Tag Archives: generations

The Church is no longer invited to the Party

Luke 14:1, 7-14

But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Read the Whole Passage)

Sermon

For most of the summer, we have been hearing the stories of Jesus ministry, dropping in on scenes from his travels, hearing parables and other teachings. Stories like Mary and Martha, the Lord’s Prayer and the Good Samaritan. Last week we heard about the women who was bent over or stopped for 18 years. All Jesus had to do was reach out to touch her and she stood up straight, she was liberated from her condition by Jesus’ compassion.

Today, Jesus in invited by some big whig pharisees to a dinner party. An invite that only important people get. And with all eyes on him, Jesus is sounding a lot like Martha Stewart. Jesus is giving dinner party advice. About where to sit and how to avoid giving offense or being embarrassed. Don’t sit too high so that you aren’t asked to move to a lesser seat. Imagine that drunken and sleazy wedding guest trying to cozy up to the one of the bridesmaids at the head table of a wedding banquet. Not cool, Jesus says. Instead sit below your station. Find a table at the back of the banquet hall, and the bride’s father will come and move you closer to the front, and everyone will see how important you are! You can almost see the headline across a house and home magazine: “Where should you sit at the party?” find out pg. 23.

The only problem with this kind of dinner party advice is that it sounds opportunistic or faux humble coming from Jesus. And isn’t Jesus supposed to promote authentic humility? Sitting low to move high is not humble. Shouldn’t Jesus tell us to sit low and stay low?

These days, proper dinner party etiquette is mostly a niche interest, a vanity for the kind of people who worry about centrepieces, dinnerware settings and chair covers. But 2000 years ago in Hebrew culture, social standing was extremely important and it came to play anytime people gathered together. Each guest would sit according to the station in the community and knowing where you sat at a dinner party was about knowing how to rank yourself in society. And everyone knew where they belonged, on top, on the bottom or in between. And where you stood was a sign how important you were, how much respect you commanded, how you stood in the eyes of the powerful, and even where you stood with God. In fact, your social standing had a lot to do with where you stood with God. The more important you were socially, the more you had earned God’s favour. But perhaps most crucially to today’s story is the effect of honour and shame in Jesus’ world. To be moved down to a lesser place would bring shame upon yourself, and shame would lessen your social standing, and therefore lessen your favour with God. But for a host to seat you below your standing would be shame for the host, so it would be essential for the host to make sure that each guest was given the proper respect and honour due their standing. To be moved into the place of honour, was like being ushered a little closer to the gates of heaven.

The world that Jesus lived in was a little more Downton Abbey than we are used to… We just aren’t as hyper attentive to who are most and least important people in the room.

Still, in many ways our world is full of the same kind of concern for where we stand, and the same ranking of who is in and who is out, who is on the top and who is on the bottom.

Last week, Pastor Stan spoke to us of how the image of this woman bent over, unable to see anyone’s face but only their feet, that this was an image for the church. We are feeling bent over and burdened like this woman. It is a surprising turn for us, for the church. We used to occupying a place a of power and privilege in the world, we used to be seated at the places of honour. We used to host the influential and the powerful in our buildings and communities. Yet, these days we feel like we have been left off the guest-list by the world, or if we are invited to the party, it is to be the court jester. And when it comes to our table, we feel like there are more than enough places, that the few guests who are here, can choose any seat because you can’t offend an empty chair. Our tables feel empty.

However, there is more to Jesus’ dinner party advice than just knowing where to sit. We should realize that we have been guilty of exactly the things he names. When we had the power, we were often guilty of sending people down the table. We made sure that people knew they weren’t good enough for the seats of honour, and we saved the best spots for ourselves. And when people stopped coming to fill the cheap seats, we blamed them for not knowing their place and fulfilling their duty.

And now… now, we have been sent down the table. The world has told the church that we were sitting too high for our station. People are choosing sports, shopping, recreation, or sleeping in, rather than being at church on Sunday mornings. It has been happening for decades. And now as the baby boomers enter retirement, they would rather golf or go the cabin or travel than be in church. Generation Xers don’t trust institutions like us, and would rather build their own communities and their own families. Millennials are tired of the church trying to attract them in with loud music and flashy services, they want a church that wants to honestly deal with their doubts instead of shushing their questions.

