Generation Gaps

When a pastor resigns, chaos reigns. Well, perhaps not that dramatically, but what follows is a time of uncertainty. We had spent a year trying to establish ourselves at a rather small church where everyone related to each other – except for us. The pastor was also new – having arrived the month before we did. His last sermon ended with the announcement that the decision had been made for him and his family to step down and to move on. We decided not to stay.

As I said, the church we visted just had the same thing happen to them, but he served between 10-15 years so there’s a lot of emotion going on. There’s the betrayal: “I expected you to be the pastor here until the day you die, how can you do this to me?” There’s the blame: “I bet it was so-and-so with their incessant questions that put him up to this!” There’s the confusion, shock, talk, and out-right hurt about it all being so unexpected.

In my church, it was probably the result of a young pastor not able to get the older congregation on board with his vision. In this new church it was probably the opposite case – an older pastor who was not on the same page with a younger congregation. Some degree of internal conflict seems to be inidicated – perhaps the pastor wasn’t happy with the recent changes or his advice being ignored. His last sermon indicated that he had been through a tough week; I imagine things haven’t gotten easier in the week since it was delivered.

This tug-of-war grudge match between elders and youth has to end. Elders set the example – insist on having things their own way and make no compromises. The result is one that the youth have followed all too well. But youth has an expiration date that demands that it’s millenials step aside for the next generation all too soon. So on the one hand, the elder-run churches are dying out more quickly than it’s non-existant youth can take over; and on the other hand the youth-run church has to push out it’s eldest to keep the youthful appearance and vibe going. Both churches have missing generations and are quite disconected between the generations it does have.

Either way, the approach that works for one generation isn’t reaching the other. It’s creating deeper divisions and mistrust in the church as neither side is willing to meet the other half-way. It’s just one more of the many reasons why we lose so many, both members and pastors.

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New People

Being a first time visitor in a church never really gets any easier. For us, the process starts with the internet. We try to rule out churches whose websites indicate that their style or theology is not a good fit. I’ve seen all sorts of church websites – some decidedly in the 90s or still in the 00s and some up-to-date. One was even hacked and replated by propaganda for another religion, pressumably nobody bothered to check and the change went undetected for months.

We’ve noticed that churches aren’t always particularly clear about the specifics of what they believe. In the case of one of our former churches, their sign indicated that they were a ‘Community Church’ particularly they were associated with the state-wide Baptist group, which was an offshoot of the Southern Baptist Church – but if you were to ask of the members if they were Southern Baptists, they would have told you ‘no’ even if their beliefs and practices are identical. Sometimes the websites will link to ‘what we believe’ or ‘doctrines of our faith’ the ones that do are a gold mine of information. The make the decision much easier. Not all are that considerate, so in absense of such information it’s more of a roll of the dice sort of thing.

So we tried out a new church. The church’s website showed us that their style was the kind that we had been missing for quite some time: contemporary. There was one song I didn’t know, one song I had heard of but never heard, and one song I knew quite well. It hit me then that I had been out of the game for awhile and that most of the songs I still remebered as having been contemporary were older than five years and likely retired. I’d have to learn a whole new batch of songs. Which I’m okay with. After doing hymns for so long, new songs are a refreshing change.

Like one of our former churches, the contemporary music was followed immediately by ther sermon. The sermon was 3/4 over with by the time the Bible was referred to. I’m a big believer that if an example exists of men and women doing whatever ‘it’ is, then there ought be an example of one of each. So I think the pastor missed an opportunity to point out how any number of women in the Bible fit the subject of his sermon.

For me the awkward part is usually communion and/or offering. You see, we’ve been to so many churches that do these two things differently that it’s difficult to follow along how each church wants it done when there’s a lack of communication on how the church usually does it to first time guests. For example, usually there’s four ushers, two standing in the middle aisle and one on each of the far aisles, the plates are usually passed to/from the ushers who give it to the next row. This church had double that and the ushers alternate rows. I was expecting the offering plate from the row ahead of me not realizing that the offering plate was actually right next to me. During communion, some churches ask us that we go forward, others ask that we wait with the elements for a small blessing, and we didn’t realize that was just supposed to take them then and there as the tray was passed to us. This lack of communication is not comfortable.

