I learned a new phrase this week—“New marriage imposter syndrome.” I’m very familiar with the last two words, but not in the context of marriage. When explained to me, though, I understood the concept perfectly.
“It’s when you wonder who let someone your age make such an adult decision as getting married.” (Reader, it doesn’t matter what age you actually are.)
I remember that devastating crash of doubt the day after I got married. I assumed I was the only one who’d ever felt it. It’s not great to begin married life believing you’re an awful wife for momentarily thinking you might have made a terrible mistake. I’m glad we can name it now and let newly married people know it’s normal.
Imposter syndrome is real in most areas of life. It’s well documented in the workplace, especially affecting high-achieving women. (Although some current research suggests maybe it’s not the women who have the problem but the workplace. Finally.)
It happens to parents. We wonder—Who let me walk out the hospital with this little creature? I don’t know the first thing about what to do with one of these! It doesn’t let up. We’ll spend the rest of our lives second-guessing our ability to help a child grow into a happy, healthy adult and beyond. Pastors question ourselves on the regular. Christians are sure God loves us but not at all positive God likes us very much.
Usually, this is hurtful nonsense. But I’m going to flip this thing a little bit.
What if, despite the very real detrimental effects it can have, imposter syndrome isn’t wholly bad?
Perhaps a little bit of understanding that we’re not able to do all this (whatever all this is) on our own is, dare I say, a healthy thing? Maybe it’s women who are in the right of it when we doubt our capability and believe we need to crowdsource rather than the men who (statistically) are certain they are the right man for whatever job they want to do.
When I officiated our daughter’s wedding two weeks ago, I asked the guests to stand as they pledged themselves to help the new couple through the joys and sorrows of their relationship and their faith. It’s a sacred pledge, and I wanted them to recognize that. We’re used to thinking of our marriages as “our own business.” Americans are used to thinking of anything that touches their lives in any way as their own business.
In reality, life is a communal event. Because we’re not any of us old enough to make life’s most important decisions on our own. It’s taken me so long to accept that.
When God said it wasn’t good for humans to be alone, God was making more of a statement about community than marriage. It wasn’t whole, in order, good for humans to be on their own.
Maybe we all need simultaneously to be standing and saying “Yes, I will help you through this thing called life—I will be your people” and also seeking that input from others with all our hearts.
Yes, the church has failed egregiously when we’ve been too intrusive in others’ lives. There is a correction and complement that seeks a self-righteous “I told you so.” We’ve witnessed the delving into someone else’s privacy that cuts wounds with its veneer of holiness. Too often, church leaders have sought to be the authority in believers’ lives without the vulnerable posture of fellow pilgrims. Too often, we’ve been happy to tell others they weren’t qualified to run their own lives and we were. We need to repent and lament that pride.
The true community of believers—those who will cheer us on us when we’re capable and shore us up when we’re not—has become a unicorn. So rare as to be a rumor one has heard of but doesn’t quite believe in. It wouldn’t be a rumor, though, if it didn’t exist. Ive seen it. I see it in our church. I see it among online believers. I see it in house churches and small groups of straggling pilgrims who’ve decided they’re not church but are working together toward being something.
The people who are there for us when we admit we feel like imposters in this world. They tell us—yes, you are. We all are. Every one of us. But it’s OK. We’ll get there, together.
Imposter syndrome isn’t all bad. Let’s let it lead us to our need for others.
Well yes, I do chase waterfalls. Scrambling over wet rocks, climbing higher in spray, jumping down them to solid ground below—that was my perfect road trip afternoon for most of my life.
These days, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome exacts a painful price if I try that. Every step on uneven terrain has potential for a turned ankle or a fall. I climb and descend—but slowly, carefully, watching every single foot placement and evaluating the next one for security. Recovery for a mistake takes far longer now than it did when I could jump up and dust off the skid marks from my backside.