Jesus’ advice to us about dinner parties is a lot more than it seems indeed.

But it is Jesus’ next piece of advice that should really get our attention. Dont’ invite those who can repay the favour… instead invite those who cannot.

For as much as the church is guilty of sending people up and down the table, we have also  been generous, we have welcomed strangers like the refugee family that arrived this summer. We have fed the hungry, cared for the sick, and opened our doors to our community. We have been a curious mix of generous and concerned with status, we have helped those in need even as we let them know their place was down the table.

But with Jesus’ last piece of advice, he names the thing that we have forgotten. Jesus reminds us that the table is not ours. The food, the chairs, the drinks, the invitations. They were never ours to control.

The table is God’s. And God has invited us to it. God has not invited friends and brothers and relative and rich neighbours. God has invited the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. God has invited us. We are the ones who cannot repay the invitation, we have no table, no place, no welcome good enough for God… and yet God’s table, Jesus’ table is always open to us.

And at God’s table each place is the place of honour. There is no moving up or moving down. There is no sitting higher with the risk of being sent down. There is no sitting lower to work our way up. All the places are the same, all are the best, all are open for us. With God, there is simply a place at God’s table. A place for us, each and every one of us.

Jesus’ dinner party advice is more than it seems. And even though the church has not always been the best guest or host, we have a God who is the ultimate host. God is the one who always has a place for us. God is the one who welcomes us to the place of honour. God is the one to whom the table belongs.

So when it seemed like we as a church sat at the place of honour in the glory days, or now when it feels like have been left off the guest list… neither has been the truth. For we have always had a spot at God’s able, a spot no better, and no worse than anyone else.

God’s table has always been open, set and ready for all. Ready for us.

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We can’t do Gold Star Christianity anymore – Clinging to the Wrong Trappings

This spring, I attended a continuing education event featuring Craig Van Gelder, a professor of missiology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. He told a story about his experience growing up in the 50s and 60s and going to Sunday School. Each year, gold stars were handed out for students with perfect attendance records. Craig recalled receiving several such stars over the years. My first thought was that surely even faithful every Sunday church attenders at least took holidays or travelled on occasion?

Craig continued his story talking about how the gold stars were not just a quirk of the church he grew up in. When his family travelled, they made sure to attend church of the same denomination as his home church. He would attend Sunday School, get a signed form proving his attendance, take it back home and hand it in to make sure he could receive a gold star.

The Sunday School programs across the denomination were set up to promote the Gold Stars. Gold Stars were a denominational industry! Craig said that these gold stars really meant something at the time.

I have been thinking about the Gold Stars for months… The Gold Stars are symbolic of the intangible gap in my experience in church land as I serve as a pastor. The Sunday School that I attended growing up was full of regular, nearly every Sunday attending children and families. But I doubt there would even be one student who would achieve Gold Star status. I don’t understand what the Gold Star means, I never will.

These days regular attenders are measured by those who attend monthly, not weekly, because most churches would not have a statistically relevant group of Gold Star members. That means most kids attending Sunday School these days attending once month during the program year (September thru November, January thru May) might go to Sunday school around 8 times a year.

A Gold Star means 52 times. A regular active Sunday School attendee today is attending 8 times. 52 down to 8.

And while most churches are probably not handing out gold stars, we so often try to keep “doing” church as if the gold star criteria is the ideal.

Another way of putting it, we are holding on to the trappings of church while forgetting what they were created for in the first place.

When Gold Stars were used, it was understood that Sunday School was an effective tool for faith formation. Achieving Gold Stars was a good tool to promote people accessing Sunday School, and thereby being formed in faith.

But is Sunday School an effective tool to form children in faith when it is only accessed 8 times a year?

Last weekend I participated in a panel discussion at a church event with 3 other young leaders in the church. We challenged our older colleagues, parishioners and church members to consider the struggles and opportunities facing the church in North America as we enter deeper and deeper into the 21st Century.