And like that it was over – but one of the elders took a moment to speak to the church. His use of the words ‘transition’ ‘moving on’ ’caused pain’ ‘like a cut’ ‘needs healing’ suggested that they were going through something together that was causing change around them and that they could ask the deacons for more information. As a first time visitor, it seemed like a worryingly awkward and non-specific statement that really makes you wonder if it’s worth getting involved at a time of change like that. Thanks to the internet cache, it appears that the mysterious transition is that the senior pastor has resigned just this month after more than a decade of service – it seem sudden and unexpected, so it’s no wonder that people are feeling hurt by the sudden change. So we were uncertain at the start, uncertain all the way through, and uncertain by the end of it all – but that’s what it is to be a first time visitor at a church.

We’re Christians, not Friends

I can’t speak for everyone’s church experience, but I can say something about mine. I’ve noticed that my fellow millennials and I don’t really speak to each other. We show up, sit in our usual seats (usually spread out in different areas of the Church) and don’t interact before, during, or after the service. The case might well be is that we’re in different phases at this point and time: some are married with young children, some are single with young children, some are married without children, and some are single without children. It just seems odd.

I remember reading that America is in a time where people in general have fewer friendships but the friendships they have are deeper. ‘Quality, not quantity’ some might say. It just seems to me that given the small number of millennials in general at my church, that there’s hardly any friendship between them at all. We are a group of people with enough in common to be at the same place and the same time, but nothing special enough about it to turn our acquaintanceship into a friendship.

One would think that the church’s primary mission ought to be to encourage all kinds of healthy relationships between people – but I often find that message is so marriage-focused that many people are often ignored when they need to be connected to in friendship the most. Jesus’ teachings indicated that anybody who left behind their physical family would find a spiritual one in the Church. Jesus never required marriage as a metaphor for the Christ / Church relationship – that’s something the church had read into relationships for men and women based off of it’s own ideas. As a consequence, partial families and single people are often preached against for their perceived imperfection while married couples are praised for their obedience to the church’s ideas.

For single believers, friendship is often not on the menu. With so many single women being taught marriage preparation for years and years, they first questions on their mind is whether or not they are cheating on their future spouse in any given interaction with guys. They’re not God and so they don’t know that the guy on the other side of the aisle might or might not be him, they err on the side of caution that it isn’t and act accordingly so that sin is avoided. At any rate, they are taught not to initiate relationships as that is not her role.

There’s no relaxing or taking it easy and no friendships being encouraged out of fear. Single women usually outnumber single guys – I can’t speak to their experience in small churches like mine. I can say that they hold all of the cards but if they’re not willing to place them on the table, then there’s nothing anyone else can do to hurry up the game along but wait on him to take and complete his turn however long it takes.

It’s also not easy to bridge the divide between the millennials who are married with kids and the ones that aren’t. How do you become or remain friends with someone who is so busy that they have precious little time or someone who seems to have all the time in the world? I honestly believe that Christianity has missed the point of Scripture – the church is a family of siblings – brothers and sisters in the faith. The church is not a family of married couples – of wives and husbands in the faith. In a time when quality relationships are few, the church is certainly missing out on any contribution it could make so long as marriage is more important than friends.

Just Believe

Christian movies can sometimes get a little theologically unsound in the quest for satisfying family entertainment. In one I just saw (spoiler alert) the resolution is that the intervention of the main character’s unborn and un-concieved baby brother in Heaven somehow saved her life because it was established that adults cannot interfere with divine directives, the suggestion is that non-adults do have some sway with what decisions are made in Heaven. That’s problematic from every way you look at it.