It’s slow. It’s not the joyful abandon of earlier days. I sometimes can’t appreciate the vista around me for the attention to detail below me. But it’s reality, and ignoring reality isn’t wise for anyone, regardless of natural ability.
On our September trip to five national parks out west, I learned this again and again. Watch where you’re going. Calculate where your steps will lead. Be ready if the footing shifts.
I don’t like it. It’s not my personality. I think, though, it’s a good lesson.
It’s Not Just Hiking
This process describes most of my life as a church leader, too. I used to have no worries about scurrying down the hill, quickly sidestepping roadblocks, creating plans B and C on the way.
“Throw is at the wall and see what sticks.”
“Don’t be afraid to fail.”
“Just do it.”
I’m not suggesting these outlooks are wrong. They served me well. One of the things I wish young people believed more was that failing is not fatal. Having the courage to let go of control would benefit more church leaders and their people.
It’s just that perhaps, some of us are in a different time now as leaders—whether of churches, families, organizations, or volunteer brigades. Maybe those of us who have been up and down the waterfall a few times have a different job. Maybe it’s our calling now to proceed with more caution.
Experience Teaches Something about Jumping
A jump is a commitment. I tended to make those commitments before. Now, I’m more cautious, knowing there are perils I can’t see until I’m balancing on the rock. Perhaps in lieu of jumping higher right now, It’s my call to look down.
I have the experience to yell back to others—
“Hey, that rock has some solid spots, but don’t put both feet there. Stay aware of its weaknesses. Be ready for when it lets you down.”
“You can choose that route, but you won’t recover from a fall from that path. You’ll wash out at the bottom. Stronger than you have tried.”
“You’re in the weeds. I know it looks like there isn’t a path because pain or confusion has covered what you thought you knew. But there are footholds there that will hold you. I know this. I’ve been held.”
“You can do this. The reward is worth it. Keep going!”
The trail has been blazed for those coming behind me with leaps and skids, with triumphant sprays of joy and frightening slides. Now could be my time to create a different path. One that makes clear where the footing is solid and won’t fail beneath. A path that shows where and wh
A call from my place of experience that says, yes, there are dozens of ways to get up and down these rocks, but don’t put all your faith in one outcropping, and don’t forget there is solid footing to which you can always return.
Now I’m looking ahead enough before every step to instinctively know when recovery will be too difficult if I choose one direction, when one path will get me to the goal albeit slower, and what my limits are either way.
It’s my turn to travel slowly, deliberately, and wisely, knowing the leapers and jumpers behind me may choose other routes, but they will know, from what I’ve laid out, where sure footing lies. They can return to it. It will hold.
Hearing someone describe the sport of cricket reminds me of Dr. Seuss’ grinch kvetching about Christmas morning chaos. “And they’ll play noisy games like zoozit and kazay, a rollerskate type of lacrosse and croquet!”
Mixing bats, balls, wickets, and bowling sounds like a sport that can’t make up its mind.
This means, by the way, that she spins the ball with the fingers of her left hand, attempting to trick a batter into believing the ball will strike the ground and bounce one way when it will, in fact, go quite the opposite direction. Spin bowlers rely on deception rather than speed (hence the addition of slow in the description) to strike out their opponents.
Why do I know this? I’m taking a Master writing class (veery slowly) from Malcolm Gladwell. He’s who I want to be when I grow up. The first assignment was to accept a randomly generated topic and write an article about it. My assigned topic? Rajeshwari Gayakwad.
You won’t be surprised I’d never heard of her, given my obvious knowledge of cricket. I thought—how can I write an article on this person and sport I don’t really know, or care, one bit about?
Then a funny thing happened. The more I read about her, the more interested I became in cricket. By the end of the article, I was googling world titles, country stats, and discrimination in India like I wanted to write a book on it.
I’d found commonalities with Raj. She also lost a parent very young. The feeling of responsibility that creates toward the surviving parent empowers her, while it nearly destroyed me.
