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.

role reversal

how the church isn’t what it shouldn’t be, how the world is what it shouldn’t

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Of course, this is painting with a broad brush: it’s not like life away from ecclesiastical trappings or vocation has been all daisies and tulips, and it’s not like church was a complete and total wasteland. However, the trends are at the very least disturbing for the sustainability and even basic recognition of the Christian movement and mission.

The church isn’t merely content with shooting the wounded; Evangelicals are now openly practicing a form of religious eugenics, drawing out those who fail to adapt to the hegemony, isolating them, eliminating them. In the process of creating a movement of themselves, by themselves and for themselves, Christians have only further alienated themselves from the very world they were tasked to serve and redeem. Those who do not comply are not excommunicated–that would be too direct, and conflict is a sign of dissension and weakness. Rather, the idea is even more injurious: marginalize, isolate, ignore. Abuse not of commission, but omission.

Move the herd one way, move the black sheep toward an already-open gate. When they leave, they leave freely. And Uriah was killed in valiant service to his king.

This complex exists in both ‘progressive’ (progressing toward what, exactly?) and ‘conservative’ (conserving what, exactly?) Evangelical circles, both of whom at their core share fundamentalist moorings derived from a political vantage rather than any sort of theological conviction.

Guess what, heathens? It’s not a good time to be looking at American Christianity. Not exactly a buyer’s market, and nobody wants what they’re selling.

I wanted to be a part of that world; to serve in ministry and build bridges of redemption into a community. Yet, though I was raised as one of them, though I shared a common commitment to the cause and did everything they asked me to do, at considerable cost and personal sacrifice, I was rooted out. Those who supported me turned their backs, or betrayed me in favor of the denomination, or to cover their own backsides.

When you’ve been blackballed by Christians, it’s not just you they’re after: they go after you and anyone you’ve ever known. Think Terry Benedict, but with even less class or tact.

That was over ten years of my life: amounting to not much of much, driven out of ministry, forced to improvise, forced to deal. Thankfully, I have dealt. And I say what I have said above not out of spite, but out of cold, detached truth. That was my experience, it was very hurtful, and it came at that hands of those who are supposed to sow Christ-likeness into others. Some can never cope with a fraction of those experiences, some have baggage from a lot worse. Many I know who were placed in that crucible emerged as anti-theists, or ran as far from Christianity as they could. This is the legacy they’re leaving. And they couldn’t care less.

Again, the world hasn’t exactly been a paradise: I found myself in two very toxic work environments where I was eminently overqualified and undermined by superiors. But it’s a new day.

What is ‘the world’, anyway?

Since there’s no official definition in this case, we can rely on experience and context. For the typical Evangelical, it’s little more than a bogeyman; an othering term to classify that which is acceptable and that which is not. The world is supposed to be a hostile place, a place deprived of Christian virtue or otherwise profaned by the absence of redemption.

All of that is lunacy.

If anything, life disembarked from the good old gospel ship has shown me what the church is supposed to be, and decidedly isn’t. I found more support out here than I ever did in pursuit of ministry. I wasn’t a gadfly to be suffered until I flew out the cracked car window; I’m a person with significant skills and abilities to be invested in, harnessed and utilized. I’ve encountered amazing people, some of whom were outcast themselves or otherwise thoroughly disillusioned with religion. Even some of those I’ve met who couldn’t give a crap about religion have been profoundly decent people: generous, thoughtful, gracious and kind.

What my experience in the last six months has underscored to me is that the church is so far detached from reality, and so self-insulated, that its inhabitants fundamentally lack the ability to connect with anyone who isn’t one of them on even a remotely-human level. Their efforts to connect with the community are alien to the community they with which they try to connect. The only way they know how to share their concern is through ham-handed cliches and tired gambits. If my time in the world has taught me anything, it’s that I’d frankly rather be with them than with a church with one foot in the sky and the other in a grave, not knowing and not caring which will be taken first.

This is precisely opposite of the incarnation. This is the great apostasy: not that American Christians have backslid from faith, but worse, from reality. More frightening yet, they may not be alone in the effort.

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a postscript to ‘what happened to the pentecostal evangel?’

Back on October 17, I posted What happened to the Pentecostal Evangel?, a think piece doing the work the publishers, the Assemblies of God, should have done months ago, but only officially announced in the November 30 issue: the Evangel is changing into an online format, PE News, and the publishing work is now going to be found in Vital, “a creative discipleship tool we believe will pave new ground in our fellowship and reach into the daily lives of its readers,” according to the press release published in the Evangel signed by General Superintendent George O. Wood.

Moving from weekly to bimonthly print publications saves a lot of overhead; there’s no doubt about that. Do yourself a favor, though, and search for ‘vital magazine’. In fact, I’ve done it for you.

Granted, a new publication isn’t going to be catapulted to the head of the list. There’s no track record, no traffic, nothing to give it that kind of cache. That said, wouldn’t someone, anyone, think that smart marketing might stay away from a oversaturated term like ‘vital’–which apparently covers demographics from senior adults to IT professionals to the LGBT community and, now, Pentecostals ‘Spirit-empowered people’?

Hey, you can’t mistake the Pentecostal Evangel with anything other than what it is. When you search for Nike, the top of the list isn’t going to include pages devoted to the mythological goddess. Isn’t a considerable part of building a strong brand having a unique identity? Is being identified Pentecostal not unique enough?

The Pentecostal Evangel is morphing to PE News. The new magazine replacing is Vital. Pentecostals are Spirit-empowered people.  Even the Assemblies of God logo has changed from this to this to, now, this. (The latter two have been changes within the past 15 years or so.)

