On Being Young in Ministry

I used to really like John Mayer– you know, back before he was mostly famous for being in a Taylor Swift song. Two of my favorite lines of his were these, from “Waiting on the World to Change”:

It’s hard to be persistent
When you’re standing at a distance.

I think those words are so true.It’s hard to be persistent when you’re running toward a target that is– or seems to be– miles and miles off.

I have a bunch of friends who have run their first marathons this month, and I can’t imagine what it must feel like right around mile 3, realizing you have 23 miles left to go. 23 miles and 385 yards, to be exact.

How can you keep up your strength in the face of such a length?

***

In my second semester of seminary, I began a long battle: A battle against exegesis. As a first-year seminary student taking the most basic of Bible classes, I had no ability, no confidence, and no right to make claims on the Biblical text. I was, in the John Mayer reference, standing at a distance from knowledge, respectability, even simple ability at all!

Coming from a history background in undergrad, I believed that the more you quoted and cited sources the more you were believed. You can’t just write or preach something, I thought, unless someone super smart and reputable has suggested it before you.

I thought that the job of the novice exegete was to scour commentaries, find an argument that she agreed with, and extrapolate upon that– uniqueness or ingenuity would not be tolerated.

My very long-suffering New Testament preceptor sat me down as kindly as he could and said, “I don’t want to hear what Barth thinks about this. I’ve read it, and I know you’ve read it. Now, informed by that, I want to hear what you think.

***

It took me months and months to even begin to grasp this concept… this marriage of the ones who are nearer to the finish line, nearer to full knowledge, nearer to holiness, with those like myself who are just getting started, who are teetering a few inches past the starting line and thinking the gulf is too wide for us to have anything of value to offer… certainly not anything that will make it 26 miles, certainly not anything that will be respected, certainly not anything worth bothering anyone else with.

I don’t grasp this, still. How do you reconcile the wisdom of age with the freshness of youth? How do you recognize the youthful in the aged and the wisdom in the youth?
In other words (for I think these are all one and the same question):
How is it that God is all at once infant and 33, ageless and enfleshed, wrinkled and gray-whiskered and baby soft?

***

181019_169000009916762_1342716474_nThis new worship service that my friends have started is a mix of all kinds of beautiful flesh– old and young. We derive our ideas from old books, mentoring pastors, suggestions by laypeople, and even (surprisingly, to my old, militantly-quoting self) our own imaginations.

We, the old and the young, the male and the female, the churched and the unchurched and the quasi-churched, read liturgy from old dead saints, we read liturgy from fresh, revitalizing communities like Iona, and we read liturgies that I wrote yesterday. We sing songs that were written in the 18th century and we sing songs by people who tweet. We do ancient rituals like foot-washing and candle-lighting, and we do modern rituals like instragramming and starting the evening with an improv comedy sketch or a YouTube video.

Graffiti stained glass made out of words describing our grief

We are old and we are young.

We are alive and we are dying.

We are honest and we are terrified.

We are many and we are one.

We are lost and we are loved.

We are naive and we are wise.

We are stupid and we are broken.

We are found and we are aimless.

We believe and we ask for help for our unbelief.

***

How can I speak or write intelligently about the Bible, knowing that I only ever skimmed Barth’s Romans? How can I claim pastoral authority, when I’m only 24? How can I claim anything at all, when I know, my beloved friends and readers, that I am a sinner, the worst of the worst, broken beyond repair, failing beyond failure, suffering under the Pontius Pilates and thorns in my sides and apples eaten that I create for myself?

I am not arrogant. I have not a single thing in my diseased heart to boast in except the little flecks and specks of the body and blood of Christ that huddle there.

I do not believe myself to be holy, or wise, or a good pastor, or even a good friend, most of the time. I do not believe myself to be anything but empty: emptied for the Gospel’s sake. Emptied for the Kingdom’s sake. And believe me, I kicked and screamed and fought that emptying the whole way; I’m still kicking and screaming despite my best efforts, just like I bet you are. We all are.