She knows what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s profession. She understands far more than I do how a culture can work to hold women in their assigned places, even and especially talented, ambitious ones. Her defiant post— “I Was Told Cricket Is Not A Girl’s Game,” resonates with this woman who was told the same about pastoring.
She wants to make her profession better for the women who come after her, as do I.
A woman on the other side of the world suddenly mattered to me. Her success at playing cricket, inspiring girls, and buying her widowed mother a house mattered. It mattered because I had taken the time to learn about her, even when I thought it was a strange assignment on an uninteresting subject.
The correlations should not be lost on us.
First, there are a lot of people on the other side of the world right now in need of compassionate comprehension. The Afghan crisis is one that requires our attention, but it also requires our effort to learn before we begin to post ALL the opinions. As has been mentioned on twitter, it’s funny how many people suddenly pivoted from being epidemiologists to foreign policy experts.
That might mean listening to or reading the stories of refugees to find commonalities. Common ground brings out our compassion and our willingness to learn more. As losing a parent made me care about Raj more, so maybe discovering you share an occupation or a goal with a refugee can bridge the language and culture barriers. Driving Afghan refugees to doctor’s appointments gave me a window into how dangerous it was for them to assist the US military—and it gives me compassion and fire to do something now.
Before we dismiss the desperation of others we know nothing about, let’s delve into their stories so that we can find what makes us alike, not fear what doesn’t.
Another correlation is quite different—it’s in the face that we in the church show others. Hold onto your pearls—those who don’t go to church find some of our language—and even Bible stories!—quite odd and disconnected to their lives. It’s like the rules of cricket. Unintelligible words and rules that they don’t see a reason to care about and certainly don’t want to run afoul of.
Pastors, leaders, preachers—how can we make our speaking about the Bible make sense, and be interesting, to those for whom it’s a foreign language about an obscure sport?
In my monthly newsletter, I mentioned the Theology of Work Bible commentary—it takes the Scriptures and correlates God’s ideas about work to people today who are seeking meaning in what they do.
This summer in church, we studied Romans—and talked about the strong correlation between believers who judge and look down on one another then and now.
Bridging. Correlating. Creating connections that make people care about something they didn’t think they cared about.
This is good discipleship.
That’s our job as pastors, whether it’s teaching Scripture or teaching love of neighbor. We are given this task of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5.16-20) That’s what bridge-building is. It’s the work of the kingdom at hand.
Can we handle another opinion on Simone Biles? Spoiler—I follow gymnastics, having been a gym mom for years. My daughter follows it in extreme detail. We know all the sides. So I don’t come to this imbroglio as an armchair pundit, and I come with zero tolerance for criticism of this courageous woman.
I do come, though, with a conviction that Ms. Biles, and the discussion following her decision to withdraw from competition, mirror a debate in our Christian culture over what strength is and who defines it.
I posted this inquiry on twitter—one I didn’t expect to get so much discussion.
The answer appears to be circular. Boys don’t go into it because our culture holds up football as the ultimate goal for male fame. Basketball is good second option for popularity.
Sports and Other Things
When boys don’t choose a sport, funds for it go down in the most important arenas of training. As kids don’t see any heroes emerge in those sports, fewer find them interesting. Especially when they’re as difficult as gymnastics with excruciatingly slow gains. And the cycle perpetuates itself.
Even as we had the mild debate, some declared—“Boys just prefer contact sports. They’re wired for it.” Are they? Or is it that our culture refuses to value the things boys and men can do that don’t fall into the “manly” categories we’ve preassigned? This, obviously, doesn’t only apply to sports.
Is it coincidence that the people decrying Ms. Biles are mostly white men who want to replace her as GOAT with—other white men? Could there possibly be anything else going on there?
The debate rages in the church, most importantly for my, and I’m guessing your, purposes. What makes a person strong? How do we define courage? A large contingent of popular teachers want to answer those questions in a very unhealthy way.
Strength in the Church
Strength, to this demographic, means domineering, winning, ignoring personal pain, and refusing to value compassion. It’s the John Wayne paradigm, as Dr. Kristin DuMez has so perfectly explained. It’s what many of us have been listening to in CT’s podcast about Mars Hill.
