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.

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.