We didn’t plan it, but we all talked about dropping the trappings of the 50s and 60s, so that we can proclaim the Gospel today. We talked about inclusive and transcendent images for God. We talked about how judgemental attitudes have stood in the way of young people connecting with their faith at church. We talked about re-evaluating and putting to bed out of date church programs and structures. We talked about changing modes of communication and how people now access community differently through technology.

And it was a welcome message. People of our generation and people of that 50s and 60s generation, those before and those in between all embraced the need for change that churches face today.

Yet, I could sense that letting go of the trappings was not so easy.

And it is the trappings that are killing the us. Churches are aging, shrinking, and closing because we so often refuse to let go of the trappings of the past.

So what are the trappings?

During the panel I suggested that learning to ask good questions, questions that cannot be answered with yes or no, questions that we don’t already have the answer to are good questions.

Good questions show us where we are clinging to the trappings.

Questions like:

How do we best do faith formation for children?

If Gold Stars and Sunday School for students who only come 8 times a year is the answer, you are clinging to a trapping.

How do we best carry out the various ministries of the church?

If the answer is committees and councils full of vacancies or who don’t meet at all and who don’t know why they exist is the answer, you are clinging to a trapping.

How do we best express images for God in a diverse and inclusive way?

If your answer is male only language rooted in the bible and hymns published in the 50s is the answer, you are clinging to a trapping.

How do we best communicate the activities of our church in our community?

If your answer is phonebook ads, newspaper buys and posters mail outs, you are clinging to a trapping.

How do we best proclaim God’s forgiveness and mercy for sinners? If your answer is condemning people for not having the right gender, skin colour, age, religion, vocation, etc… you are clinging to a trapping.

How do we best reach our friends and neighbours? If your answer is to wait for the young people to come back and to do their share, you are clinging to a trapping.

The trappings are killing us. The trappings are often why churches are shrinking and closing. Gold Stars have nothing to do with Jesus. At least not in 2015.

Yet, the struggle that churches have giving up the trappings, giving up all those things that we think are so central to being church and to having faith, but are not… The struggle is so often rooted in guilt and a sense of failure. We think if we stop doing Sunday School or having an Evangelism committee, or saying the old version of the Lord’s Prayer or putting an ad in the phonebook or if we welcome people different than us or if we aren’t full of young people like churches were in the 50s… we think we have failed.

Here is the thing about trappings. They worked for a time. Gold Stars worked for a time. And the trapping that replace Gold Stars for Sunday School students that come 8 times a year will eventually be out of date and unhelpful too. But we need to figure out the trappings that are right for today. Just as those other trappings we refuse to let go of, were right in their day too.

We can’t do Gold Star christianity anymore because its day has passed. Just like being an iPhone pastor will sound old fashioned some day in the future… probably in about 6 months.

Because in the end, it isn’t about Gold Stars or iPhones…

It is about Jesus, and grace for sinners and mercy for the marginalized and bread and wine for the hungry, and being God’s church doing God’s work.


What are the trappings that are holding you back? How do we let go of the trappings?Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Church Generation Wars – Millennials pushing for Boomer territory

It has been a busy few weeks, thus things are slow on the blog. I don’t like blogging about blogging, so suffice it to say when the work of being an “In Real Life” pastor takes up more time (as in a couple of conferences and 4 funerals), the time I have to devote to being “The Millennial Pastor” is cut back.

Now, speaking of boomers and millennials, the two conferences I was attending were a clergy study conference and a youth weekend retreat.

The youth retreat was pretty much what you might expect: loud, busy, exciting, fun.

The clergy conference, made up of mostly boomer pastors, was adultish, lots of chats over coffee and beer, and an interesting speaker. Also fun.

However, I noticed that both events were distinctly generational.

The pastors all sat in a big room, the speaker “presented” to us and then offered Q&A at the end (which usually means ” try to frame tangential personal stories as questions” time). The speaker imparted knowledge to us, with minimal interaction –  a normative boomer educational experience.  A few of us young-uns were tweeting, but not without the pre-requisite stares for being on our phones. Nothing makes you feel like you’re teenager again than a glare from someone who thinks you are texting your girlfriend, instead of opening the conversation to those outside the room. The experience was a distinctly boomer one. While of course not all boomers prefer the knowledge imparting expert, the format is so familiar to boomers, it might as well be a part of their DNA.

