Recklessly Reckless: Sam Eaton accidentally discovers navel, gazes

Talk about a clickbait-y headline!

I missed this viral post when it went berserk in September, again in February and see so much of a self I don’t particularly enjoy remembering that I couldn’t not write a response that ended up being a 2000-word monster, too big for the facebook rejoinder I promised a friend (Sorry, Kerry) and so, in the spirit of teh interwebz, I offer this, a behemoth talking about what someone else is talking about, which is one of my very favorite things to do.

(It’s not really one of my favorite things to do.)

And, while I do think Sam Eaton is doing some navel-gazing, I also think that he’s got honest points for all sorts of inaccurate reasons, which I discuss somewhere in the 3950834986th paragraph. That said, lots of noble enterprises have been undertaken for bad reasons.

In sum, there is nothing new under the sun.

Because sociology is amongst the softest of sciences, those my age (born 1981, too busy loading my diapers to appreciate the ’82 Brewers) have been labeled as everything from Gen-X to millennial and now x-ennial [barf.]

The reality, because I’m in this precarious gray area, is that generational differences really don’t exist. That said, nearly every lament the writer has about the church not caring, not listening, not adapting is the same lament the generation before him had, the same lament I had (and have) and generations before me had.

I remember thinking when I was 18 that I was going to write a new theology and it was going to be revolutionary. Then, I studied for about three seconds and realized that I had nothing new to contribute to the conversation, that the problems I identified were nothing unique or special or exclusive to my experience or perspective, and that I literally had no idea what theology was.

Millennials aren’t unique, they’re not exclusive and they’re not hard to figure out. They’re no different from any other group of people pushed out into this world. What has changed is the context, what they’ve been bequeathed–technology, ideas, ethos, etc. Those things, incidentally, have NOTHING to do with them. Just as rock and roll didn’t just pop up ex nihilo, just as drug culture wasn’t created in a vacuum. For those things: we just need to look in the mirror, just as our parents needed to. Former Assemblies of God superintendent Ralph Riggs put it this way: “If the youth fail, we are to blame.” He was absolutely right.

To wit, if the number is now a staggering 59% loss, then it is staggering because it is a substantial improvement over the 80-90% attrition rate documented and cited amongst those who knew better 15-20 years ago.

[You can stop reading here if you’d like; it is the summation of my thought on the matter. The rest of this is a point-by-point rejoinder of the original piece.]

***

Now, let’s dig into this point by point. The snark lever is in the on position, fair warning.

1) Ummm, Sam? You’ve gone viral. Do you really think nobody is listening to you, on a platform that allows billions of people to watch you gripe, or monkeys throw poo at each other, or people do unusual to abhorrent things to each other?

2) Sam, if you’re sick of values and mission statements, you should break out in hives over ‘Love God, love others.’ That phrase has been beaten to death, resurrected and beaten further, killed and beaten into a pile of mush on the ground, devoid of any recognizable influence or impact.

Mission statements can be valuable when employed judiciously. Often, to your credit, they are overused. What matters here is perspective: what is it that one community sees that another does not? This is the value of Paul’s letters, not in a singular voice, but a singular person involved in myriad cultures and communities. Paul’s words are not unilateral (shove it, Reformed types: ‘Let the women stay silent’ is NOT prescriptive) but are demonstrative of the recognition that 1) the church existed and grew without him, and 2) those vantage points helped him shape the way he led and influenced them.

Similarly, what each community sees as value-able or worthy of effort and enterprise can help one another shape their own, or engage culture at large in a different way. If we all just said ‘love God, love people’ we’d likely be even less effective than we are right now.

3) Yes, the institution is self-centered and Americanized. Yes, the busy-ness of church life has stagnated purpose and growth. Yes, service is often overlooked.

No, reducing Bible studies and airing grievances will not help. We tried this long ago, with a different set of millennials: the 19th century variety. The social gospel bombed terribly, though it did leave us with the Pledge of Allegiance (written by a Baptist socialist) and the immortal Walter Rauschenbusch (the OG conflator of socialist political doctrine and something faintly resembling authentic gospel.)

It destroyed and polluted most of what has come to be known as mainline Protestantism, which is largely feeble and impotent, but all too happy to have little free libraries out front and soup kitchens in the basement. Those things are good and needed, but any notion of the importance of the Christ-event is typically lost as soon as there is something Republican to protest.

4) Hey, I’m with you! Eschatological garbage has got to go. It is theologically-bankrupt (how many years have to pass before we have to reconsider an ‘imminent’ rapture or apocalypse?)

Seriously, Sam? Groeschel? Using The Gospel Coalition to defend your points is like the Green Bay Packers trading for Teddy Bridgewater. Actually, this contradiction and paradox is an ideal fit for a world in which P is not P is not only accepted, but encouraged. It’s the world you inhabit, and the world created and fostered by those who have gone before you.

5) Kindness and compassion are great. I’m learning how valuable they are and cultivating them in my own life.

Several generations before you have clamored for authenticity. Said generations have desired outlier seekers. And those people who seek out those people typically ARE those people [/looks in mirror]. Those skills do come naturally.

The problem, Sam, is not that the church hasn’t been trying; the problem is that the church has tried and is actively trying too hard. This is why we have a horrible, knock-off subculture in the first place. Training outlier hounds while demanding authentic community? Are you actually thinking these things through? Have you examined your own thought processes, or do you recognize any of what you’ve griped about as being interdependent issues?