This popular mindset in the church doesn’t only devalue a courageous gymnast. It’s more a symptom of a pervasive illness of which, sadly, conservative church men are usually the carriers. It devalues the Christlike perspective that gold medals and power and lack of self-examination don’t make you a whole human being.
Whole, shalom humanity comes from an entirely different kind of strength.
The kind that says “no” to winning when it would destroy your soul (or your body, family, etc)
The kind that chooses to walk away, when all of you wants to stay, if staying would violate who you are and what you need
The kind of strength that offers the opportunity to shine to someone else, when you could hoard that chance to yourself
The kind that chooses the good of the group over the glory for yourself
Strength that is willing to take the boos of the crowd rather than violate your conscience
Strength that sends a message to others that you are worth more than what you do
As most overwhelmingly support Ms. Biles, there is that contingent. That group that demands—if you won’t dance to the tune we play, you don’t deserve our praise. If you won’t conform to our definitions, we will replace you with someone who will. (Not surprisingly, a black woman never will be able to meet their definitions.)
As so many gratefully praise Simone for her courage, what if we do the same for our leaders in the church? What if we throw off those terrible, unhealthy definitions of strength, power, and courage, and embrace the path she has shown us? The path Christ showed us, long before this.
What if we begin to value choosing to go small rather than big? Giving away our power? Holding enough of ourselves back for our mental and physical health, our families, and our souls? Declaring that we are more than what we do, and everyone gets a chance to do what they do best?
Today the blog is devoted to the Introduction to my new book–Preaching in the Soundbite Age: How a Collaborative, Image Drawn, and Skeptical Generation Can Reshape Our Sermons. It’s a case for radically changing the way we preach and teach.
I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you will give me your feedback, or share my email signup link with someone you think could be interested!
The Christian life is a spiritual pilgrimage. It is a not a journey to a shrine which has limitations of space and time. It is a journey into life, a life so rich no limitation of space or time is able to contain it. But is this how we perceive the Christian life? We go to church, worship, study your Bible, etc. But where do they call for the high-adventure?
Francis DuBose, God Who Sends
The people in our churches are crying for the high adventure. They’re dying for it. Especially our young people. They might not know they want it, but they do. Behind the entertainment, the adrenaline-fueled Sunday morning gatherings, and the guaranteed-no-fail discipleship programs, people in our churches hunger for something they haven’t quite defined.
They hunger for participation, not spectatorship, in the kingdom of God. Once they’ve experienced it, they don’t want to return to the passive sidelines, watching their faith but not shaping it. They’ve found the joy of discovering what God is doing with and through them and living the process with their community. They want to know why no one has told them before that discipleship isn’t a program but an on-the-field, glove-in-hand team sport.
It’s not an easy sell.
Most worshipers are used to being fans in the stands, not players in the arena. They won’t warmly welcome a radical change in that plan. They aren’t going to be excited about taking the reins of their own spiritual growth—at first. They might be like the high school classes I taught years ago.
Used to sitting in their seats and listening to the teacher lecture about sonnets and Steinbeck, those teens looked at me like I had asked them to teleport to Neptune the first time I said, “What do you think?” The strange new teacher asked them questions instead of feeding them information. What was this sorcery?
Yet within a few days, those same students engaged in conversation about Shakespeare, voiced their opinion on Jonathan Swift, applied Jane Austen to their daily life,. and told me that classes had never been so interesting. I even had the rare privilege of a senior coming back to thank me for teaching her to think, thus getting her into her college of choice.
Pedagogy has known for decades what churches haven’t grasped—people learn, and change, when they engage and invest.
Monologue had created a dislike of literature and a distrust for its relevance in my students. What is it doing in our churches, where the stakes are far higher? The adaptive change necessary for preaching and teaching in a completely new way will take time, finesse, and patience. Do we want to be whipped by the potential backlash? Is the difficult work, both in crafting something new and in convincing people to accept it, worth the effort? Can we afford the possibility of attrition in a church already beset by loss?
