The naming of generations is a fairly recent thing, beginning with “Baby Boomers” (born 1946-64). The defining moment for the Boomers was the Vietnam War and the “disestablishmentarianism” of the 1960’s. One of the establishments which began eroding was the traditional church, built for the most part on denominational loyalty. The late 1960’s represented the high point in member for most mainline denominations, including the newly formed United Methodist Church. (nearly 11,000,000 in 1968; now 7,700,00 and shrinking).
Belatedly the parents of the boomers were tagged with the label “Boosters” because after World War II, young adults uncritically joined, promoted, and boosted nearly everything honorable! TV personality and author Tom Brokaw would go on to write book about these personbeing defined by the Great Depression and World War II and called them “The Greatest Generation,” a term which then replaced the booster label. It is important, though, to remember “booster” because one of the things they joined and boosted was the church. In most churches it was the first generation to be “coed” in both Sunday School class and sitting together in worship.
The “Boomers’” children (1964-79) were ignominiously called “Generation X” and they relabeled themselves “Generation neXt”.
In retrospect, the next generation (1980-2000) is called “The Millenials.” They never knew a world without computers! They are the most “connected” generation in history in one sense, but much of their connectedness is through a screen, not face to face and hand in hand; and therefore, not so much heart to heart. Psychologists tell us they tend to have high self esteem because their parents reared them as “terrific kids.” Their loyalty(they would say “blind loyalty”) to marriage vows, corporate tenure, and church membership is the least of any generation in history.
We “oldsters” are saddened by the decline of mainline Protestantism, especially our beloved United Methodism, including the loss of the “millennials” in traditional worship. It is painful to look around the “family heritage church” and miss your own grandchildren. It is also painful to visit them in other cities and states and learn that church is not a part of their Sunday schedule. Recently, when we asked a lovely, brilliant granddaughter to light a candle at her aunt’s funeral, we realized she had never been an acolyte and had therefore never used a taper! This story is being repeated across our connection; therefore the “ice cube is melting.”
Now comes a spate of books telling us about the spirituality of the millenials. They use terms like “I am spiritual but not religious,” or “I believe in God but not in organized religion.” They write books like I Love Jesus and Hate Religion. Writers like Addie Zierman post lists on their blogs of “5 churchy phrases that are scaring off millenials,” which are (in her opinion):
- “The Bible clearly says…”
- “God will never give you more than you can handle”
- “We’re just here to love on these kids”
- You are either a “Believer, Unbeliever, or Backslider”
- “God is in control…has a plan…works in mysterious ways”
In the next five columns, I plan to document that the mainstream of Wesleyan theology agrees with Ms. Zierman — these terms “scare” us too! They are an example of the what happens when in the age of television, Internet, and student-led Bible studies, phrases become popular without critique or systematic reflection. All except #4 are Calvinistic in their origins and all have a greater comfort zone in fundamentalist circles. All are very authoritarian. None speaks of God’s name and nature being love, the drumbeat of John Wesley’s grace theology and Charles Wesley’s hymns.
In the 19th century Methodism set the theological tone for the Second Great Awakening and frontier evangelism with moving altar calls to the “last, the least and the lost” which rejected Calvinism’s doctrine of Jesus’ atonement being limited to the elect. Very few in the American backwoods saw themselves as having much evidence of being among God’s “elect.” They rejoiced in hearing a preacher quote our Lord as saying, “Whosoever cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out.” (KJV, the “common English” Bible of the 19th century). Victims of abuse, poverty, disease, and the death of children and spouses flocked to hear preachers proclaim the words of Jesus: “Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The Methodist voice was heard throughout the land.
So how and when did we lose our voice? Why did author Jeff Bethke have to grow up thinking of the church as he experienced it as being “religion”—rules, regulations, taboos, threats, guilt trips, stigmas, and bad news? How sad that his pastor did not tell this little boy being reared in poverty and tossed from school to school and tenement to tenement that he was a child of a God who loved him in spite of the unfairness of life. How sad that he never heard of “grace theology.” How sad that he ended up with a theological chasm between Jesus and the Christian religion.
Every day in every workplace, and every night on one’s social network, we hear the words, “I’ve got to get back on PLAN.” What they are echoing is the Calvinist teaching that God has a pre-programmed track for us to stay on or be lost. (yes, Jesus spoke of “narrow way,” but a “way” is different from a “plan.”) Preachers and tract writers repeatedly use the term “Plan of Salvation.”
I agree with the Millenials! What saddens me is that we have lost our voice just as the Internet gave us a world wide medium to speak to the Millenial generation—the ones very scarce in most of our churches. In most United Methodist Churches, they would hear very few of the “5 church phrases that are scaring millenials.” But what would they hear? Would they hear a message that connects with their questions, their dilemma, their frustration, their disenchantment, their loss of faith in many aspect s of American culture?
This can be our finest hour. The culture is another “melting ice cube.” The millenials are more interested in security than in liberty—a definite shift from the values of the “greatest generation” who went to Europe and Asia to fight for freedom from the totalitarianism of Hitler’s Nazism and Tojo’s Empire of the Rising Sun. If we can find our voice, we can attract an audience.
In a few places across our connection we are “connecting.” Usually these are mega churches with charismatic preachers who have mastered the art of multi-media worship. Today there is not much uniformity in UMC worship if one just “drops in” to a United Methodist Church after moving to a new community, going to college, or being on trip. In so many instances, after worship, the last word we preachers want to hear is the commentary of the millenials—“boring.”
Also, we will never recapture the millennials if our only message is one of invective accusative language about very divisive socio-economic cultural issues. The 2012 General Conference, the subsequent rulings of the Judicial Council, and the provocative agenda of the Council of Bishops are all leaving us without shepherding. We must read Ezekiel 34—“Shouldn’t shepherds tend the flock? …without a shepherd my flock was scattered; and when it was scattered it became food for all the wild animals.” Millennials are skeptical enough of religion, so let us lift up Jesus within the highest echelons of our Church.
We make few converts from the pulpit unless we present Jesus as the Gospel writers did—one who “came to seek and to save the lost.” People are hurting and they don’t need to be berated. We preachers need to know that those whom we often criticize are measuring their jobs against our pensions, parsonages, medical insurance, and guaranteed appointments (if we are in “full connection”). We can easily be seen as Wesley’s hearers saw their village vicar. People hearing us must “know that we care before they care if we know.”
We must flip the “5 churchy phrases that are scary” to a Wesleyan context and vocabulary. This means “getting our message straight.” Then we must use our connection to real advantage and “get our message out.”
Forget what “used to be.” Ole “Usta” is dead. As Len Sweet teaches, let us throw our anchors out beyond the treacherous breakers, and, let them draw us beyond the troubled waters. God is with us still!
Jesus described the ridiculous image of a camel’s going through the eye of a needle; then he said, “With God, all things are possible.” This is my optimism about the “comeback” of a chastened, humbled, United Methodism. Bishop Bevel Jones picked up somewhere a catchy sentence that he often repeated and it is so true: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” If we can to that, we can attract millions of millenials to our newly vitalized church.