A volunteer at their church dropped off copies of last Sunday’s sermon with my father-in-law, asking him to bring a few to their neighbors in the assisted living apartments, neighbors who were also church members.
Because he couldn’t leave mom alone, I volunteered to bring around the stapled stacks of paper.
I don’t write out sermons. No one could ever bring my notes to the people who couldn’t come to church. Our generation has turned to the podcast and the Facebook live, and it, too, is good. But different, and not offered hand to hand by someone whose hands you know.
The walk down the hallway should have been simple. Efficient. Quick. Until I started noticing the peoples’ doors.
Each apartment came with a small table next to the door in the hallway. Some tables had the generic items. Flowers. Easter decorations. The predictable duel of Vikings-versus-Packers memorabilia common in certain parts of the upper Midwest.
But some stood out.
I lingered near a corner table covered with an antique globe and some clearly foreign pieces of memory. A bronze elephant. A sliver of driftwood. An embossed puzzle piece, and others. Who lived here? Where had they obtained their treasures? What stories could they tell?
A lover of travel, I wanted to knock on the door. What would they tell me of their life before this small apartment and limited mobility? What corners of the earth had they seen? What had they learned? What did I need to know before I, too, came to live in a place where my globe-circling days were likely complete?
I can’t imagine them ever being complete, yet here sits the concrete evidence that this occurs.
I stopped at a wall that held photos of sailing ships. This table held a rusted item I couldn’t identify but which was clearly part of life on a boat. Above them hung a title that simply claimed—Captain Ron.
Captain Ron lived behind this door, and of what was he still captain? I wanted to know.
I wanted to know Captain Ron. Wanted to hear his stories. I wanted to see the photos of the places he’d been,feel the spray of salt water and cool wind as I listened to his tales. I knew I’d like Captain Ron. How could I not, with my addiction to salt water places? He knew them, so many more than I did, and I wanted to see them through his memory.
I noted the music enthusiast with the sense of humor. (“Bach later. Offenbach before.”) My sons-in-law would love an hour with him, trading bad music puns and laughing in cadence.
I stood at the lighthouse painting, wondering if the person had, like me, an ambition to see ALL the lighthouses, and how far that ambition had been fulfilled.
Walking between doors, I began to take photos. These things on the tables and walls had been chosen. When all of their long lives had to be reduced to a small apartment and a few trinkets on a table, it seemed to me that what they chose had to be immensely important.
What would I choose?
If I had to define my entire life to strangers in a hallway, what would I choose?
One of my stained glass crosses? A garden trowel? Certainly a photo of our family, and probably one of us somewhere exploring the world, learning about other people and learning about ourselves, and almost certainly a goofy one. A stack of Lord of the Rings, Les Miserables, and Pride and Prejudice, all together, as if they’re inviting another read? I’m not sure how many reads are left in the copies I have. Perhaps by then I will have found out. Maybe a beautiful pen to signify writing, because really, who’s going to look at an old laptop and feel as if it’s life art?
I don’t know. I know it’s good to think about it now, though. To think about the race’s end and what I want to leave as the mark of who I was. If I don’t think now, I might not become that person I want to downsize to a nightstand-size table and a few square feet on a wall.
I can see, from the walls, that the stories of those people mattered. They still matter. It probably wasn’t great the heroic deeds that mattered, though. It was the rolling waves and the spray in the faces of Captain Ron’s family and friends. It was the tossing lures into the water for walleye together. It was the 369 steps up the lighthouse with your kids, urging one another on and proving that together you were better than standing alone.
Those are the stories. The stories, as Sam Gamgee says, that mean something.
Photo by Paulius Dragunas on Unsplash Photo by Rebecca Aldama on Unsplash
This is what I get when I type “loyalty” into the search. Dogs and Starbucks. Sounds about right.
I looked up “loyalty” in my photos site, and I got Starbucks and dogs. Sounds about right.
The fourth, and likely-final-but-you-never-know, conversation between generations regarding the church, faith, and how we can put it all together.
What does it take to create loyalty?
Jill: We talked about loyalty last week. But the conversation is unfinished. What key elements do you need in a church to feel it’s your home? To want to be loyal to it?
Emily: What do Millennials want to feel loyal to church? Community. We want to be accepted as we are, which can be good and bad. Everyone wants a community they can belong to, though. We just need to make it clear that this is a community that goes both ways, and that while we accept everyone, we also push everyone to look at issues in their lives, and it’s difficult to do this without sounding unwelcoming.