It’s hard to be persistent when you’re standing at a distance– standing on that starting line covered in the shackles of your own inadequacies.

…And yet in the emptiness that succeeds all your efforts, in the emptiness that comes in when everything you ever believed in about yourself disintegrates… that is where the Spirit has room for dancing.

***

So yes, I’m at a distance. Yes, I find it hard to be persistent. There are days when I’d rather go be a veterinarian and endure the easier burden of having my dog-whispering skills questioned rather than having my faith, my call, my love of the LORD questioned. (And unfortunately, inexplicably, it is usually I myself who am doing the questioning!)

The marathon is long and I’m right at the beginning. I have no authority, no confidence, and certainly no right to speak about God, or Scripture, or Truth, or wisdom. You have no reason to listen to me, and I have no right to open my mouth or even look you in the eye. I am learning, and I am listening– to both the people God has placed in my life and the groans of my own spirit.

And I believe with all my heart that God is speaking through me… that God is using an ass to speak just as it once happened a long time ago, and it has never struck me as more of a privilege to consider myself an empty, stupid ass.

The Great Divide: How to Snare the Elusive “Young Adult”

There’s a lot of talk these days about the generational divides in America, particularly in the church.  As someone who is firmly a member of the Millennial/Gen Y/Hipster generation and who is also attempting to market a worship service to my comrades, I think it’s worth a gander at just what makes the generations have such different values.

To say that we have different values is, of course, not to say that any one generation is any better than any other (so stuff it with your “Greatest Generation” stuff, Tom Brokaw… just kidding, you’re a legend and a genius).  It’s just to say that we value things differently.  Our priorities are different.  The way we want to be treated is different.  The way to market to us, worship with us, and work with us is different.

So… Let’s start wildly generalizing and offending everyone!
(Please note: these are very, very broad generalizations. I fully acknowledge that they do not apply to every member of each age bracket.  These are simply broad strokes I’ve compiled to get some vague grasp on the differences between the generations.)

Baby Boomers (b. 46-64) believe that progress is the key to life.  

  • If you dream big enough, work hard enough, and do all the right things, there is nothing you can’t achieve, in their eyes.
    • This leads them to be very suspicious of things that defy the norm.
    • Tattoos, alternative music, dropping out of college to pursue an art career…. these are things that freak a Baby Boomer out, because they’re not the traditional progression of maturation and growth a typical middle-class American makes in life.
  • They have spent their life warding off disaster the best way they know how: by doing this life right, following the rules.
  • They want order, they want things the way they’ve been, and they want things they can conceptually manage.

Gen Xers (b. 65-75), on the other hand, want non-tradition.

  • Despite the prior generation’s cries for “the way it ought to be,” Gen Xers went out and got tattoos, listened to and made alternative music, and dropped out of college to pursue art careers.
  • But… this was in the 80s and 90s.  Now, 15-30 years later, many are disillusioned.
    • The tattoos are fading and sagging, the music they created as “alternative” is now largely mainstream, and their art careers crashed and burned just as badly as their first marriages.
  • So they’re wanderers at this point, feeling neglected and sold-out and disillusioned by the rejection and hopelessness the world has offered them
    • (Remember, it’s within their lifetime that things like AIDS and pollution became global, seemingly insurmountable issues).
  • This age group is very interested in alternative spiritualities and counter-cultural forms of leadership and living.
  • They want purpose and identity, and they’ll take it wherever they can get it.

Finally there’s me, us, Millennials (b. 76-94), about whom not much has been decided.

Please try to stifle your gasps as I let you know that there is little in the worship planning, church-planting, and evangelism books I’ve read that’s aimed at us, is about us, or even acknowledges our existence.
Most books talk about Seniors, Boomers, and Gen Xers, and then essentially say, “Of course, your ideal target audience should be Young Adults, but good luck finding them, much less getting them in your doors, much much less getting them to stick around, much much much less getting them involved.”

So… I’m going to talk a lot about them, in case anyone out there would like to know something or other about us.

Millennials are in a way an amalgam of those who’ve gone before them.

