First, I realize evangelicals or millennials are popular punching bags, and I’m not interested in bashing either. The words are utterly imprecise social labels that somehow capture a dual identity I find in myself, even though as a newly 36 year old United Methodist pastor, I’m supposedly not either. A recent HuffPost article “Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy” talks about the way children of baby boomers are dissatisfied with their careers because they’ve been indoctrinated into thinking that they’re supposed to be special and important when they grow up. I resemble that remark. But what’s more troubling to me is the thought that I might be perpetuating this problem through how I talk about vocation and spiritual gifts as a pastor. There’s a unique form of vocational cheerleading done by evangelical pastors like me that I don’t think you would find in the homilies of the Catholic, Orthodox, or mainline.
“God created you to play a unique role in His body that nobody else could ever fill.” I’ve said it so many times. And I’ve always thought it was a Biblically sound application of Paul’s teaching about the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12. I do think it’s legitimate to say that each human being is gifted in a particular way for the sake of their contribution to Christ’s body. I also think that each person is of infinite worth in the eyes of God. That’s why He’s the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go after the one who’s lost. But is it prudent as a pastor to tell everyone that they’re supposed to be unique?
Sociologist Max Weber famously put forward the thesis that the Calvinist sense of vocation was an indispensable component in the development of capitalism. In other words, he would claim that our economy is a reflection of millions of individuals living as though God had a “plan” for each of them from before time, including the specific career for which they are each gifted.
We not only have a duty to provide for our families, but also a self-imagined duty to our “calling” to rise up the career ladder in measurable lifelong success, to make partner or full professor or department chair or CEO. It is the pursuit of this second duty that makes us ambitious innovators and rapacious consumers who make the wheel of the market spin around.
The Reformation does seem to line up historically with the rise of the middle-class, the end of feudalism, and the concept that individuals are “called” to individual careers rather than inheriting their trade and station in life from their family line. Imagine what it would be like to live in a world in which there were no concept of a career ladder and work was just a thing we did as often as we needed in order to survive. I know people who live that way today, and I envy them. I couldn’t. I carry a burden of purposefulness and achievement in thinking about my career that I can’t seem to shake.
The HuffPost article imagines the life of a paradigmatic “millennial” (the label actually used is GYPSY — Generation Y Protagonist Special Yuppie, which is too cumbersome for me). Her name is “Lucy.” She was raised by middle-class baby boomers who had a different set of expectations for their careers based on their own upbringing and who raised their kids differently based on the prosperity they experienced:
With a smoother, more positive life experience than that of their own parents, Lucy’s parents raised Lucy with a sense of optimism and unbounded possibility. And they weren’t alone. Baby Boomers all around the country and world told their Gen Y kids that they could be whatever they wanted to be, instilling the special protagonist identity deep within their psyches.
While Lucy’s parents “wanted to live the American Dream” with a “nice green lawn of prosperity and security,” Lucy needs to have her own custom-made American Dream that involves “following her passion” and having a “fulfilling career.” For example, Lucy wouldn’t want to “just be” another pastor who learns the ropes of ministry and figures out how to artfully navigate the complexity of parish life so that she can help others grow spiritually while maintaining healthy boundaries that allow her to have a reasonably peaceful, balanced life. Lucy needs to write “the book that changes everything” and start a church in her living room that grows to a “global movement” in a decade.
I know that I’m Lucy; I don’t know how many other people are; and I recognize there are tons of other socioeconomic factors at play in shaping the career attitudes of other people my age and a decade younger. I wouldn’t be Lucy if I were born into circumstances where I had to take a “crappy job” when I grew up in order to survive.
I have the privilege and curse of needing my career to be exceptional, largely because I haven’t had my hand forced by real economic desperation. I had the economic security to hem and haw over my career during my twenties. That’s why I think that some of these career attitudes that amateur sociologist bloggers attribute to “millennials” are really only applicable to upper-middle class offspring of economically secure baby boomers who have never had to swallow their pride and fill out a job application for McDonald’s when there weren’t other options.
In any case, how can I talk about gifts and calling as a pastor in such a way that doesn’t perpetuate this Lucy syndrome? When I call myself “evangelical,” I’m referring partly to my buy-in to a mindset that churches are supposed to explosive, inspiring bodies of people that have a dramatic impact on the world, which seems like precisely the ethos that would make kids entering the workforce today feel worthless if they can’t find a way to be uniquely exceptional.
To what degree do churches grow from living room small groups to stadiums because a pastor casts a contagious vision of his/her own specialness and importance that convinces a group of people that they can be special and important too? Let’s consider some book titles by special and important evangelicals:
Greater: Dream Bigger. Start Smaller. Ignite God’s Vision for Your Life
The Circle Maker: Praying Circles Around Your Biggest Dreams and Greatest FearsQuitter: Closing the Gap Between Your Day Job and Your Dream Job
Does God hate “average” people? Jesus says He spits out those who are lukewarm in their faith, but can you be “on fire” in your pursuit of God while “unambitious” in your pursuit of a career? Should the two be disentangled? How can we be faithful, passionate, and fully invested in a life of discipleship without the need to be special and important?