There is no “right stuff”

For someone who isn’t currently attending church, I am inordinately interested in whether and how well churches are responding to the challenges of 21st century western culture. I get at least a dozen blog posts on the topic every day on my social media feeds. I (sometimes mistakenly) jump into conversations with people who think they’ve got the answers. Occasionally, because I disagree with people who think they can’t possibly be wrong, I get deleted from Facebook groups.  (This happens.  I got kicked off a couple of Facebook knitting groups because I had the temerity to say that the 2014 USA Olympic sweaters were vile.)

But last week, I got into a tangle with a young man who believed that his (millennial) generation held the key to breaking down denominational barriers, reverse decline in the western churches, and basically fix every ill that those of “my” generation had messed up.  As we had messed up the environment, he added.  (When I was a teen, we kept hearing how Lake Erie was “dead”, unsafe to swim in or eat anything fished out of it.  That  has largely reversed, by the efforts of “my” very destructive generation, by the way.)

I asked said young man whether he had heard of the 1910 Edinburgh Conference. I pointed out that even Edinburgh wasn’t completely new, as F.D. Maurice had pointed in this direction in 1938, in his landmark The Kingdom of Christ; one of the earliest official statements of ecumenical principlas to be adopted was in 1886, by the Episcopal Church, in the form of the Chicago Quadrilateral, penned by William Reed Huntington. (It was adopted by Anglicans more globally two years later, as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral.)

Pointing out that these keys had not yet managed to fully open the doors to ecumenism, I asked what this young man thought his generation would be doing differently.  He said it didn’t matter that they didn’t have something new–they just had their “age” (meaning youth), which I can only guess means “everyone who did that stuff was an old fart when they did it, and we’re young, so we have time to get it right.”

A bit ridiculous, because many of the participants at Edinburgh were under 35 (which seems to be a kind of magic age to the church) in 1910.  And although there has been significant progress, the recommendations and programs were hardly a miraculous “key” that fit into a lock, and doors between the various branches of Christianity were flung wide open, and everyone was reunited with a deeper appreciation of all the contributions brought to the faith by those from whom they had previously been estranged.

It is somewhat ridiculous to think that just because you’re young (read “inexperienced”) and haven’t tried the same thing before, it’s going to work for you better than it did for those who went before.  Even more ridiculous if you haven’t bothered to learn what your forerunners did, thought, where they had their successes, and where their success was not so evident.

A tool does not care who uses it.  Of course, a tool can be used more or less skillfully, and that skill is shown in the end.  That skill, though, is a matter of study and practice.  If you don’t know what the tool is supposed to do (and understand its limits), if you haven’t observed and learned from more experienced and talented craftspeople, you can’t expect much  from the end result.

So, my question about “what are you going to do differently with what hasn’t worked in the past?” was met with a nosepickingly stupid repetition of “we have our age”.

And this is the generation the church thinks will turn things around?

If the tools developed by a century and a half of ecumenical thinkers work for the much-sought-after millennials, it will not be by virtue of that generation just being who they are, or being “young” (not if they’re as stupid and vain as my interlocutor, who left the conversation because he felt my tone was getting “antagonistic”).

A tool that hasn’t worked in the past will usually only do so for a limited range of reasons, and inexperience isn’t one of them.  Some possible reasons might include:

  1. The tool was ahead of its time (this is what I think has been true of the earlier ecumenical thinkers, as well as Rauschenbusch’s social gospel thinking).
  2. The tool needed a different environment than that in which it had been developed and used.
  3. Careful observations have been made about what has and has not worked, and the tool has been modified to increase its effectiveness.
  4. The best materials with which to make the tool, and with which to use the tool, have not yet been found.
  5. It’s a great tool, but not for the job you’re trying to do.  You can drive a nail with a saw, but it’s going to be harder than it needs to be.  And none of the parties to the activity–the nail, the saw, or the worker–are likely to come out of it in better shape than they started.

I’ve just re-read Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful Poisonwood Bible, a sweeping epic of a Baptist missionary and his family in the Belgian Congo during the turbulent period working toward independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It should be required reading for anyone studying Christian missions–including the desperately needed “mission where we are” in the mainline churches of North America.  Kingsolver captures, with nuance and even humor, how the wrong tools and supplies do not work always work well in new environments.  My particular favorite example is when Orleanna Price, the wife of the Reverend Price who has uprooted his spouse and four daughters, has brought Betty Crocker cake mix so that her daughters would have birthday cakes. She has not thought through how the locally available cooking methods would not permit the baking of the cake–and how the mix itself would turn un-usable in the humidity of their tropical village.  There are other examples of bringing the wrong things and thinking they will work–seeds for plants that rely on insect pollinators that did not exist (or cooperate with strange flora) are another problem.

Most problematic, though, is the equipment brought in terms of attitudes.  The Reverend Price insists on baptizing in the local river, and the villagers resist–less because of the symbol of Christian baptism than they know the crocodiles will kill their children if they go in the water.  Still, Nathan Price was sure he would succeed where his predecessors had failed, because, without consulting them, because he brought mad zeal for his God.

I firmly believe that the 21st century mainline North American churches may be in a situation as foreign to our former ways of doing things as the fictional Price family was when they left Georgian for Kilanga.  And we resist that difference as much as spoiled eldest daughter Rachel did.

My young interlocutor insists on bringing tools into a future where they may not work, without having studied the terrain, without having listened adequately to those who have gone before as to why things have not gone as expected.

There are no absolutely right solutions or tools for the changing situation of the church that will work in all situations.  But no tools  that we currently possess will work if we don’t assess them properly–and that means consulting those who have gone before us, and honestly critique what has worked, what has not, and why.

If the millennial generation “fixes” the church–and that is a big “if”–it will be less because of their (lack of) age, and more because circumstances have changed.  Those who most recently have gone before them will have developed different materials on which the tools they pick up will work, and kept careful records of their observations of what has and has not gone well, and adjusted the tools accordingly.

The millennial generation is not the solution to the church’s problems.  Cross-generational working that brings experience and wisdom together with energy and enthusiasm (those latter two are not necessarily the province of youth alone), is more important than our idolatrous chase for the 20-30something generation would indicate.

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