Evangelical Christianity and the millennial need to be special and important

I am special smiling ribbon rewardsFirst, 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?

26 thoughts on “Evangelical Christianity and the millennial need to be special and important

  1. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival: September 2013 | Cataclysmic

  2. On needing my career and myself to be exceptional.
    I remember an encounter years ago with one of my spiritual mentors. We were talking about the significance of Jesus in our lives and in the history of the world. He said to me: Gary, what do you imagine Jesus spent most of his time doing in his ministry. I came up with the answers you would expect: teaching, healing, showing compassion. His response: Walking. Jesus probably spent 80 percent of that 1-3 years walking. What we have in the gospels is what happened when he arrived somewhere. Of course, there is no way to verify his observation, but it brought something home to me I live with to this day: There must have been something happening in the walking that was part of his wonder and his glory. Not very exceptional but then again!!

  3. I’m a generation Y person and I have that exact mindset. I want to do something big however I’m average in every way. I suck at being a leader and I’m just not that smart to start my own business. So here I am at the typical American office job typing away at a computer. I want more but don’t know how to do it.

    However I have good relationships with my co-workers, church-friends, and family. In reality that is what everything revolves around. God calls us to be a light to the world no matter where we are. I don’t need to do something awesome to accomplish that. I just need to be friends with the person sharing my cubicle at work.

    • Amen! Don’t feel like you need to be “exceptional” according to worldly terms in order to count. Be exceptional in your love for the people in your sphere of influence.

  4. Great post! One quibble I have though: regarding your closing question, “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?” maybe we should first disentangle the Calvinist sense of calling from the “special and important” sense of ambition. I believe the two are very different.

    • Oh I definitely think the two can be unentangled. I have a Calvinist sense of calling even though I’m not a Calvinist and that part is legit. I also want to be special and important which is the part that needs to be crucified.

  5. I was raised in my family to be a star. And everything I did was compared to my best friend whose mother was my mother’s best friend. I was supposed to be an Olympic swimmer. I was told that “winning isn’t normal” and “hurt, pain and agony are the three keys to swimming.” I was a butterflyer and actually doing around 600 situps a day to improve my stomach muscles when I was in the 5th grade.

    But then nature had a say in in my dreams. Unfortunately, most swimmers who make it to the olympics are around 6 feet tall and 120 pounds. At 5’7″ and with curves I did not make the curve. This was when my bipolar-ish behavior kicked in. I became extremely depressed and felt like I was living someone else’s life.

    I did not grow up in a Christian home, and I was taught and believed I could be anything I wanted to be. Where I wound up was a mental institution.

    But if I hadn’t ended up there, I don’t know if I would have come to accept that I believed in God. I say accept that because I would often find myself praying to him, even though if you had asked me I would have said there is no way you can know if there is a God or not.

    I like the idea of being special because you are so loved. If I had been an olympian, I probably would have been both narcissistic and failed to have as many wonderful friends as I now have (perhaps admirers, but not the same thing).

  6. My favorite book is The Razor’s Edge, by Somerset Maugham. I love it because its the story of a man who finds out there is no prize to win. We are already winners. Larry Darrell never preached. He was a perplexing failure to all those people he grew up with. No college degree, no money. He ended up driving a cab. And yet, in the long run, his example proved lasting when nothing else survived. He just went around dispensing the grace God gave him. If your preaching is that, it works. If not, it fails. We ‘win’ when we realize we are born winners; when we discover who we really are.

    Why are we so afraid to tell anyone who worships at the altar of capitalism that this relationship with God is the antithesis to capitalism? In capitalism, you are what you take, earn, inherit, buy or steal. It’s you against the world. How horrible to capitalism is the thought that you don’t have to earn your way! If that gets out it is all over, baby!

    But we can’t work our way into God’s heart, or sin our way out of it. We are loved by God, and there’s nothing we can do about it. But there is plenty that it empowers us to do. Our traditional measures of success are all bogus. And rebelling against them is just as bogus. There is only one real way to live, and passing that way along to your associates is the meaning of life. You don’t need to be a star when you are loved. Life is about feeling God’s love; that sunlight breaking through the clouds you speak of. That’s all.