The youth retreat, on the other hand, was interactive, open source, and tweeting during sessions was encouraged. Now, the fact that I was co-presenting at the youth retreat might have had something to do with that. But my co-presenter and I purposely planned the sessions to be about interaction, about the group’s knowledge over our expert knowledge. The experience of this event was distinctly millennial. As one of the oldest millennials, I was presenting to the youngest of our generation, those born just before the year 2000. We all knew how to function in the open source format. The interactivity and group work ethos is, of course, not the preference of all millennials, but familiar to us right from early grade school. It is how we have learned to be in the world, and social media only amplifies this way of being.

The experience of these back-to-back events pointed me to an important reality facing the world and the church. Millennial culture is beginning to demand cultural space. Boomer culture has been the dominant one since they moved into early adulthood. But as the children of boomers start to come into adulthood, we will demand more and more of society’s cultural and popular attention.

The reality of this impending change struck me in a couple of signpost moments at the clergy conference. One morning, this Kid President pep talk was used in worship.

Now, I don’t know if my boomer colleagues know Kid President or not, but he is one of the many icons of millennial social media-viral-internet culture. In the video, he made distinct references to our cultural era: the Michael Jordan baseball stint allowing to make the movie Space Jam, and Journey’s resurgence because of the TV show Glee.

What was interesting is that the YouTube clip was shown without explanation or apology – it was assumed that showing a video like this was completely normal. This would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. Hip and cool videos have been shown before, but either by millennials ourselves, or as an example of hip and cool youth culture.

schultz_smallNow, boomer pop references didn’t disappear as the presenter put up an image of WW2 German soldier, supposedly named Sergeant Schultz? I am not sure who it was, none of us young-uns got the reference. But our Boomer colleagues all did and thought it was hilarious.

As I reflect on this small moment of a Kid President video being shown at conference of mostly boomer pastors without explanation, apology or consternation, it is the first time in my memory in 31 years of being a church person and 5 years as a pastor that a pop culture reference in an intergenerational gathering church has not been a cultural commute for me, or prefaced with an apology for being a culture commute for boomers.

Before that moment, I have always been the one (or the generation) expected pick up on the cultural references of my elder boomer colleagues, or explain why I am operating outside of the dominant culture. This is no small thing.

It is the toe-hold beginning of something bigger coming down the pipe.

It is something that is happening all around us everyday out in the world, but something that many churches have been resisting. Millennial pop culture is demanding to be inculturated. The once entrenched cultural realm of the boomers is being threatened by their children. It happens in every generation, but our media saturated world makes the tension front and centre. Does anyone really think all those article berating lazy millennials are really about lazy millennial? No, they are the denigration of the coming of age of the next big generation. Boomers have enjoyed their cultural privilege, and won’t give it up easily.

So the question becomes, is our distinctly boomer church ready to share their cultural territory? Are we ready for live tweeting worship? Announcements being made primarily on Facebook? Millennial pop-culture references coming up in sermons without explanation? Or even, are boomers ready to explain their pop-culture references to us as it can no longer be expected that everyone knows them?

My hope is that we millennials don’t slip into the same position of privilege that our boomer parents have. I hope we don’t forget the experience of the cultural commute, of having to learn the culture of the majority group, while your own is mostly ignored or apologized for.

We will be soon the dominant social group – the music, film, TV, and art of our generation will become the media that everyone will have to know in order to follow the cultural conversation. We will be the ones who will be marketed to, and thus the ones moving into political, economic and organizational power.

We will remember being the minority once we become the majority?

Millennial pop-culture is going to simply become pop-culture. The Church is going to have to recognize this generational shift, or risk being left in the 1960s, with Hogan’s Heroes.

What remains is what kind of church we will be. Will the church stick with Sergeant Schultz, “I see nothing!” or will be a little more like Kid President, “I’m on your team, be on my team.”

______________________

Where do you stand in the generational culture wars? Where is the church headed when it comes to clashing generations?

Share in the comments

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or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

The first time I realized I was a Millennial.

yb1I am a Millennial.

But I didn’t always know this.