Far be it from me to be someone who would lament the loss of that old-time religion or resistant to development (or, gag, change), but these moves are a deliberate step away from a distinctive sense of identity–and, necessarily, the concomitant doctrinal or theological orientations associated with it–and toward a deliberately ambiguous, middle-of-the-road milquetoast, generically Evangelical sense of self. (The AG has wanted to be accepted by the broader Evangelical community for a long time now. No one needs to change the Fundamental Truths to do it, either: we’ll call it the congressional precedent.) Has the Pentecostal title been trashed so badly that they had to move away from it? Are the statistics such that they feel the need to position themselves in a way that casts a wider net? Perhaps the answer is ‘yes’?

I suppose there’s a reason they refer to themselves as a movement.

And now, let’s quickly turn to Vital itself: giving credit where it’s due, they’ve already improved the beta version, but it’s still a cluttered mess of a layout (and in fairness, many major publications’ websites are an intuitive disaster) and bears a strong resemblance to another ambiguously Christian website. Christians aping one another’s ideas is nothing new, but still: if the goal is to confuse someone into thinking they’re somewhere they’re not, then mission accomplished. Make no mistake, though, this e-zine is, both implicitly and explicitly, designed for the subculture rather than catering to culture at large. Vital isn’t going to prison to reach anyone, even though the connection between A Psalm in my Heart and reaching ‘the lost’ is lost on me. (OK, OK, the Psalm in My Heart reference was a cheap shot. I apologize.) The evangelistic thrust of the Evangel, for better or worse, is gone in favor of an echo chamber in a world already chuck full of echo chambers.

This is the future, and it bodes well for no one.

are sunday mornings obsolete?

Were they ever solete?

If several years of working jobs which have occasionally-to-frequently required my attendance on a Sunday morning have taught me anything, it is that the world and the church are on two very divergent paths, unmoored from one another. Where in another time I would have been critical of the church’s widely-held bomb-shelter Christianity, and this Pollyanna-esque mindset certainly exists within fundamentalist and Evangelical circles across the doctrinal spectrum, the reality is that culture is moving in inverse proportion to church and religion as a whole, as well.

While there is no doubt that things on Sundays remain at a more deliberate, less frenetic pace–FOOTBALLFOOTBALLFOOTBALLFOOTBALLFOOTBALL Sundays notwithstanding–there is an entire segment, and perhaps a significant plurality, of Americans who will never set foot within a church building not merely because they don’t want to, but that their work lives wouldn’t let them even if they were willing.

To be sure, shift work has been part of American life as long as there has been shift work. Someone was going to have to work the days and hours that were culturally deemed undesirable. As culture and religion have unmoored themselves from one another, though, that minority of people for whom Saturdays and Sundays were nothing other than a moniker on a calendar has only grown. As we change from an agricultural and manufacturing- to a service- based economy (for better or worse), the weekend has become significantly devalued. The more people spend, the more demand there is to have people there to take the money, answer the questions, monitor the parking lots, help the next person in line. In a brazen demonstration of an imperial commitment to the domestic weekend, we tried the denial game by outsourcing much of customer service to Asia, where weekends presumably do not exist. That project has largely failed.

Someone’s got to be the next available representative. If we can’t–or won’t–understand them, then we want someone to forfeit their right to Saturdays and Sundays to take their place.

New unsung American heroes.

As Sunday service attendance continues a downward trend, and McChurches continue to pop up, subsuming failing churches and otherwise whitewashing the present deteriorating condition of the American church in ways that would leave Ceausescu envious, someone has to ask the fundamental question: have we service sector-ed the church into a place on the margins?

I’ve mentioned it many times here before: there’s a reason it’s called a Sunday morning service.

A service. Some people use the drive-thru to get their overpriced coffee, some go to get their oil changed in 10 minutes or less, others take advantage of doorbusters, expect a pizza in 30 minutes on their doorstep and others go to participate in worship simulacra once or twice a week. The attraction isn’t the reality of religion, exploring the depth dimension of human existence (borrowing from Tillich) but the idea of being provided something of value with minimal time or capital investment. And pastors wonder tithes and offerings are down. (Talk about being forced to work on weekends!)

In elevating the weekend, then elevating weekends to a place of retail sanctity, Western civilization has made vestigial religious practice–Muslims on Fridays, Jews on Saturdays, Christians on Sundays–vulgar. Is it really any surprise that retailers have begun to trample on the vestigial sanctity of holidays? Should we really be upset that stores have begun opening Thanksgiving night for [crappy] Black Friday deals? Is nothing sacred? (That’s a rhetorical question.)

Give Catholics credit: Saturday night and daily masses are decidedly innovative, recognizing and responding to the needs of parishoners. Would that Evangelicals and fundamentalists recognize the changing landscape and respond by 1) unhooking themselves from Evangelical liturgy; 2) defending the fundamentally-good idea of a weekend by allowing families to enjoy themselves on Sundays and, perhaps, connect naturally with others in their neighborhoods; and 3) move and flow with culture, not profaning themselves with the ordinary (or worse, the political) but realize that there are more opportunities to minister to and serve the community at large than they allow themselves by being a slave to a routine that neither serves pragmatic purpose nor attends to the needs of the communities they claim to serve in the first place.

If it’s Sunday, serve a damn good brunch. Or at the very least have better coffee.

If Christians exist to serve–and Jesus said that we do–then serve. Serve boldly, unapologetically, graciously. If society has passed us by, that’s our own fault for bringing a sickle to a smartphone world. We can do better. We can be better. And that’s the only hope culture has for a turnaround, which is to say that’s the only hope we have for a turnaround. Nevertheless on divergent paths, ours is still a shared fate.

I write this as someone who is in a sterile office building on a Sunday morning, at a desk, manning a phone. You’ll have to pardon me while I act as the next available representative.