Here’s the more important question to ask:
Can we afford not to?
In a spiritual climate where we’re already losing our next generations in high double digits, can we afford not to put in the struggle to retain them—not for their butts and bucks but for their, and our, spiritual well-being? Just as in the Babylonian exile, their well-being equals ours, too (Jeremiah 29.4). The older generations’ faith is only viable as it gets passed on. It’s only fresh and flexible as we’re learning from others.
If we are not making disciples with our preaching and teaching, what are we even doing on Sunday morning?
As I wrote this last year, I sat in my home office, in isolation because of COVID-19. Racial trauma roiled our country. We feel the stirring of God doing something different in his church. We know in our hearts things will not be the same when this is over. For some of us, we’ve been feeling the need for a wave of change long before pandemic forced our hand. We’ve been looking out to sea, watching the horizon, waiting for the sails to come over the edge that signal God taking us on a different journey. Some of us have been longing for it more than we ever imagined.
Things will not be the same. Preaching should be one of the things that changes.
We’ve realized the value of community and the preciousness of input from others in this time of uncertainty and isolation.
Interactive preaching is the perfect tool for putting teaching and community together to disciple our churches.
Our people don’t need programs and workbooks. Why would we offer them a classroom when we could be putting them on the field? They need to be equipped, as the early Christians, to disciple themselves toward being like Jesus. They don’t need information so much as awareness of how to filter the information they’re already surrounded with 24/7. They need the skills to learn deeply, slowly, and permanently, the things of God to change their lives from the inside out. This we can give them, if we learn to change ourselves first.
Pastors, preachers, church leaders, boards, and elders—it’s time.
I didn’t even see a name on the restaurant front. Its virtue was that it was steps from our tiny hotel’s door, and we were exhausted after a 36-hour ordeal/flight from hell designed by an airline which shall remain nameless.
The chef/owner slid open a window and informed us the place was reservation only, but he would take us if we wanted to sit outside. It was a tasting menu–whatever he wanted to cook that day, we would eat. We sat, intrigued (and tired). We took in the modest patio, with dogs barking low and nearby car horns hitting the high notes. Near the door hung strings of drying corn. We finally figured out these weren’t decor–they were on the menu. Our sturdy table sat in the equatorial moonlight, and we closed our eyes, with no idea what we were in for.
A Surprising Conversation
We conversed with the owner through the meal, as his window was five feet away. He detailed what he was cooking, where he got his ingredients, and he asked about our travel plans. Through the courses, we started discussing deeper things.
Chef Sebastian explained that, pre-covid, he had owned several places in higher rent districts—wine bars, restaurants, etc. He was forced to shutter them. It looked like defeat. Then he ended up opening this one small place, Quitu, in a much different kind of neighborhood.
He spoke of using fresh local ingredients, becoming much more affordable to people because of much lower rents, and how he loved his new life. Then he told us something that stuck with me.
“I decided to become a restaurant for the neighborhood instead of a restaurant for the world.”
A Church Like Quitu
My mind jumped to church and leadership and why we do what we do. Yes, I want us to speak about national issues, world justice, the responsibility of the privileged of this globe. That is part of living with both feet in the Kingdom of God.
Yet it’s so easy to lose our way when our focus points toward that large stage. Any large stage, really. The popular allure is more mesmerizing than the neighborhood grit. It’s easy for “winning” to become the idol and affirmation to morph into the goal. I think our Quiteño chef understood that. He’d had the success. Covid forced a choice he now embraced. He wanted to return to a life where the community felt welcome and his food wholesome and accessible.
Church leaders, how do we embrace that value? How should we be redefining “normal” to make the places we lead accessible, inviting, and healthy? How ought our yearning for justice to roll down and integrity to be great again affect not only our twitter feed but our presence with the real life people on our block?