I remember learning about Baby Boomers and Generation X in social studies, even as long ago as junior high. I also remember wondering where I fit in with these generations. My parents were boomers, I could do the math knowing they were born in the late 40’s. But the Millennials didn’t have their name yet. Was I Gen X? I had heard of Kurt Cobain but he died when I was in fifth grade. I was still in high school when the Dot Com bubble burst, not a new computer science grad out of work. I was barely in grade school when the Gulf war started, not of enlisting age. So of my friends have divorced parents, but we were not latch key kids, we were the beginning of everyone gets a trophy sports. Being a member of Generation X sounded cool… but I never quite fit in.

The first time I really realized that people born at different times have different experiences happened when I was 20. I was working at a bible camp. My best friend/camp director, and I had been away at a church youth event over the weekend. We came back to camp after a storm had knocked down trees. One large birch tree had fallen onto some live power lines running between buildings. We immediately began thinking of the people we needed to call: the county power company, an arborist, an electrician…and we went to get the phone book. On the way we met a volunteer. A man in his 70s who had been a life long farmer… probably a member of the GI generation or Silent generation. He scoffed at our idea to phone the experts. He set out solve the problem himself!

The next thing we knew he had the camp tractor, a small open cab John Deere, and a chainsaw. He drove the tractor right up to the tree, which was precariously leaning on a thin power line. He lifted the bucket so that it propped up the tree. We had no idea where this was going, but we knew it wasn’t going to be good. Then this old farmer started the chainsaw and started climbing up the tractor, up onto the engine, up the arms of the bucket and then stood in the bucket. Chainsaw running. No one else to run the tractor.

Having used the tractor myself several times, for more mundane things like mowing the lawn, pulling trailers and moving picnic tables, I knew that the bucket had several clear warning labels on it. One in particular had a stickman standing in the bucket with a big red circle with line through it stamped on the picture.

So 100 yards away my friend and I stood, covering our eyes as this old farmer leaned out of the bucket and had a leg dangling in the air 20 feet off the ground. Then he began to cut the tree, and off came the top, enough for him to use the tractor to guide the rest of the trunk down.

And the tree was off the power lines. The problem was solved. The old farmer was the hero of the day. And the whole time he acted like this was the most normal thing in world.

I looked over at my friend and said, “No wonder his generation got a lot more done than ours.”

With that statement I had articulated for the first time, how the experiences of different generations lead us to different ways of seeing and approaching the world.

Over the last few years, as the world has begun to get a clearer picture of “our” generation, I have gotten a clearer picture of myself. Like all millennials, I share an experience of the world different than the generations before me.

I wasn’t 18 until after Y2K, the worst (or best) thing that was going to happen to me on the millennium was that I might get to miss a few days of the 11th grade in the new year. I was in the second week of my first year of university when planes started crashing into buildings on 9/11. If I lived in the US, there might have been pressure on me to enlist for the 2nd Iraq war, a hot topic in my 20th century American History class. I took most of my class notes on a laptop, I could submit papers by email and professors were making websites with course material.

By the time I was finishing my MDiv in my mid-twenties, I had been on Facebook for years, I was building  world wide communities on online discussion forums, I was using a smartphone as my only phone line, and I had started and given up on several blogs.  My adult life has been defined by global terror crisis, global financial crisis, and the internet.

Mostly, the internet.

And in one important way my life has been defined by another characteristic – one that separates me from most of millennial peers. I have been a Lutheran Christian my whole life. I have been called to serve Jesus, to even be an authority within a religious institution. For most of my Boomer and older parishioners, the abnormality was being a non-believer. For most of my grade school friends, going to church was unusual thing to do.

This small distinction makes a world of difference. And in 4+ years of ordained ministry, this little fact has been changing everything. The grief that so many older church goers bear, wondering why society stopped sending people to church, is simply not an experience that I can share. I sometimes feel like I am at a funeral for a person I didn’t know. Everyone is mourning, but I can’t. Oh, I am also the pastor leading the funeral.

I suspect that it is going to be the reality of my vocation for a long time. Giving my people glimpses of this new world, being a glimpse in ways that I don’t know. I have been preaching, teaching, and talking about how the world is different than it was 50 years ago since I started ministry.

But that seems to be the life of a Millennial Pastor. For now.