I could talk about the idea that people exist as spiritually masculine or spiritually feminine entities prior to being born. I could talk about the idea that unborn and never-born souls are both portrayed as people with personalities in Heaven. I could talk about the mysterious intervention that allowed an unborn-spirit to affect change in heaven when adult-spirits are forbidden from doing so. But ultimately the movie is just a fiction.

What is not a fiction is our tendency to evolve our theology as our understanding increases over the centuries. Think about the theology of life. Ancient cultures knew the reality of death in that it could take anyone at any time and the most vulnerable were taken most frequently. Some cultures wouldn’t bother to name newborn until they had lived at least a week. Even then, it was written that should an infant that died before being a month old, it was to be treated as if it hadn’t lived at all and ought not be mourned. It would be buried in an unmarked grave by someone who wasn’t related to the family so that not even the parents would know where it was located. Their theology of life and death fit their understanding for the world they lived in. But through our medical knowledge and technology, we have managed to fight back death and to rescue souls from it’s clutches quite successfully. So our theology about life and death reflects that change. The loss of an infant is rare, so we encourage the grieving process to take fully. But this has opened us up to a theology of life that more than a little confusing when we try to explain it out fully where is where the idea that the spirits of the unborn exist as boys or girls in heaven comes from – which Scripture doesn’t plainly suggest because I’m not even certain that the ancient culture it was written to would have believed something like that.

So too, has the theology of Heaven and Hell been altered as people changed their understanding and beliefs regarding it. Back when I did a Bible Study called Erasing Hell, I happened to find one of those Old Testament Bible verses that was referring to life after death, but it wasn’t like Heaven and it wasn’t like Hell. I had discovered one of the passages describing Sheol. The belief in Sheol was common up until the time of the second temple. It was basically the understanding that there was a huge underground cavern where the souls of all of the dead would reside – righteous and unrighteous alike. King David likely believed this to be the case – that when he died he would go down to Sheol and reunite with the first son he had with Bathsheba. By the time Jesus was preaching, Sheol had been divided into a an unrighteous section and a righteous section known as Abraham’s Bosom. By then, contact with other cultures had influenced the unrighteous section sometimes referred to as Gehenna to have something of a resemblance to Hades. Abraham’s Bosom eventually became Heaven and Hades/Gehenna became Hell. By the middle ages, the theology about Purgatory developed as a temporary punishment zone while un-confessed sin was being payed for and the soul was being refined with fire before moving onto it’s final destination. Sheol, Abraham’s Bosom, Gehenna, Hades, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory are different understandings of the same concept: that our souls exist in an eternal state of some form, somewhere, doing something. And it’s also proof of the human tendency to pile it on thick with regard to how we punish ourselves for the mistakes we make and imagine what the eternal consequences will be.

Regarding matters of life and death, we believe differently than the generations before us, and so shall the generations after us continue to modify their beliefs to be different than ours when looked at them from a span of time of centuries. I think the point is to recognize that no one belief has the monopoly of being ‘correct’ for in their own time each belief was right – just as for us right now what we believe is what’s best. Some of our most dearly held beliefs today will be irrelevant tomorrow. That’s the mystery of faith – to accept the unknown and the unknowable to be true. It seems that pretending that we know how everything works from eternity past to eternity future to be short-sighted and almost a lack of faith altogether. But I think that’s why Jesus pointed to the children as our example – they just believe. They don’t need a complicated explanation about being created in eternity-past and pre-destined to be among the elect. They don’t need a thought-out description of delights of Heaven or the horrors of Hell. That’s what real faith is like – just believing, which admittedly is easier to do without annoying facts or cultural information. But I’d rather know what I know and try my best to believe even if it’s difficult than to not know and have an easy time of believing things.There’s no going back for me, but I just have to believe that whatever the enduring truths of Scripture are, it’ll all work itself out in eternity somehow and that is going to take some serious faith.