  • We are closer in goals and desires to the Gen Xers but are closer in worldview/perspective to the Boomers.
    • We see that the world sucks, but we don’t feel existential angst or despair; we believe in progress, to some extent, but not the kind of progress our parents and grandparents believed in and were let down by.
    • The difference is that we don’t trust the government or the “way” of the universe or even God to accomplish this progress. Rather…
  • We believe in ourselves and our power to make change.
    • We don’t feel helpless, we feel capable of helping.
    • We don’t feel overwhelmed by the problems of the world, we feel energized and mobilizedby them.
      • Think about the recent phenomena of micro-lending—did you know that a lot of these were started by people under the age of 30?
      • Young Adults see a problem and they fix it.

The young adult generation sees disaster– not just disaster on the horizon as previous generations saw, but disaster here, present, putting us in a recession, at war, in political turmoil in poverty, in danger of deadly diseases– and says, “What can I do?”

Our unique tastes— for example, the hipster fashion trend, our penchant for tattoos and big glasses, and our desire to push the boundaries when it comes to music and art and.. well, everything– are a reflection of our openness.

  • This is the generation that is campaigning most ardently for gay rights.
  • This is the generation that has traveled the most (for pleasure, not military service, anyway) by the time we’re 30.
  • This is the generation is the closest yet to being truly colorblind.

Look at me, I’m getting all gushy.  I think my generation is the bomb.  However, we also have our problems.

  • Sometimes we are so inclusive, or strive so hard to be unique, or affix ourselves so strongly to a political party or spiritual system, that we lose our individual identity.
  • We can be cliquish with those who are our particular brand of individual, unique, or–ironically– inclusive (need help understanding that last one? I’ve seen bands of hipsters ostracize someone for affirming the creative rights of Daughtry and Nickleback, while themselves affirming the creative rights of a certain persecuted Russian punk band whose name I can’t type here because I’m on my work computer :)  Google it if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)
  • Probably our biggest problem in my eyes, however, is that we are very, very, very, very, very, very finicky.  We’re like cats in that way.  We take a while to warm up to you, and even then, one wrong move and we bolt.
    • I’m thinking here particularly of institutions that want Millennials involved… say, the Church, for example (go figure!).  You can pitch something PERFECTLY for Millennials, and we still might not come, because of any number of things.
      • Use comic sans or papyrus on your flyer? We’re not coming.
      • Reference an old sitcom or movie that was before our time (and isn’t a cult classic) in your sermon?  We out.
      • Sing a song our Baby Boomer parents love to sing in their “Contemporary” worship service? We will run from the place screaming and never come back.

Obviously, I’m being facetious.

The biggest reason a young adult will leave, or never come to, an organization is if they don’t feel involved.  If they don’t feel like active, welcome participants in what is going on.  If they don’t feel like they have some ownership, some stake, in the success or failure of this endeavor.

So how do you get us on board?

How do you build something that we will come to? (Yes, most of us will get a Field of Dreams reference, so feel free to keep using that one if you’d like.)

I’ll tell you how: You show us a problem.  And you say, “How can we help you fix this problem?”  And then you build a ministry around it.

And if it’s alternative (which, let’s be honest, it’s the hipster generation, so you know it’ll be alternative), then the Gen Xers are likely to come.  And if it seems actually to be doing some good in this world and offering at the very least hope of doing good, then it will minister to the broken hearts of those Gen Xers.

And if it’s taking off and growing the church, then the Boomers might come… but they might not.  But they will offer their support, because they want to see the church progressing and growing and creating a space for itself among the new generation.

Friends, those among you who are considering starting an alternative worship service (or emerging, or millennial, or ancient/future, or apostolic, or taize, or ionic, or whatever you’re thinking of), please don’t leave the Young Adults out.  And note:

We won’t be snared by some pitch-perfect combination of marketing and stage design.  Rather, we will choose to become involved if it is a cause, a mission, a way of being that is unique, captivating, exciting, innovative, and most of all does some good for the community, for our hearts, and for the hearts that this world has broken.