look like laughing at their jokes and listening to their songs and hearing their opinions and sharing their pain.  All of that might be a good deal harder than just saying “hi, how ya doing?” at the park.  It might take a whole lot of time and effort and resources and I definitely will feel a fair amount of pain myself, but it just might pay off in the end.

So thank you internet lists for ruining my life again.  The world really is better for it.