It doesn’t take Aquinas to see your blindspots. Then again, I remember I used to be the same way. See also: the very first sentence of this already-lengthy post.

6) Millennials don’t trust institutions. They said the same thing about Gen-X. Whatever comes after you will likely say the same thing about you.

Guess what? If you want transparency, it’s there for you. All registered nonprofit organizations with 501c3 status have to report annually to the government and to membership. (These are why they have those irritating annual meetings.) Without institutionalization of some kind, there would be even less transparency than there is now. Further, any official business is legally-available on demand with written notice. But hey, you run a nonprofit, right?

…right?

/checks Recklessly Alive website
//self-incorporated
///no need to be transparent

So you’re complaining about a lack of transparency when you’re running an organization that is not recognized as a charitable organization and doesn’t need to comply with what most churches and other charitable organizations do? Especially when your own financials aren’t readily accessible?

Have fun with your audit, Sam!

(Actually, I love the idea of zero-based budgeting, and would love for the federal government to adopt it.)

7) Why does this have to be an either or? You note that there are millions of videos and podcasts, and yet you don’t realize that the cacophony of voices a few clicks away are devaluing and diminishing quality preaching and pulpit rhetoric. Millennials crave relationship, you’re right. So did my generation, the generation before that. EVERYONE CRAVES RELATIONSHIP.

Now, creating a database for older and younger people to connect? How does that create authentic community or not further entrench the institutionality you detest? Intentionality often smacks of patronization. Further, old people tend to feel the same way you do about not being heard or valued. You’re not alone, Sam. Your problems are not unique and your insight is decidedly unoriginal. That’s fine, until you go viral. Then you open yourself up to feedback and criticism. And then you have another unoriginal problem entirely.

8) Speaking of value!

I find the opposite of your viewpoint true–most people who are most invested in church ministry or activity are older. I’ve never heard of a millennial prayer warrior, but I’ve heard of hundreds of grandmas whose prayers moved. Frankly, if your assertion is true, and four in ten are sticking around church, there aren’t enough of you to do anything.

Yes, we should be gracious with those who serve and volunteer, but you don’t serve or volunteer for the laurels–you do what needs to be done as its own reward. That’s something you don’t realize when you’re young. Fatherhood has taught me just how much like Sisyphus those who serve are.  The lesson has made me better for it. Simply put, Sam, I think your perspective here is selfish and as such misguided. The right conclusion with the wrong reasoning is still the wrong conclusion.

9) SEX!

SEX SEX SEX SEXY SEX SEX!

Again, you’re saying the same thing that has been said for decades. But, the moment a preacher, for better or worse, talks about sex, politics, social issues, whatever, he/she will get blasted for it (if it’s the wrong viewpoint, which is entirely dependent on whoever is listening and their own idolized social perspective.)

You don’t create real, relevant spaces. Contrived relevance isn’t relevance at all (see also: Magazine, Relevant.) And, again, you don’t see that your solutions lend themselves toward institutionalization.

10) Fine. Cool. Good. Let’s do this! I agree with you, Sam!

But a church in Springfield, Missouri can do this when the area is largely red state and Evangelical. You get the local Assembly of God church in Madison, Wisconsin to try asking what to do for the local government and school and they’ll go broke from the lawsuits and be annoyed by the protests.

It’s not that simple.

Instead, go pick up trash at a park. Help a neighbor with their yard work. Be subtle and don’t come off as self-serving (and many churches that tout their activities and service do exactly this.)

11) Again, Sam, everyone is sick of being ignored and tired of broken promises. I’m a BlackBerry guy. I get it!

And, if you want people to stop lamenting and bitching about millennials, shut up and do. And you’re trying to do that very thing, and you should be applauded for it. But the higher your profile, whether you like it or not, the bigger the target is on your forehead.

After all, as a millennial purporting to speak on behalf of millennials, that’s exactly who you are and what you’re doing: a whiny millennial. You can’t complain about blowback when anything you’re writing is fair game for billions.

The same whininess is found in every generation. I am from another era, but I, too, whined as you do now. That’s why I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of words pushing back.

12) The problem isn’t that the church isn’t reaching millennials, the problem is that it’s not reaching ANYONE. Generational obsession exists primarily in two places: sociology and Evangelicalism. Beyond that, it is a fiction to be marketed to and or exploited.

Here’s the raw truth, Sam: generations mean NOTHING. Trends mean nothing. They mean nothing because there is no real difference between your generation and mine, or mine and my father’s. The same problems exist, just with differing perspectives and differing stuff that has been left to us.

And this is the odd part about your post going viral: it’s nothing new or particularly insightful. You’ve touched on things countless others and myself have. The problem isn’t that you’re wrong, it’s that, in many ways, you’re right. It’s the way you have retroactively built cases for your conclusions that is the issue, often in ways that nullify or contradict outright several of your core criticisms or presuppositions.

So, if you want to be a part of a reform movement, by all means, do and be. Stop writing clickbait. Stop with the self-martyrdom. Stop thinking your perspective is exclusive to you.

And, when you do get blowback, as you have, don’t not listen to those who do, and don’t write a post about how you are confused as to why people range from loving to hating your work. When you write for the Internet, you’re writing for anyone. The thinness of your skin will show when you double-down as you have in a follow-up post that borders on being self-congratulatory in a masochistic sense and tone-deaf to those who you claim are tone-deaf to your generation.

Again, nothing new under the sun.

Regards,

–b.

Advertisements