How do we become a church for the community rather than a church that happens to be in a community?
Downsizing. Decentering human leaders. Sourcing our nourishment from the wells of goodness and grace. Looking around and asking ourselves–what do the people here need, and why am I in this place and time?
I like chef Sebastian’s approach. His food was pretty great, too.
See, I typically write my blogs a few months in advance. What you read in March I wrote in January or even December. But today, that’s kind of inconceivable.
I have no idea what this world is going to look like in a few months. I’m not even sure about next week. I don’t feel any sense of security or serenity writing about what my outlook on things will be in March as we sit here a few days out of a coup at the nation’s capital. I’m not assuming it’s over.
Much has been written on the day, and much of it has been stellar. I’m not repeating those analyses.
So today, I’ll move some things around and respond to now, not two months from now.
My focus, as you know from reading my banner if not my blog, is not on the politics so much is on the church. Not that the former is not important, but the future of the church is the passion that God has given me. What do these unsettling times mean for the church? Most importantly, what does the fallout mean for the next generations of our church?
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this could be the most devastating event for the American church that we have seen in a very long while. The next generation has seen the church in reaction, and they’re not having it. I don’t blame them at all.
Mind you, I wouldn’t be all that sad to stand at the grave of much that passes for American Christianity. My concern is with the baby that will likely get tossed with the bathwater. The bathwater stinks. It’s filthy. It is in desperate need of change.
But the baby—the church you don’t see in the cameras—is filled with people who honestly, humbly, falteringly attempt to follow Jesus. They could be the innocent victims of this drive-by disaster.
Jesus’ church really does have people in it who love him more than they love themselves. They’re just harder to find in the swill and swell of the stinky bathwater.
God will not suffer. Ultimately, his church will survive. Jesus Christ is King, and that will not change. He does not need us to defend him. He will raise his remnant as he always has. Like Simba, the church that survives will stagger up, blink at the light, and bewilderedly continue in the circle God has started. But it is likely to die, first.
Four in ten young adults between the ages of 23 and 38 now say they are religiously unaffiliated.
IN a 2017 study, “Political rifts between young Christians and their congregations are growing. A quarter (25%) of recent dropouts said disagreements over their church’s stance on political and social issues contributed to their decision to stop attending, compared to 15 percent
That those rifts have increased with the advent of QAnon and “Stop the Steal” conspiracy theories being welcomed and applauded in the church is clear from a thirty-second perusal of social media.
The exodus isn’t temporary, as it has been in the past, either. For the first time, young adults are not returning to church when they have families, because they don’t believe they need the church to teach their children how to be good people. That isn’t because they believe God has failed them or isn’t good. It’s because they believe the church is no longer filled with good people.
While in the past most of those disaffected with church retained their belief in and some relationship with Jesus, that is also changing. 2019 saw the greatest surge in atheism in America. Those who consider themselves atheists, agnostics, or”nothing in particular” have risen to over a quarter of the population. The next generation has lost their spiritual community, and with no one to talk with about their questions, doubts, and ideas, their faith has eroded as well. This was inevitable—God created us for community, and we cannot go without it for long without serious effect.
An Atlantic article explores the sudden sharp decline in American Christianity in the 1990’s. “According to Christian Smith, a sociology and religion professor at the University of Notre Dame, America’s nonreligious lurch has mostly been the result of three historical events: the association of the Republican Party with the Christian right, the end of the Cold War, and 9/11.” The last two have complex sociological issues and are fascinating to look at. The first is the important one, for my purposes.
Here are some of the reasons younger generations are leaving the church right now. They are amazingly clear-eyed at the illogic and incongruity they see. These are the things they can’t understand. Church, we have to bring these things they see into the light. face them unflinchingly, and set them right.
