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Confessions of a High Church Millennial – The Church according to ‘Friends’

As a pastor, I think a lot about group dynamics. I reflect on family systems and congregational systems. I wonder a lot about why groups of people behave in certain ways, sometimes to their own detriment.

My interest in group dynamics or systems thinking might be because I am a millennial. As Baby Boomers were the generation heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement, their focus was on the concerns of the individual, the individual lost in the shuffle of the masses, the person ignored by society, the one on the bottom. However, as Baby Boomers moved into leadership and power roles in the world, this concern for the individual has shifted to those in power and those at the top. Presidents and Prime Ministers are elected for providing individual tax cuts, not for offering society things like education, healthcare and a social safety net.

Millennials grew up differently. Our experience was tremendously focused on the group. Our education was often focused on group work, we were taught to consider others, to share, to be respectful, to work as a team. We are also the social media generation. We often define ourselves by the communities we keep.

28c79aac89f44f2dcf865ab8c03a4201So with all this in mind, let’s turn to Netflix, who made all 10 seasons of Friends available to watch recently.

It only took Courtenay and I a few weeks to binge through all the episodes. Friends became a kind of houseguest, hanging out in the background as we cooked, read, interneted, played with our son, or snuggled up for the evening on the couch.

Friends was a culture defining show during its run. The quirky group of six young adults in New York, getting their footing career and relationship-wise, represented the experience of Generation X. Friends was decidedly un-Baby Boomer-like in how it portrayed its main characters and the world around them. The characters on Friends were not from the dominant generation; there was an undercurrent all along the way that despite personal and professional success, they still lived under the thumb of “The Man” (the Boomer Man).

Friends brought the culture of a disaffected Generation X to the fore. Many of the Gen-Xers I know strongly identified with all things Friends. Yet, Friends was also important for Millennials. Particularly for older Millennials, Friends was a glimpse into the life we were about to live (not really, but it sure seemed like it).

I was in 6th Grade when Friends airing started in 1994. I was in my 3rd year of university degree when Friends faded to black for the last time. For Generation Xers, the cast of Friends was living life along side them. For Millennials, Ross and Rachel, Chandler and Monica, Joey and Phoebe, were like older siblings, or cool older cousins, the hip kids at the back of the bus. They were the people we wanted be when we grew up. They showed us what young adulthood looked like as we lived our teenage years and first years of adulthood.

Re-watching Friends this time around was a completely different experience. Sure, I knew what was going to happen, but I now know so much better what it is like to fall in love, get married, become a parent, look for work, get an education, straddle that time between adolescence and adulthood. I could see myself in the characters, rather than seeing that older sibling.

But as we made our way through the series, I started noticing something more about Friends, something about community and group dynamics, something about relationships and being part of a group. And, I think there is something to learn from Friends. Something that pastors, church leaders and people in the pews would do well to pay attention to.

What made Friends so special was that it was about deeply flawed people. The characters had deep personal flaws and their lives were greatly affected because of them. Sure plot elements were contrived and needed to fit within the elements of a sit-com, but every episode didn’t resolve neatly and nicely at the end. Relationships were affected in the long term. Life decisions had long term effects on the show. Characters started relationships and broke up, got married and then divorced. They lost jobs and started over. They had issues with addiction, mental health, infertility, sexism, racism, education. They had children and complicated relationships with family. They had all kinds of issues to confront – a lot like people in real life do.

The six characters on Friends are not that different from people in churches – people who come with all manner of complex life issues, people who are deeply flawed, people struggling with relationships, work and family.

And again, like a lot of church people these problems always hovered below the surface. Sometimes conversations about the weather, sports, what to eat for dinner, music, or pop-culture easily slipped into issues rising up and taking over. Old fights were always just one wrong comment from being dredged up again.

And still like church people, the characters of Friends struggled along the way. They didn’t always handle each other and their issues well. They weren’t perfect and couldn’t keep their problems from affecting their relationships and their happiness. Things didn’t always work out (as much as a sit-com could allow for that).

Watching all 10 seasons of Friends again, really hit my millennial sensibilities. All that time spent doing team-work and learning how to relate to others as a kid, all the time that I spend thinking about congregational systems and group behaviour, all of my interest in how we interact as people in relationship was piqued by Friends this time around.

The thing that hit me was how those six Friends stayed committed to each other despite each other’s flaws, despite the problems and issues, despite the conflict and hurts and pains. It is where Friends diverges from recent hits like Mad Men, Breaking Bad or The Big Bang Theory (where characters seem especially close to blinking on commitment). Their flaws didn’t consume them. Their commitment to each other was never in question.

And this is where Friends so often diverges from the Church. At least in my experience, church people won’t commit to the flaws in other people. We commit to the good stuff, the easy stuff. But when the painful stuff rises to the surface we don’t stick around. Well, at least we find it hard to stay present.

I think we could use a little more Church according to Friends. And I struggle as a Millennial – who was brow-beaten in school with how to manage group relationships – when church people (especially Boomers) are quick to abandon that commitment to each other when our flaws start to show, and especially when our flaws affect our relationships.

I imagine I am not the only Millennial who struggles with this.

And at the risk of making broad generalizations, I think there truly is a difference between Boomers and Millennials. I think Boomers were raised by a generation who suffered collective PTSD after World War 2. I think Boomers were taught to keep the flaws under the rug, to send the problems away when they come to the surface and to, above all, pretend like everything is okay. They were taught this because this is how their parents, the G.I. Generation survived The Great Depression and World War 2.

But when our group dynamic and congregational systems are focused around pretending that the problems don’t exist, that our flaws are hidden, that conflict should be avoided at all costs, it is really off-putting for Millennials who were taught to work things out. We were taught to let the problems come to the surface, to be laid out on the table.

I am a High Church Millennial. I am a Lutheran Pastor. There are a million reasons that I stay committed to the Church. And the flaws and failings, the hurts and sufferings of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ are the last reasons that I would ever consider walking away from the church.

But if there was something that would push me away, it is how church systems and behaviours are built to avoid dealing with or even acknowledging those flaws and failings. It is really hard for me when otherwise intelligent, caring, compassionate individuals let unhealthy group dynamics and systems of behaviour rule. It is unbearable when we let… no, when we demand, that the status quo stomp on communities – on us.

If Friends can teach the Church anything, it is that we can get past our issues, we can love people despite their deep flaws, and most importantly, we can make the most important group dynamic be a commitment to loving each other.

I think Millennials need a church according to Friends, a church willing to commit to people, flaws and all.


Part 2 of Confessions of a High Church Millennial

Part 1 of Confessions of a High Church Millennial


Did you watch Friends? Have noticed unhealthy group dynamics in churches? Is there something we can learn? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik