I’m three years older than Rachel Held Evans, so I really have no business speaking on behalf of millennials since I’m pretty solidly in Generation X. Labels of generations are silly anyway. I just chose the title to get hits; I have no idea what millennials think. But I saw an interesting juxtaposition of articles today that made me wonder why in the world anyone graduating from college right now would want to go into ordained ministry. Cynthia Astle reflected on a meeting of bishops to discuss the alarming decline of clergy under 35 going into the ministry. Then I saw an article by Bishop Ken Carter promoting volunteer pastoring (a.k.a. “bi-vocational ministry,” let’s call it what it really is) as a solution to the Methodist church’s financial crunch.
It seems like the closer Methodist pastors are to retirement, the less bothered they are by the future “inevitability” of “bi-vocational ministry.” It seems like a pretty nice gig for the Methodist church to continue to pay their pensions while the next generation of pastors volunteer to collect the offerings that pay them. I know that’s snarky, but think about how it would feel to be at the beginning of your career and hear glib pronouncements from people at the end of their careers about the “creative solutions” for future ministry that involve my not being able to support my family. If I were a twentysomething contemplating a call to ordained ministry, then reading most of what comes out of the Methodist blogosphere these days would completely depress me.
Now I definitely believe that a call is a call. When God calls, we don’t make our decisions based on the pros and cons of ministry as a career field. We dive in without thinking about the consequences. I went into high school teaching before I went to seminary. It didn’t pay anything; I got emotionally abused by rude 16 year olds all day; but I loved those kids; and that’s why I did it. I suppose if I am forced into the position of doing “bi-vocational ministry,” then I’ll return to the high school classroom, but good gosh, I just read today that they’re laying off half the teachers in Chicago. Is there any career field in our economy that isn’t endangered?
In any case, I want to say something a little different than what Rachel wrote that could possibly relate to millennials’ declining church attendance or pursuit of ordained ministry. I don’t know — that’s not really the point for me. The point is that American society is really not working right now, and the church doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it. We’re caught in a game of constantly dwindling musical chairs as people are becoming less and less relevant to the movement of capital. We’re all like frogs in a slowly boiling pot of water, and as long as the lawns around us stay green and well-trimmed, we can remain in the delusion of continued stability that comes from 40 years of life without any major domestic social upheaval.
The information age has completely devalued creative work, because the Internet creates the illusion that everything is free. Journalists in the future will probably have to be “bi-vocational” (since the news is supposed to be free), as will software developers (since apps are supposed to be free). This will mean a decreasing set of options for second careers for “bi-vocational” pastors to add to their volunteer church jobs. Whether this is overly hyperbolic or not, I imagine that this is what the world looks like to a 25 year old living with her parents who has only been able to secure volunteer “internships” since graduating from college.
The information age has also made us feel neurotic and time-starved even though we waste a lot of our time every day. I suspect that this is part of the reason why the “smells and bells” of liturgical church are supposedly attractive to millennials even if the regimented hierarchy and loyalty to tradition for tradition’s sake is not. I go to mass every Monday because I enter kairos time when I’m there. “Authenticity” is too vague a word for what a church needs to offer to attract millennial laity, future pastors, and actually everybody; it needs to offer a taste of eternity.
Right now, most churches are not offering a concrete alternative vision to the dystopia that is sucking our lives away. Instead, they seem to baptize the world as it is with either a reassuring “liberal” message of God’s absolution that lacks a call to repentance and discipleship (for individual believers that is, and not just the “bad guys” out there that we’re preaching “prophetically” about); or else with an equally reassuring “conservative” message about God’s hatred of (other people’s) sin and the need for everyone in the room to get saved (when most people in the room already have).
What we need to be offering is a completely different vision for how to exist together as humans. Not just “convicting” sermons that make people feel a temporary sense of catharsis that doesn’t motivate any change in their daily routine on Monday. We need to breathe kingdom air by doing things together that violate the unwritten rules of demonic normalcy that keep people on the banter level in most of their social relationships and in a perpetual state of neurosis on the inside.