The same peoplewho have told them that men cannot meet with women over lunch because they fear the “appearance of evil” are silent regarding “Jesus Saves” signs next to confederate flags and nooses—unmistakable symbols of white supremacy and lynching. These symbols do not convey the appearance of evil—they are evil. We are to believe Christians can stand next to them and not participate in the stench of their meaning. Yet a male pastor cannot accompany me, a female pastor, to a training meeting because “appearances.” This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.
The same people who tell them social justice and creation concerns are not the gospel and “just preach the gospel” are very concerned about fighting for their constitutional rights. Also, they don’t appear to know the gospel very well. This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.
The same people who protest that talk of racism is dividing the church will tell them on social media that anyone who votes for a democrat is a baby killer and not a real Christian. We are supposed to assume this is not sowing division but righteousness. This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.
The same people who taught them that “Jesus loves the little children—red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight” don’t find those children precious when they’re in cages at a southern border. They shrug and consider those precious souls collateral damage in a war against the neighbor we’re supposed to love. This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.
The same peoplewho counsel them to “think for yourself” succumb to outrageously unlikely claims that fit what they see as a “safe” worldview. The same pastors who tell teens to question what their teachers tell them admonish them never to question the pastors.This is the incongruity causing young people to leave the church.
I’ve been an English teacher, a writer, and an editor. I’ve graded hundreds of papers and critiqued dozens of articles. There are two kinds of writing that an editor or a teacher find almost impossible to critique. That which is perfect as it is—and that which is hopelessly bad.
In the first, we can find nothing bad to say. In the second, we don’t know where to start. We don’t think there’s any way to help the work improve.
If I critique the church, it’s because I have hope. It’s because I don’t think it’s beyond fixing. I don’t think the people in it, like myself, cannot do better. I believe they, like me, are sinners in need of redemption. I edit with conviction and ferocity because I know we are better than we’ve been. I believe God is working, as Paul says in Ephesians 2.10, on a masterpiece.
The problem is, sometimes the block of clay God is trying to mold prefers to mold itself into a different sort of creature entirely. One that does not image the Creator. This is when God needs to start over, sometimes smashing that clay down, to re-form it in the way it was meant to be.
If that’s what happens to the American church, so be it. It needs to be re-formed. I pray that we choose to work with the artist in that reformation. I pray that the next generation wants to come along for that work and join us in it. Let it be a re-creation of integrity, free from incongruity (which others read as hypocrisy). Let it be a church that transparently looks and acts like Jesus.
We’ll get some things wrong. I have no illusions that we won’t make our own massive errors. We’re all hypocrites, every one of us, preferring to see others more clearly than we see ourselves. That’s why we need one another.
We need to do one another’s critiquing, while we’re not too far gone, and we need to hear the critique of the next generation. As the mom of three of them, I can tell you—they’re pretty smart.
I admit to being born in the era when teaching history was pretty much a gloss over of the major American wars and little else. (We entirely missed WWI, too. No idea.) World history? What was that? Who cared about the rest of the world? And don’t even get me started on grammar. We learned none of that. I have no idea what went on in the 70s. Pretty sure I spent that decade in the corner reading books.
All this to say, while I quickly became one of Hamilton‘s many adoring fans last weekend, I know virtually nothing of the actual man or of the history surrounding our earliest politics. But I know what I saw. So, so much to digest. I could write blog posts all year.
Yeah, We Got Trouble
One of the most troublesome things I saw is also not uncommon. in fact, it’s becoming more and more popular in the American church.
No, not duels. We haven’t gotten that bad. Unless you count Facebook.
The thing that led up to those duels, however, runs rampant in modern Christianity. Bravado.Macho posturing disguised as a new wave of “muscular Christianity.” Hamilton is well known as a man who could not back down, and it led to his death. (Or worse—expelled! From politics.)
Spend a little time with me on Christian Twitter, and you will see this in all it’s inglorious glory. Christian men who insist that Jesus was a masculine manly man and anyone less is questionable. They define the terms of masculinity quite narrowly, and the terms always consist of some sort of physical prowess but not necessarily mental. God wants them to be protectors, they insist, and somehow this always entails standing in front of the camera and showing us their rifles. I’m not clear why.