Jill: When we Boomers talk about loyalty to a church body, we are also talking community. The two are not separable to us. The church we are in is our community.
“Community” may be your new buzzword. Yet almost all the Boomers I’ve talked to in my research also cited it as an important value in church. Everyone wants that family feeling. But if you’re not feeling it, either we’re doing it wrong, or that word doesn’t mean what we think it means.
Emily: Mandatory Princess Bride reference.
A huge value of our generation when looking for a church is “Does it feel friendly?” Companionship, social events, comfort, friendship, welcome. The Boomers I interviewed all mentioned as important church considerations. Basically, I think we all hope to find our best friend at church. We all hope to fit in there and find people we can be like, talk to easily, and rely on in times of need.
We still operate under smaller circles of interaction than you do. Yes, we are on Facebook, at least some of us, but we do not really have the global “families” that you do. Ours are closer to home. We still look to our nearest outlets for friends and companionship. The family comes first. Work is often second. Somewhere in there, the church is a consideration, especially if the family doesn’t work out the way we had hoped. And when we go there, we seek an atmosphere like that iconic TV show of the 80’s, Cheers—a place where everybody knows your name.
Emily: Never heard of it.
Jill: Never actually watched it. But—those younger than us found the same thing in Friends. The difference was, in Cheers, they still went home to family in the end. In Friends, those people were the family. A not so subtle shift.
In an era when family was fracturing, before we began to redefine it, Boomers were left trying to figure out whom they could rely on if new mobility led them far away from their families of origin or outside forces strained their marriages. Not surprisingly, churchgoers developed a strong reliance on church to fill that need.
So community is a huge issue for both generations. A defining value. But I suspect you would define it differently than we have. I wonder if you would delineate a difference between friendship and community. And—I think you would be right to do so.
Emily: Well, you’re right about Friends in some regard. The concept behind Friends is independence and community outside of immediate family—a building of a chosen family. It’s odd that the show is called Friends, then, instead of family. Perhaps it’s because all of the main characters have messed up relationships with their actual family, and so the Central Perk regulars decide to hold Friendship up to a higher standard than their memories with Family.
Jill: Most Boomers, like Millennials, say that they yearn for a place to be real, to tell the truth and be accepted with their messy lives. But again, you aren’t getting that vibe from us. Truth is, I don’t either, so something is clearly more important to Boomers than the genuineness we claim to want as much as you do.
I think perhaps it’s because we value safety even more. Where you find it safe to be among peers telling true tales, we find it safe to pull in privately and keep our stories to ourselves.
Where your response to a frightening, unpredictable world is to say “What the heck, let’s go kayak a waterfall, it’s all the same,” ours was to wall ourselves off and play Risk with our lives, strategizing political and social moves to protect our territory (while preferably expanding it). So those values of authenticity and community? We like the sound of them, but we want to define the terms.
Emily: As a Risk enthusiast, may I just say this is game usually ends in multiple people upset and one winner lording it over everyone else. Until the next game. When everyone gangs up on the last winner.
Jill: Our version of community in the 80’s revolved around this concept of separation from society and formation into our own subculture. We had community—insofar as we had it with people just like ourselves. Unfortunately, this leads not only to a lack of communication with or even comprehension of people not just like ourselves. I think we’re reaping what we’ve sown there right now.
It also generates a fake community where people pretend to be what they are not and believe what they doubt in order not to be voted off the island.
Emily: Because of what we fear, we value honesty. We don’t understand why we can’t admit–-at least to friends-–to having problems. Isn’t that what the point of a friendship is? Sure, there are going to be people we’re totally fake with because we kind of hate them and kind of want them to leave us alone. But true friends should be allowed into our ugly cry souls.
Jill: When your community and friendships are all composed of people like you, stepping out of line is terrifying. Ugly crying? We’re afraid of that. What if we’re found out as imposter perfect Christians?
We insulated ourselves into our Christian bubble in the last century. Then we reaped the consequences of living in that bubble, where any suggestion that one might not have the perfect Christian life could threaten to pop our secure atmosphere.
So we value friendly—but we value MYOB even more. We want friends to do church events with, but we don’t want too much intimacy. We’re afraid of vulnerability, and you don’t appear to have those issues.