The Something Missing

Imagine, if you will, that when you arrive to church on Sunday you discover that the worship style that you’re used to has suddenly been replaced with a different one. Not only that, but an announcement is made that the change is a permanent one. Turns out all of the churches in the entire county agreed to make the change. “But you’re still free to sing the songs that you like as much as you want at home!” The pastor suggests.

So the first week you do just that – you play some songs that you find on YouTube and sing along the best you can. But something’s missing.

Going back to church, you have to put up with the new style again and it might grate on your nerves as you realize – that song that was your absolute favorite, that made you feel like God himself was right there with you while you were singing – you’re never going to get to sing it in church with the rest of the congregation ever again.

But you go home and sing your favorite song, by yourself. You sing it half a dozen times throughout the week, but something’s missing.

Yet another Sunday with the new style and it seems to add five minutes to the service. But one member opts to do a ‘special’ and performs one of the old songs that lifts up your spirit. It’s then that you realize that you’ve been drained a little bit of joy at a time each Sunday. But you don’t have to imagine that – if you’re in my neck of the woods then hymns are the fourth person of the trinity and they are not in any danger of being demoted from their lofty position. But hymns don’t work for me.

On Sunday, the choir sang a song from my past – Above All. I missed the song so much, I sang along as quietly as possible. I surprised myself that I got it’s lyrics quite correct as I have a tendency to mix them up and get them out of order. It had been years since I sang that song at church. It was different though – the last time everyone was singing that song together. I know, I could technically join the choir and sing one contemporary song during a performance for the church each month – but the thought of that is intimidating. Would you be particularly thrilled with the idea that the only way for the songs you like to be welcome in church was for you to sing them for the church while everyone else listens silently?

For us, something has been missing every Sunday that we go to church – Contemporary music. Sure, we get to sing it as much as we want at home but it’s not the same. It’s almost as strange as it would be to sing hymn songs at home all alone and never again at church. The obvious solution would be to go to another church. Problem is that the vast majority of the ones here do not do contemporary music either; and worse – their theology is the polar opposite of our own, so there’s no way we’re setting foot in that type of church again.

I fail to understand why a county that is 80% Southern Baptist is also 80% hymn-singing traditional Southern Baptist churches. (Then again, I refuse to attend a Southern Baptist church again, but it’s more of a question of style than denomination.) Why must every church be exactly like the one down the street? What’s terribly wrong with being the one church that does a blended or contemporary service and allows for egalitarian teachings? It’s not as if somebody who doesn’t like it can’t go to any one of the hundreds of other hymn-only churches. That same argument only works when there are other churches to go to that do contemporary or blended services. When there aren’t – you’re stuck … like we are and there will always be something missing.

Jesus’ Demeanor

Looking at the stories of the prophets, I realized that these were some fiercely devoted guys. Some personally slew people who they saw as enemies of God, some called down lightening to smite enemies of God, and some called for people to come down with a disease. Looking at the stories of King David, he had a serious body count adding up and it wasn’t limited to enemies. In comparison, Jesus might seem like something of a weakling for not having any blood on his hands – but then again, that’s why he’s the savior.

So when I talk about Jesus’ example in his public ministry, people often feel the need to defend his rather pacifistic demeanor by bringing up the cleansing of the temple as proof that in his righteous anger he was a serious threat. They might also bring up the verse that says that heaven’s army of angels are at his order – if he wanted to he could have called them down and destroyed the Romans but he didn’t because of some unknown reason for his ways are higher than ours.

It doesn’t matter than in other stories when the crowed wanted to make Jesus king that he would just slip away. It doesn’t matter that when one of the disciples said “Hey! This town just disrespected you! Let’s show them who you really are and call down fire from heaven to teach them a lesson!” that Jesus said “No, let’s just move on to the next town instead.” It doesn’t matter that Jesus annoyed the religious leaders of his day by going to party with the biggest sinners of his day.

This is Jesus – the Lord of lords and the King of kings! He is the son of God! The same God that taught Egypt a thing or two when He sent the ten plagues upon them and even then He hadn’t finished using the Israelites as implements of his judgement on the Canaanites. Surely he’s a chip off of the old block? Certainly the apple didn’t fall far from the tree!

