Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Sacrificing One's Spiritual Language: A Response to Tom Ehrich

One of my mentors here in the region was a pastor for over four decades before retiring.  He is basically a walking encyclopedia of regional and denominational history, and being able to pick his brain is a privilege that I am humbly afforded on a regular basis.

He also sends emails my way that he think might interest me--and a pair of such emails did, recently two emails in succession from Tom Ehrich, an Episcopal priest and author at Church Wellness, entitled "The Puzzle of Reaching Young Adults" (divided into two parts).

I won't quote the entire message verbatim here--but these are two especially meaningful (for me) excerpts, one from each part, that I am *hopefully* not taking out of too much context:

From Part I:

Young adults want sincerity, authenticity and a missional orientation. When they run up against our typical concern for politeness and institutional maintenance, they walk away. And to be honest, why shouldn't they? We communicate the wrong message: that we want them to save our churches, when we should be saying we need their help in saving the world. We speak first, listen later. We want them to adapt to us. We want their money but not their unique and fresh ideas.

And from Part II:

Don't ask them to rescue your church. They didn't drive your church to its knees. You and your predecessors did that. Young adults aren't the answer to your sagging budget, empty pews, incessant bickering, fear of change, fear of commitment, or weak stewardship. They might represent the answer, but it won't be in the form of rescuing what you know and value. If they dare to get close to us -- remember, to them we are toxic -- it won't be to slide smoothly into traces we have fashioned. It will be to do what God wants done, namely, bring new creation into being.

Don't draw lines or make demands. We have forfeited the right to get our way. Everything must be open for renewal. No shoulds, no non-negotiables. The church we have inherited and tried to keep alive isn't at all what Jesus had in mind. Read the Gospels. Jesus was about transformation, not continuity; a cycle of change and more change that draws us inexorably toward God.

I share both of these excerpts because they were the parts where I wanted to jump up and down, pump my fists in the air, and scream, "F***ING-A RIGHT!"  But I was sitting in my office, so I didn't.  After all, having the pastor drop F-bombs (at least on company time?) simply shall not do.

So instead, I write (and put censored F-bombs into print, apparently) here.  Because this is something I have shared with y'all on many an occasion--my disillusionment with the established mainline church as a twentysomething pastor.  It is genuinely heartwarming and affirming to hear someone from an older generation saying what many of us young'uns have been thinking--and saying--for a while now, and I commend his thoughts on this question to all of you for a truly thoughtful and deeply meaningful perspective here.

But we still aren't there yet, even with such radical self-realization.  And a great example of that is, in fact, from Tom Ehrich himself--in his "Part I" email, he opens with Winston Churchill's quote about Russia: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, and then says that "for established churches, THAT (emphasis mine) puzzle is how to reach young adults."

For those of you keeping score at home, that would be a Cold War-generation pastor comparing my generation to communist Russia.

I was not amused.

There's a slight irony in writing about the need to talk and listen to a younger generation and then leading off with a metaphor likely to go over that younger generation's collective head (seriously, the Soviet Union went splat before I turned six).  But the bigger concern is that if, in this scenario, the Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation are NATO and the western allies, us whippersnappers are their natural antagonists, a premise that I absolutely, 100% reject, both on principle and on praxis.

Now, first off, to those who would say I'm being nitpicky here: wouldn't it be just as easy to simply say, "It's a puzzle for the mainline church today to reach out to young adults?"  It would have been, so let's dispense with that right away.

But as I wrote to my mentor in response to Ehrich's columns, I pastor a church that has become increasingly inter- and multi-generational, and that this bridging of generations is in fact a draw for many of the young adults and families who have joined over the past two years--more than once in a new member's class, someone has said to me something to the effect of, "It's like I have grandparents all over again.  It's amazing."

Yes, we speak a different language than our older brethren (and in fairness, that's perhaps one way in which the Russia metaphor is applicable).  But that doesn't mean we aren't interested in the language our elders speak--what we really want is for that interest to be reciprocal.

That's why what Ehrich says later on is so important: when we young adults see a church's concern for politeness and institutional maintenance (I have for years been referring to this phenomenon as "belonging to the Church of Be Nice and Chew With Your Mouth Closed"), we shut down.  Because what is being asked of us is a unilateral sacrifice: we are being asked to silence our own language and our own spirituality for the sake of saving the spiritual language of our predecessors.

In other words, we are asked to do this herculean, potentially impossible task of saving the church, and we aren't even able to negotiate our own terms for doing so.

So we leave.  Wouldn't you, if you were asked to do something so big, so major and were given little to no say in how you are supposed to go about doing it?

Put a different way--would you apply for a job consisting of responsibilities that you aren't gifted in or interested in, and for the benefit of your bosses, rather than for mutual benefit of both?

It is inaccurate to say that my generation is godless.  It *is* accurate to say that we are unchurched.  But being unchurched does not translate into having no thirst for God, or for spiritual growth.  Being unchurched translates into not being interested in the church on the terms that have been presented to us.

(The sad thing is that I think the church does this--expecting unilateral sacrifice from certain people for nothing in return--in a great many other areas as well, but that is the topic for another post.)

Tom Ehrich does offer some action steps in his two messages, and while I appreciate the concreteness of his imperative, I would also humbly suggest another step that (I think) acts as a natural progression from the excerpt I quote in part II, where he says that everything should be on the table...

I think this should include language--our choice of words, metaphors, idioms, and descriptors of experience...the whole kibosh, basically.

To Ehrich's point about the Gospels: Jesus not only introduces new language ("Our Father, who art in Heaven...), He reinvents and reinterprets older language ("I am the Bread of Life").  So being open to allowing current language to be reinvented, reinterpreted, or (dare I say it) respectfully discarded is Scriptural in addition to necessary.  And it represents a shared yoke of sacrifice: it means both old and young alike are sacrificing things for the sake of this great, amazing, flawed, powerful thing we call the Christian Church. a sentence, fewer comparisons to communist Russia, please, and more openness to new expressions of spirituality.

Which isn't a new way of saying "fewer old, dirge-like hymns, more soulful, upbeat music, please" (although I do sometimes say that!), but my way of saying what Ehrich does eventually say: less of asking the younger generation to save your church, and more of asking us to build our own church.

That's all we want, really.

Yours in Christ,

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