So both generations long for someone to really know us and yet fear that knowing could threaten our fragile community. It’s more threatening to us, because our communities are smaller and less fluid than yours.
The Boomers are good at facade. I guess the Millennials are too, judging by Facebook. You are the masters at a public versus private persona. The difference is, I think we were supposed to believe that they were the same thing. We were really supposed to be in private what we were in public. And heaven help us if what we were in public was not the perfect image of a Christian family. For a generation that had studied the family so intensely and vowed to protect it above all else, to admit ours was a mess? God knows that just wasn’t done.
Hence, authenticity is a church issue with deep roots.
This is the third installment in our conversation about church, the next generation, and where the two do (or don’t) meet.
Jill: Let’s talk values. I suspect that at the core of some dissatisfaction between the generations is a difference in basic values. What we might have considered super-important you might not. Abortion comes to mind—a huge, perhaps the hugest, issue for my age group, is more nuanced for you, and there are other values that drive your votes and activism.
What do you value most?
Emily: Millennials value efficiency. I have been called into my boss’ office multiple times to fix what, to any 30 year old or younger, would take less than two minutes to figure out. But this technology is “too much for them to understand.” It’s only gonna get harder to figure out, honey. Better start now.
Oddly paired with technological efficiency, we also value seamlessness and minimalism. Not the sleek black and white minimalist tendencies of the early 2000’s; our minimalism focuses on eliminating obsolete technology and apps quickly and–-you guessed it–-efficiently.
We are ruthless. If an app has a bug, developers have a set amount of time to fix it before users get frustrated and bored and move on to find something better. That amount of time is not long. Except for a few staples (banks, Facebook, Twitter), an app will lose its novelty. And some staples might even be in trouble. When there is a multitude of options available to me, my loyalty is hard to buy.
Jill: Ah, loyalty. That dangerous word that sends shivers along the spines of many church leaders. Statistics and stereotypes say your generation is not loyal to institutions, brands—basically anything. True?
Emily: Millennials are not loyal. We like things that are nearby (to wherever we are), efficient, and culturally aware. If we are to stay with a brand, we want it to continually be evolving and changing as we do. I’m not sure, since I’m not a boomer, but it seems to me as if boomers value quality, communication, and privacy. I am less likely to go “shopping” around multiple places to find the right thing.
There are so many mediocre products that it doesn’t bother me to not have the best quality money can buy. That doesn’t appeal to me at all. I want easy, quick, and—if it fits—quality.
Jill: So, the opposite of your father.
Emily: Uuummmm . . . Now, I’ll do some research. I’ll know what brands to steer clear of for ethical reasons, what’s well made and in my price range. But I won’t narrow it down to one specific serial numbered product. I’ll probably pick a brand or two and go from there. Then it’s down to style and ease.
If one store offers free shipping and the other I have to go into the actual store, it’s a no brainer. Even if there’s a shipping fee, it still might be worth it, depending on the product.
Jill: So one of your values is also time? That goes with efficiency.
Emily: Time=Money has never been more true, and I’d rather have my time free than my money.
Jill: This loyalty thing, though, strikes one of our deepest fears – the rootlessness of the Millennials. You don’t believe in institutions and feel no loyalty to them. With that, though, comes danger. To toss out institutions—marriage, family, church, denomination, company—is to trash not just a thing you can replace but a history.
Yes, we have made a mess of some of those institutions. They are not what they ought to be. But to disregard them leaves you without a foundation. There’s nothing to build on except those dreams of yours and some crowdsourcing on the internet that told you you were probably right. Given the centuries of stability behind those institutions, that’s a rather paltry substitute for them.
Yes, you can retreat and wait for the ground to burn. But rebuilding will be far more difficult than you believe without any blueprints.
Emily: But I would say this is not necessarily a Millennial trait. It seems to me that many of the late Boomer/early Gen Xers are choosing kids or sports or highly held personal opinions over church community as well.
We just took it one step further, never fully connecting with any church community so that we could feel free to go off and not have anyone chase after us.
Jill: Personal experience as a pastor makes me say you are correct on this. I have watched it play out as our obsession with a child-centric culture, aided and abetted by a Christian culture that encouraged that value, allowed for abandoning church for family activities. We even tacitly gave it approval, implying that putting the family first was Biblical and healthy practice.
In real practice, what we have done is convinced our children that whatever they find valuable, be it sports, school, work, or sleeping in, has a viable right to precedence over the community expression of Christian faith.