And yet … Jesus could have raised an army of men – but he attracted crowds including women. Jesus could have joined the rebels and helped them to resist to the Romans – but he didn’t offer them any resistance when he was arrested, tried, beaten, or crucified. To our way of thinking, to prove one’s toughness, it is necessary to beat up the strongest or baddest guy in the place so that everyone else will know that it would be unwise to challenge us. But Jesus’ plan is this: “I know that my father has given me complete authority to do anything I want, but I lay it down. I won’t call for fire to destroy your town or lightening to take your life. I will control myself and limit myself for your sake.” That’s Jesus nine times out of ten.

It must be our own way of thinking that is the flaw – that self-control and limitation is weakness and fighting and outpouring of anger is strength. We point to the cleansing of the temple as if that’s how Jesus really, truly was and in all the instances where he wasn’t like that on the outside, that’s something like what was going on inside. I just find it an odd thing to say: “Jesus’ passion for the temple burns when he cleanses it … but he also prophesied that in three days not a stone will be standing…” Cleaning out the money changers today does not prevent them from returning tomorrow or the day after. Is it the temple or something else that he’s zealous for?

You see, every generation of humanity has happened to interpret Jesus through their own understanding. Different generations had different pieces of information. We need to consider what pieces are missing from the picture of Jesus and to do our best not to try to fill in the missing pieces with our own ideas about what should be there based upon what we can see.

Reading Glasses

Christians weren’t always so well-read about the Bible as many are today. For a long time, the Word was carefully kept safe in The Church and it’s stories were taught by images in stained glass windows. Back then John Calvin or Martin Luther or any of the other Reformers hadn’t been born. No one could just open it and read it or interpret it or even translate it. Such tasks were reserved for the priests who were ordained and trained to do just that.

At some point, a teaching about Purgatory developed. Because the average person lacked their own Bible as well as the ability to read it, they had no choice but to believe exactly what the priests told them. Thankfully, it went hand-in-hand with Indulgences – a way to decrease the amount of time a deceased relative would be passing through purification on the way to their eternal destination. It took centuries to develop the theology of Purgatory – but the Reformers stood opposed to it when the realized that much of the teaching wasn’t directly supported by Scripture. Church tradition had been largely responsible for it’s content.

There has been a resurgence in Calvinism in recent decades – so much so that it’s difficult to imagine a way of understanding the Bible without it. The problem is that it depends on the traditional interpretation given by John Calvin to explain what Scripture means. To me it looks like the same mistake – putting our trust in a well-read priest to explain to us what Scripture means. We don’t have to worry about Purgatory, but we do have to worry about what teachings that originate from John Calvin’s understanding that are not directly supported by Scripture.

The brilliance in it is that once it is taught, it’s telling people what they will find in Scripture if all of their theology is correct. They cannot possibly find another other interpretation if they read the Bible on their own. If they do, then obviously their theology is not correct. But Calvinism is also the equivalent of reading glasses – without them you might find a totally different understanding of Scripture that the glasses did not permit you to see. I never really had purely Calvinistic reading glasses in the first place – so I don’t see things the same way. To me the Bible isn’t about obedience to commandments, it isn’t about disobedience to laws, but it’s about believing that an individual ought to hold his or herself alone to a higher ethical standard. It’s about choosing mercy, compassion, kindness, humility, etc.; it’s not about enforcing obedience by punishing disobedience through Church discipline administered by the elders.

So when I find myself in a conversation with certain Christians it feels like I’m getting nowhere – they’re too busy seeing me as a heretic to consider that I might have a point, and I never really know how to argue back because they already believe that everything I say is wrong anyway. Christians may be well-read, but that doesn’t mean they understood the heart of what Jesus was trying to say. I guess we should take comfort in that it has always been like that in all of the centuries since Jesus’ ministry began.