church

Generational Power and the Church

A post detailing the 12 Reasons Millennials are Over Church has been making the rounds on my social feedz this week and is widely praised by youngsters and sympathetic oldsters alike. The church has failed to adapt to Millennials' needs or include the voices of younger people, says the author.

Missing from the conversation is the fact that Boomers are experiencing a severe loss of cultural capital as Millennials come of age. On one hand we have (until recently) the largest, most powerful generation in American history. No generation in 241 years has inherited a greater horde of wealth, power, and unprecedented economic growth than the Boomers. On the other hand we have... their kids, another huge generation with enormous cultural capital and an unprecedented ability to connect across geography and create culture unbounded from traditional gatekeepers. In fact, Millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers as the country’s largest age group, according to Census data.

This is a power struggle. Boomers know how to wield power and Millennials are just learning what it means to have some. We see this across every institution: the church, education, even in the CIA.

Usually people don't just give up power. Many of the institutions Millennials are rejecting or seeking to change (Boomers taught us to disrespect institutional authority, by the way) were built from nothing by Boomers. It's no wonder they feel a little threatened when Millennials question the way those institutions function, or point out they're no longer relevant.

People usually don't just give up power, except Christians are to be a people who specifically live out a sacrificial love which inherently forfeits power for the good of others. We must forgive Boomers and Millennials alike for lacking spiritual formation the church rarely has sought to offer.

The Absent Church

Last week at Network Coffeehouse I spoke to a man who had been released from DOC (Department of Corrections—aka prison) the week before. He was released with all his earthly possessions in a backpack, a list of services around Denver, and a voucher for clothes. After he was released, he hooked up with a woman who quickly disappeared with everything he owned.

My impression was that he knew no one, had no real connections in Denver, and wasn't sure what he would do next except check in with his parole officer.

Two things occurred to me while speaking to him.

First, the irony of his experience. For many people living in homelessness, the major factor contributing to their condition is an inability to connect and attach to other people. Ironic, then, that this man had trusted someone who immediately contributed to making his condition worse.

Second, except for his short time at Network the night we spoke, the Church was absent from his life. He didn't indicate how long he spent under the tutelage of the state and I didn't ask. But I wonder, if he had had a relationship with a church while he was behind bars, would he have found himself in the predicament he did a week ago? Perhaps he still would have found himself on the street. But with a community to turn to, maybe a lost backpack would not have been such a concern.

To visit the prisoner, the stranger, and the poor is called righteousness by Jesus. According to the author of Matthew, to fail to visit these is to invite eternal fire (Matthew 25:31-46). And yet, the church is largely absent from the people and places Jesus calls it to be.

Of course, some efforts to visit the poor do exist. Network Coffeehouse is one. United Methodist Committee on Relief works worldwide to ease the suffering of people experiencing disaster. Denver itself is host to several efforts by churches to feed the hungry and clothe those in need. But these groups serve to highlight the absence of individual Christians and organized ecclesial bodies in the public sphere, witnessing, encountering, and bearing up under suffering.

Where the Church is clearly called by Jesus Christ to be, there instead exists a sucking vacuum. Into this conspicuous absence the most vulnerable people in our society are pulled. There, they are preyed on by demonic forces: drug dealers and cartels pushing meth, crack, and heroine, sex traffickers enslaving adults and children alike, pay day loan organizations and their capricious usury, day labor centers doling out work without appropriate wages, jails that increasingly charge fees for the most basic amenities. And then there's my friend at Network who simply needs a pair of pants. Standing against this force we have burned-out case managers, parole officers, a few people compelled by religion to serve their neighbor, and the odd person here or there who cannot help but find themselves among the poor and suffering. It is not enough.

The bulk of the Church, the living body of Christ, Jesus' hands and feet supposedly animated by the Spirit of God? A barely audible whisper at best. Unaccounted for, unseen, and unheard. Absent.

Ramsey 19:16-30

Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, how many campuses does my church need for me to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about church metrics? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, buy his books and seminars.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “the Show; The Legacy Journey; Smart Money Smart Kids; Generation Change; Junior’s Adventures; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “I have all these; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, sign up your church for Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for his church didn’t have the budget for that.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, middle-class existence shall be much easier in the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is middle-class to feel satisfied.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved!?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for Ramsey all things are possible.”

Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. But we don’t have any of his books. What then do we have?" Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man has paid down his student loan debt, you who have followed me will also be debt free, pitying other people under the yoke of late-stage global capitalism. And everyone who has houses or credit cards or a car payment or children, will receive a stern talking-to about budgeting, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first, so buy Dave Ramsey’s books today."

Christianity Beyond Memes

I’ve been thinking about this post of mine recently. Mostly because that Richard Rohr meme continues to show up in my social feed.

It occurs to me that both “options,” or ways of doing and being Church offered by this meme, potentially leave out a group of people for whom Jesus would seek to show care and concern. Here I'm thinking of people who experience severe developmental delays and disabilities. Usually these folks need a high level of care from those around them whether they be parents, family members, or specially-trained healthcare workers.

Such people usually exist on the margins of the Church. Our churches do a poor job including anyone in worship, service, liturgy, missions, and outreach who does not conform to the narrow parameters of body and ability that most of us exist within. This is a failure of underlying ecclesiologies (theology about the Church) which demand “belonging and believing” on one hand or “following the way of Jesus” on the other.

The Way

“Following the way of Jesus” is especially problematic in its privileged assumptions. It flirts with the notion that one must first attain knowledge about how to live, and then have the ability to live within the narrow constraints of that knowledge. It is a kind of gnosticism: one has special knowledge that leads to salvation. It should be obvious how limiting this is for people with cognitive disabilities.

Belonging and Believing

“Belonging and believing” has problems of its own. Believing is an especially fraught requirement for those whose with impaired cognitive abilities. What does it take to “believe” a certain set of precepts? What does it mean to live those precepts out?

However, "Belonging” offers a wider frame. With very few restrictions, one may belong to the body of Christ. This is a community that makes an universal offer to all: come and reside with us, with Christ. This kind of community can and does encompass an incredibly wide variety of ways of being human. In this case, those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord comprise the body of Christ alongside those who may not have the capacity to overtly confess as such. As saints, they share a common belonging within the metaphysical ship we call Church.

Individualism

Which brings me to my final point about the popular meme that is the occasion for these two posts: it falls into the post-Enlightenment, American Protestant trap of foregrounding completely the work, knowledge, faith, and being of the individual person. Even the side it seeks to negate (“belonging and believing”) falls almost completely on the action of the individual.

What of Christ’s being? That is what ecclesiology really is: applied Christology. In becoming part of the Church, or by seeking to follow Jesus, the focus really ought to be on joining Christ’s being, Christ’s life, Christ’s teaching, Christ’s work, Christ’s crucifixion, death, resurrection, and Christ’s faith. It is the work of God in Christ and the enlivening power of the Holy Spirit that hold all things together—even stupid memes.