This is a bit of what Kenda Creasy Dean says in her research,
“Teenagers tend to approach religious participation, like music and sports, as an extracurricular activity: a good, well-rounded thing to do, but unnecessary for an integrated life. Religion, the young people in (this study) concurred, is a ‘Very Nice Thing.’”
We modeled this, Boomers. And now we want to excoriate those kids when they grow up and take it to its logical conclusion. We told you connection and worship was important, but we did not model it. And as your generation is wont to do, you stood back, asked “why?,” and shrugged it off.
Emily: It’s weird. The word “Christian” is hard to connect to because we don’t remember how to use it as a noun. Christian schools, Christian life, Christian values, the Christian Community. The word stimulates a mental image of a maple syrup glaze under which hypocrisy and pride intermingle.
Christ-followers. I don’t know who coined it, but let’s get on board with that.
Jill: I like that a lot. We’ve used it as an adjective when it was meant to be who we are.
But I’m going to push farther.
I’m not convinced that a new paradigm is going to be the answer, either. When will it get old? When will new terminology be old terminology? When will a new time become an old one? I suppose you’ll tell me it will, and I should not count on anything lasting for long anymore. But it’s so exhausting to think about so much change all the time. Plus, when is it just novelty for its own sake?
Trying a new way when you’re talking about architecture or medicine or a sushi restaurant is one thing. It’s another when you’re thinking about something as foundational to human existence as family or Christianity.
Your generation’s need to reinvent excites us when it’s dealing with hunger. It frightens us to the core when you’re reinventing doctrines and beliefs based on little more than what your peers say they prefer to believe.
We do want to see loyalty to the church, with a capital ‘C’ and without, because we know that’s your tie to historical stability. In the discussion of value differences between Boomer and Millennials, this is huge.
This is what frustrates Boomers. We don’t see you making the kind of commitment to a church body that we believe is necessary. Yes, maybe a commitment to Jesus, or belief, or some hazy thing called “spirituality.” But to the flesh and blood motley group we call our church family? Not so much. They seem as interchangeable to you as fast food joints and as unnecessary as a VCR.
Emily: I think the problem is that we don’t see it as different than choosing a new sushi place. I mean, ok, in some regard yes, we do. But, as you’ve already pointed out, we have a hard time committing.
I don’t think we have a problem with loyalty. We just don’t want to be loyal to something only to find out it wasn’t what we expected. We want to take pride in what we commit to, and it scares us to think that if we commit to something and it ends up doing something wrong, that we might be held accountable. We don’t like the idea that we can be held accountable for an action not done by us, but by a community we believe in. It makes us feel like we don’t know how to discern what is important or right, and it makes us more unlikely to trust the next thing to come along.
Jill: So for the church to earn your loyalty, it has to be a little more like TOMS shoes – you know where your money is going, you see transparently what they do with it (sort of), and you can morally get behind those values? You’re even willing to invest a little more than you normally would because you are proud to be associated with that company?
Emily: Sure. And there has to be continuity in behavior but also a willingness to try new things—for instance, TOMS isn’t just shoes, anymore. It’s expanded to sunglasses, bags, and backpacks, too, each with a different mission. It hasn’t put aside studies that show the importance of local economy and it works to build relationships within each community it provides for. As far as I am aware, back in 2006 it was just a fun startup that sent shoes to kids. The company has learned and changed and become more aware of the people around it.
That is what the church needs to do. Theology studies should come from theologians and ministers, but those studies that rely on society must come from that sphere first. This could even mean taking ideas from (gasp!) secular writers.
Jill: Or, gasp, mothers and daughters (or any women) with random (well-researched and intelligent) musings.
In early April, we started a discussion between me and my daughter on the church, the generational divide, and world peace.
Not really that last one. But it sounded good. In a good lead-in to Mother’s Day, we then talked about what we appreciate about one another’s generation. Now, the saga continues.
What Are We Teaching Our Kids???
Jill: Let’s talk about the idea that we don’t really have to worry about the next generation returning to church. You will, as every generation has done before you, come back after a requisite season of rebellion.
I’m a little concerned about that laissez-faire attitude for a few reasons.
First of all, church is increasingly not a core value in our society, or in your generation. Being a good person and showing love are what it’s all about. Unfortunately, those values are divorced from a foundation in knowing God, largely because we Boomers in the church have taught that being good is the goal. We’ve told you that Jesus wants you to be good, when really Jesus wants you to be his.