    But it seems we only find this out by trying everything else first.

  7. When I hear this kind of stuff, it’s so hard for me not to cynically envision a roomful of retired Boomers saying, “These kids just think ANYONE should be handed access to the middle class!” And then they leave in their Winnebagos to go to pick up their social security checks and take an extended vacation at the lake. I wonder if the “strong resistance to negative feedback” that is supposedly characteristic of my generation is really a survival mechanism, a way to negotiate for resources where they are scarce and threatening to dwindle to nothing.
    I think boomers like to make fun of “self-esteem” education (which is about abuse prevention, by the way!) because it was something many of them needed but never got — at least, that is the sense i get from my own father when I try to talk to him about stuff I’ve learned in counseling. There’s a deep resentment there. Anyways, as i like to say, It’s all bad. there is no progress or regression. If we think critically about the ways that millenials do business, I think we will discover that their “narcissism” is more about competition for resources than, ah, a social disorder that has somehow gone endemic.
    As for how we discuss “success” and vocation in the church, I think you’re on your way to good things, Morgan, by resisting American/Christian/evangelical exceptionalism. In my book, the worst thing you can do to a kid is tell them that because God is on their side, they should excel. This is cruel and makes said kid feel like life is one big, holy rat race (and it will keep her from being able to understand what God loves about her if she ever struggles. Ahem.)

    • Thanks for offering this other angle on things. A very healthy “self-esteem education” thing happened for me when I read Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved for the first time and realized that a lot of my self-destructive behavior was motivated by the fact that I didn’t love myself or actually believe that God loved me. It was a very different way of framing the gospel than I grew up with. So I hope to figure out how to say to people you are a beloved and precious gift from God and you don’t need to get 1000 people to “like” every thing you put up on your blog for that to be true.

  8. Morgan – I’m responding as a “boomer”, a parent and a grandparent. Your piece leads me in several directions.

    First, having grown up in the Catholic Church, I recall moments when I was “special” – but not just as an individual. First Holy Communion was a huge event in my life. I wore a new suit, had a white arm-band (which I thought was so cool!) – but I was doing it with 20 other “very special children”. I don’t know if we can get our heads around this – being “special in community”. I suppose for some that makes being “special” feel rather average.

    Another thought – as parents we wanted our children to know they were special to us and to God. Is it possible to convey that notion without making a kid feel they deserve a medal for picking up their toys? I have vivid memories of conversations around our supper table when I was growing up. We would process the events of the day over a burger, mashed potatoes and canned peas. My parents were quite adept at fleshing out the “Jesus loves me” bit in the context of responsibility as much as privilege. This came at me in the arena of music. A “more than average ability” (because of a God-give talent) to play the piano placed an obligation to use the talent for other’s enjoyment.

    YES to the question of whether “average” should be disentangled from ambition. Is there any way to channel our ambition to be the best we can be? (That sounds so cliche.) I came to the realization long ago that there was only one way to gauge the faithfulness of my preaching every week. As one parishioner would tell me what a great sermon I had preached, while on their heels came another who would tell me they weren’t quite sure what I was trying to say, I learned early on that feedback from folks was minimally helpful in determining whether or not I was a “star” in the pulpit that day. I needed a different metric.

    When the message is over on a Sunday morning, was I faithful to the task? Had I been prayerful? Did I do the reading? Did I spend the time? Was there an unconditional quality to the message – that is, regarding the content, was I faithful to preach to all and not aim any darts at some particular group or individual? I guess one of the reasons why it is so important to instill a sense of morals, of right and wrong, of personal and communal responsibility in people early on is because at the end of the day, there really is only one person who knows if you are a star or not – and that’s yourself. And when we are honest about it, we realize that when we shine we do so only because we have been graced with love. That’s a “special” that is available to everyone.

    Do you think that – at least at some level – everyone comes to know that?

