The institutional church received my generation as a bumper crop of future members, a guarantee that the future would be more Christian than the past. But we had a very accurate nose for smelling out hypocrisy, the outward forms designed to celebrate the status quo. Our parents might have been more like the priestly class of biblical ancestors who shined up the temple’s sacred relics, while we identified more with the prophets, demanding an accounting of how our worship lined up with the reality in the streets—racism, war, poverty, and pollution.
I’m looking at my church as I listen to this next generation—most of whom are younger than I was when I told the church about my call to love the earth. This younger generation is saying: we cannot do business as usual. We cannot sit at the table with people who have funded the escalation of climate change and still expect to be welcomed to the table with people who are suffering already.
If Generation X had a Biblical mascot, it would be Ecclesiastes. That cynical, sullen, discontent, disenchanted preacher is our hero. Rich Cohen wrote in Vanity Fair that Gen-Xers understand “History is big and we are small; grand projects end in ruin; sometimes the best you can do is have a drink—that’s what we know. And that we’re all going to die anyway.” But those very qualities and attitudes might just make us the church’s last great hope.
While we certainly can poke fun at each of these characteristics in a given generation if you really want to, I wonder if it might be more productive, and fun, to hear from Boomer, Gen X, and Millennial ministers about how their birth year affects their ministry in positive and exciting ways.
This is also to say that when my heart deeply desires to be understood without explanation, or when I think we need engagement around our assumptions about race, my church community may not be able to provide that and that I do sometimes long for the unspoken bonds of support of the ethnic immigrant church. So sometimes I need to be creative in finding ways to think through the relationship between faith and belonging. It’s not always easy, and I don’t have a clear road map either for myself or my family. Just guideposts, and I have to, simply put, rely on the leading of the Holy Spirit to lead me to places of centering.
I have served other churches as an interim, a supply pastor, and substitute for other pastors during sabbaticals. I enjoyed that upfront leadership. But I also discovered the simple joys and relaxation of staying home on a Sunday morning and sleeping in and reading the Sunday paper. But after a while I felt that ache, that hole in my soul. I needed a church that was mine, not mine to lead, but a place where I was known, and loved, and accepted for my gifts.
One of these days, I’m going to write a book revealing all my struggles and my triumphs. My story is a story of faith and perseverance. A high school dropout that took the GED and now holds a doctorate degree. A guy who has so many interests and came through many dangers, toils and snares. I suppose if I were a good Presbyterian, I’d say it was all Providence!
It’s just the case that many people are not “joiners.” I suspect that wariness is a symptom of a larger suspicion of institutionalization in general. Curiously, I am finding that many people are not commitment-avoidant when it comes to showing up, pitching in, and even supporting with time or money. But, becoming a “member” seems to be another matter.
In the African-American community, we have embraced the concept of SANKOFA, from a West African proverb. SANKOFA teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. That is, we should reach back and gather the best of what our past has to teach us, so that we can achieve our full potential as we move forward.
We should expect tension in our communities and learn how to face it with more confidence. In fact, we should learn how to introduce it in constructive ways that shift the burden and the opportunity of leadership off the pastor(s) and onto more leaders and potential leaders in the congregation.