Christian men who strut and preen (yes, I’m pretty sure they do that in front of their computer screens even though we can’t see it) and proclaim how right they are about everything based solely on their possession of certain anatomy. Men who actually use #ToxicMasculinity as a badge go honor. Men who insult other brothers who prefer quieter pursuits and less brandishing as “soft” and “weak.”
We’re Manly Men
Honestly, I have met the nicest and best of Christian men on Twitter but also have encountered the most toxic, self-centered persons who call themselves Christian you can imagine. Yes, I know they’re on Facebook, too. Those I actually know and might be related to. So I stay on Twitter. Fortunately, I enjoy the interaction with the kind people very much and I limit it with the others. It makes me realize, though, that these things are out there, and they aren’t that uncommon.
I’m not talking about Christian men who go hunting and enjoy the outdoors and also enjoy being good citizens and family members. I know some of those men, and they are also awesome people, but they do not insist that every man be like them in order to be Christian. They are multi-faceted men who know you can’t pin someone down based on their extracurricular activities or the breadth of their shoulders.
They are fantastic men capable of admitting that they are sometimes wrong. There are fine men in the Christian church and I know a lot of them personally. They are men whose integrity and humility I trust implicitly. Yet they are not the loud ones.
And No One Knows How Far It Goes
(Why yes, I am having fun with the. musical subtitles. thank you.)
Needless to say, this sense of required bravado has leaked onto the national stage as well. It stains our politics, our families, our communities, and our churches. We have become an entire culture that values puffed out chests and clenched fists far more than bowed heads and bent knees.
Bravado: “A show of boldness intended to impress or intimidate.”
By its nature it’s not real. It’s a shell, with an agenda to bully but not to offer substance. We’re told “bravado” comes from French and Italian words that mean bragging and boasting – words that the apostle Paul pleads with Christians never to use in association with themselves. (“If I must boast, I would rather boast about the things that show how weak I am.” 2 Corinthians 11.30). Yet the church is in serious danger of putting on that show without substance, and it’s purpose is not to boast about Christ.
Bravado is toxic.
I Am not Throwin’ Away My . . .
Let’s just stay with Hamilton for the moment and take a look at how this played out. Bravado killed Alexander Hamilton and his son in the show and in real life. What might have happened if, instead of teaching his son how to duel, Hamilton taught his son how to back down from a conflict? What if, instead of telling him how to save face, he asked him “Hey, did the man say anything about me that wasn’t true? Then what do we need to fight for?” What lives and futures might have been spared?
That is not the way we teach our men to do things. We teach them, even in our doctrine, that concession and compromise are weak. We toss such words around in our church dialogue with a sneer, as if daring to compromise on anything equals giving up the faith and turning to satan worship.
If this is our default, when others with differing viewpoints come before us, what’s the the natural response? “I can’t hear or consider what you’re saying. If I do, I am compromising. And compromise is of the devil.” We eventually come to equate that person with satan himself, tempting us toward the demon trap of compromise or concession.
This is why so many Christians cannot participate in a healthy debate on difficult issues. We’re too afraid to lose and what that might mean. We’ve been taught that any slight deviation or concession is failure and a fall into the unknown.
And if I Heard You, Which I Don’t
We can’t listen because our requisite bravado is screaming in our ears—“Never stand down!” As if that’s a quality Jesus ever espoused.
What if we chose the way of humility instead? What if our national conversation was steeped in the kind of selfless giving we see in Jesus rather than the “me first” mentality that bravado requires?
Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges. (Philippians 2.3-6)
What if the church led the way?
Brene Brown, in Braving the Wilderness, says that in order to have the difficult healing conversations, we have to be willing to look our fears in the eye and be vulnerable. Bravado cannot do this. Bravado by its nature and definition cannot be real.
Do we want a church that is not real?
Humans need to be real in order to have a future together.
Bravado killed Hamilton. It is killing the church today.
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.