We need a church that breathes kingdom air both liturgically (letting God create kairos space whether it involves guitars, chants, organs, or silence) and missionally (by doing more than just “helping” people, which just becomes a further self-justification for our status quo, but instead creating encounters that tear down social walls and shatter the normal). We need to do the right way what a bunch of millennials really wanted to accomplish through the Occupy movement (I don’t claim to know what the right way is other than to say that I strongly believe that the worship of God centered around the table of God is the best foundation for radical social transformation, and that the table’s impact on the hearts of those who come to it ought to be evident in the social transformation they bring to the world).
What would be some examples of breathing kingdom air? I think violating the privatization of domestic space is a very key part of smashing the demonic normalcy that stifles the kingdom. Simply holding a Bible study in your home instead of a neutral location with plastic chairs, pastel carpeting, and buzzing fluorescent lights on the ceiling is a revolutionary act.
But to go even deeper, what about opening your home to people who need a place to live? Two families in our congregation have done this, one to a teen with family troubles and another to a man who would have otherwise been homeless. Their witness has breathed kingdom air all over me. I think I’ve written before about going to the Christian Community Development Association conference in Cincinnati in 2009 and having a complete stranger not only house and feed me, but loan me her recently deceased husband’s car to drive to the conference when I overslept. That breathed kingdom air all over me too.
Something like personal holiness would make a lot more sense to the “young people” if it were pursued in the framework of fresh kingdom air. It’s not terribly inspiring to exhort kids to stay away from porn and cigarettes so they can grow up to be yuppies who don’t really hurt anybody but aren’t contributing anything to the resistance of the life-sucking forces of our age. The reason to pursue personal holiness is so that God can make us revolutionaries, because sin is a debilitating distraction that takes us out of combat. The revolution of God’s kingdom means finding ways to meaningfully resist the assumptions of the world that are actively dehumanizing us. It means the foolishness of taking up real crosses which are the repudiation of social respectability and not just our world’s socially sanctioned expressions of charity and sacrifice.
Now maybe this is all just trendy “radical” Jesus talk that thirty-something yuppies engage in to try to prove to themselves that they aren’t really yuppies. That is at least partly true! I don’t know how to put programmatic flesh on what we need to do to make people believe in God’s economy of abundance rather than Wall Street’s economy of scarcity, but I think that cultivating the understanding that life is a gift from God and not a consumer product of the market is a challenge that the church desperately needs to pick up.
How about we evaluate each of our ministries with the question: “Does it breathe kingdom air?” Many pastors have been taught to ask whether our ministries make disciples. Well what’s a disciple? Is it somebody who gives a certain quota of their time to Bible study, prayer, and church participation, and is morally clean in a few designated areas (by which the middle-class defines and legitimates itself) like sexuality, profanity, illicit drug use, etc, but otherwise has a mind filled with worldly presumptions about “the way things just have to be”?
A disciple is someone who breathes kingdom air. It is someone who is ready for anything that the Spirit asks. It is someone who responds like Peter when Jesus asks the twelve if they’re going to ditch him like everyone else: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). A disciple is someone who would be completely screwed if it turned out this whole Jesus thing was a myth, not somebody who could calmly substitute a Sunday of massage appointments and yoga classes for church if Jesus stopped feeling like a compelling messiah. Disciples are not just trained in doctrine and Biblical literacy; they must be inspired by having the kingdom breathed into them.
We need a more imaginative vision for living than the supposedly stable suburban family lifestyle that has been the default social vision of at least the white American church, conservative and liberal alike, since at least the 50’s. So let’s breathe kingdom air ecclesially by being thoughtful about the sacredness of our worship space whether the musical genre is 21st century rock and roll or the 18th century folk tunes (the “bar song” myth has apparently been debunked) that our old hymns were made from. And let’s breathe kingdom air missionally by not only serving our neighbor in the world, but doing so in a way that doesn’t involve putting soup kitchen counters or latex gloves in between us. Then maybe more of the “young people” will want to be Methodist pastors.