Rules versus relationship.
According to that flawed theology, “praying the prayer” and leading a good life are the elements of being a Christian. Not surprisingly, younger generations have latched on to leading a good life and largely dispensed with the praying the prayer part. It sounds like magical thinking to you, and there is therefore no need for it in your efficient, ethics-based world.
Will you really, like the Terminator, will be back?
Emily: Did they have children’s ministries when you guys were kids? When did Sunday School in the modern sense become a thing? I mean the time when it just became a place that kids were sent because otherwise they would be bored or would cause a disruption or wouldn’t understand what was going on.
That’s where your “do good” stems from. “Be good for mommy, and daddy, and Jesus, too.” True and simplistic as it might be, it lacks action. It lacks depth. It lacks roots.
So, yeah, you’re right. Without the roots leading us back to the church, we can go off and do more than we ever got to in Sunday School (or Children’s Ministry, if it’s a hip new church) and without the restraints of the church to tell us who or what to do good for. It leaves us in control over how we use our resources.
Jill: Well, I remember my parents sending me up the street to Sunday School. I vaguely recall something about a guy in a blue robe involving lots of flannel.
According to Christian History, the original philanthropic Sunday Schools always had an aspect of religious education, as they used the Bible for learning to read and write. They also imported moral behavior into the curriculum. When the government established mandatory public education in the 1870’s, churches moved to teaching solely Christian doctrine and behavior rather than general education.
Given that Rational Theory (i.e., human society is perfectable through the use of reason) still coursed through the church’s veins at the time, moral education would certainly have been the focus. Be good for mommy, daddy, and Jesus, indeed, has a long history.
Sally Lloyd-Jones, author of The Jesus Storybook Bible, laments the present disinterest in church among children she has interviewed:
“These are children in Sunday schools who know the Bible stories. These are children who probably also know all the right answers — and yet they have somehow missed the most important thing of all. They have missed what the Bible is all about. It is a picture of what happens to a child when we turn a story into a moral lesson. When we drill a Bible story down into a moral lesson, we make it all about us. . . . When we tie up the story in a nice neat little package, and answer all the questions, we leave no room for mystery. Or discovery. We leave no room for the child. No room for God.” –Sally Lloyd-Jones
So she seems to be saying what you are. We need to start young to let children explore the Bible story — not simple or simplistic Bible stories, but the entirety of the Big Story. We need to let them ask questions, see how the smaller stories, and their story, fit into God’s big picture, and give them something to do about it now.
Emily: I mean, I wouldn’t recommend certain stories from the Bible told straight up to four year olds (Jezebel comes to mind). But when the Bible becomes a tool or vehicle with which to deliver a human-devised moral, it not only puts God in a box, it puts us into a box too. And that box can get kind of constricting as we grow, until finally we break out and, believing the box itself is religion, we walk away, refusing to ever be constrained again.
Jill: There’s this book by some lady where she says something like this.
“Research tells us that 75 percent of young people in our churches today will leave them when they leave home. Why? Because they increasingly believe that church is irrelevant to their daily lives and out of touch with the culture. In other words, they don’t see the point. And in ever-busier lives, everything we spend our time on has to have a point.
What would happen if, instead, our churches taught kids from the time they could walk that they were ministers? That they were the hands and feet to make the church relevant? That the ends of the earth weren’t as far away or impossible to impact as they thought? I truly believe we could turn those statistics upside down.” –Jill Richardson, Don’t Forget to Pack the Kids
Emily: Blatant self-promotion.
Jill: Yeah. But I completely agree with you. Teaching kids to “do good” divorced from the grand story of why only creates people who know how to follow rules. Once they internalize those rules, who needs the church to continue doing good? You can cut loose from the strings now that you know the rules. Plus, you can create your own rules. Christian education has got to be about a connection to the story more than a moral to it.
Emily: But the box isn’t God. I think we worry that if we try to teach kids God as God is, that their heads are going to explode. Or maybe our heads will explode if we have to start thinking of God as God is.
Jill: So if we want future generations to stay in church, we need to start connecting them to the whole gospel, and the whole God. We need to teach them how being Christian isn’t about rules and being good but about the entire creation to redemption story of why we are trying to do good things and what our role is in the story.