    • “And when we are honest about it, we realize that when we shine we do so only because we have been graced with love. That’s a ‘special’ that is available to everyone.” Great reflection. I had a really cool moment yesterday as I was doing my Sabbath walk. Often I find myself on these walks alone with God getting hit by cool thoughts that I then tweet out to the world. God kind of seemed to be telling me just to leave the phone off and spend time actually alone with Him. I was repeating the refrain to Psalm 80: “Restore us, O God of Hosts. Make your face shine and we will be saved.” And as I was saying the refrain, I got to a clearing in the trees and the sun came through the clouds for the first time. I just stood there for a few moments with my eyes closed and I did indeed feel “special” in the way that you’re describing, not because I was better than anybody else, but because the creator of the universe made His face shine upon me.

  9. I came out of college during the Reagan recession of 1981-83. I DID have to take jobs I didn’t like to pay rent and buy food. I likely also took jobs away from people with less education than I had. The biggest problem “kids these days” have is that the “recovery” during the early Bush years was the weakest ever and the Bush recession has been the deepest since the Great Depression.

    • I definitely don’t think the economic issue should be dismissed, but there’s also a whole lot of narcissism in facebook-land that has a unique expression in our time if only because of social media.

      • But is the narcissism the cause of the feelings of being unfulfilled, or the result? For the privileged few who managed to get through college debt-free (or let’s be honest, go to college at all), the charge of entitlement fits. But that article completely disregarded the growing inequality in our country, which is the highest it has ever been in history *right now*. It is not surprising that folks are feeling disillusioned, when the gluttony of the wealthy is constantly contrasted with the scrabbling to survive of the ever-increasing poor. And if you reality is looking glummer and glummer, with no stable, living-wage job in sight, can we blame people for indulging in some Facebook fantasy as a recourse?

        • Fair point. There are two different phenomena that are happening simultaneously. As is typical, the media takes the narrative of the upper-middle class as its norm. But that norm is true for the guilty privileged dilettantes like myself who up until now have not experienced actual economic hardship and have our own anxieties about having a “meaningful” career. Then there is the experience of most people which I am only secondarily familiar with who can’t get any kind of job.

        • I was from a working class family without, to my knowledge, any college graduates at all when I started college in the mid eighties and it didn’t seem like an entitlement or some special privilege. It was kind of hard for my parents and I graduated with some debt but not an unreasonable amount. They also managed to put two more daughters through school.

          My husband and I are probably upper middle class and after our experiences helping our older daughter get into college and nursing school, I have to say that I don’t know how
          parents and students with less money do it (and not only that but the financial aid system is terribly hard to navigate). I am afraid that the post high school education is becoming harder and harder to get. I think that it will soon be separated into community college and vocational training for some and college will go back to being an elitist activity.

          • I’m afraid that you’re probably right about where college is going. Our education and health industries seem to have metastastized into awful, money-sucking bureaucracies that can simply charge higher and higher tuitions and premiums without accountability.

  10. Morgan: First, let’s hear it for the Max Weber shout-out! With that out of the way, there are several reactions I have.

    I fear that we’ve missed the point for at least a generation. I tire quickly of those who claim that “everybody gets a trophy”. What we were trying to say was that too much of sports in the old way divided the stars from the failures (I was clearly in the latter group). So we may have pushed too far in trying to avoid stigma. I don’t want the Lucy’s of the world to lower their sights. I want them to realize that what they think they’re looking at may not be the Kingdom of God.

    That relates to the home church growing to the mega-church. In my experience, that happened because suburbanization and white flight came to where the church was more than something remarkable. The Corinthians 12 passage may be very simple — it’s about being who you are created to be. In that regard, we focus on authenticity or uniqueness, without layering on the expectation of being special, remarkable, and a star (present company excluded, of course).

    • Yeah I’m starting to feel the heat as a parent of two boys who are probably not going to be superstars on the sports field and needing for them not to feel like rejects as a result. I like the way you put it: authenticity/uniqueness w/o remarkable stardom.

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