You probably don’t know me very well because I’m not famous; as a matter of fact, I’m terribly un-famous. I’m just a small-town Baptist pastor, but in maybe the loosest sense, considering that title is typically modified by the word “youth.” I’m also a therapist, but that’s probably worse, and when combined with the word “pastor” results in people fleeing my presence at dinner parties in search of the nearest bathroom window to crawl out of before I baptize them or tell them their dad never actually loved them, whichever comes first.
But you know he didn’t, right?
Just kidding, a little pastor/therapist humor there. We are a notoriously funny bunch.
So why begin with a laundry list of bad credentials that obviously preclude me from being able to speak authoritatively about what comes next? Because it’s easier to say hard things if you’re up front about how little you have to lose (professionally, personally, pastorally) when it comes to talking about the failures of church life in America. So I’m giving you free license to chalk up any resulting angst from what you’re about to read as due primarily to the fact that these words were penned by an un-famous, 32-year-old white dude with two (borderline superfluous) graduate degrees and no straightforward career path — a man churches typically only trust with their least precious institutional commodity: adolescents and college students.
I say “least precious” not because it’s true on some sort of existential or interpersonal level, but because it’s true on a financial, theological and occupational level in churches across traditions. If you don’t believe me, I once knew a fellow clergy person much further up the institutional food chain who told me:
“You don’t seem like a youth pastor at all. I feel like I can actually learn something from you.”
He meant that as a compliment and, sheepishly, I took it as one.
All that to say, you don’t need me to tell you something you already know and believe to be true. There are more than enough people willing to do that for money. Instead, I thought I might tell you something for free you might not already know (however, you get what you pay for and there are no refunds).
I want to argue that the reason your efforts thus far at “saving your (or THE) church” have repeatedly come up short (in terms of nickels and noses) have very little to do with what your congregation “believes” (about LGBTQ folks, communion, Millennials, worship music or meeting times), and very much more to do with how economically motivated stress drives much of our collective thinking about outcomes and possibilities.
Most of the churches I interact with (conservative, moderate and progressive) are currently operating on some level of economically motivated institutional anxiety — an anxiety not unlike that besieging a long-ago retired couple who have, thanks to the advances of medicine, outlived their savings and investments and endowments, and now subsist on cat food and Fox News. In their current state, this couple is both physically and financially unable to continue heating, cooling and repairing a space their kids left years ago, a space that because of a changing neighborhood, they no longer know how to live in comfortably, and a space that ultimately drives most of their worried conversations late into the evening (or at least until Bill takes his water pill and mutes Neil Cavuto).
The building, the budget and the programming accompanying the building and the budget have left most of these churches living paycheck to paycheck, and in the wake of every short month, the conversation immediately turns to contentious debate about where everyone is and WHY THEY NEVER CALL ANYMORE? When this anxiety becomes acute, higher level institutional processing actually shuts off, leaving churches worried about “making it” with few creative response options. Which is why churches in crisis always start a new worship service, or hire a new pastor to give new sermons (kind of), or hire a youth pastor to LITERALLY GO AND GET THE YOUTHS FROM THEIR HOUSES AND BRING THEM INTO THE CHURCH FOR LIKE, I DON’T KNOW, FLAT SODAS AND BROKEN FOOSBALL TABLES IN THE OLD PARSONAGE?
Institutional anxiety is why churches never ask any new questions, or come up with never-tried-before ideas, or listen to new people, or young people, or poor people, or marginalized people, because, in a state of crisis and reactivity, an institution can only go backwards into the annals of shared memory to produce a response to the current stressor (and when the historical records never made space for black folk, women folk or LGBTQ folk it’s not hard to see why including them now doesn’t make sense to them).
Meaning, it’s literally impossible for a congregation in stress to think of trying something other than what they’ve already done before, as that part of the institution’s brain, the creative part, has been unplugged by anxiety.
And until you find out how to plug the thing back in, you’ll keep starting worship services (that everyone will definitely love) in the old gym with a part-time Christian cover band and a full-time minister of music.
Or deciding that you’re probably just one book study away from solving institutional malaise.
Or thinking it’s time to reboot that young adults Sunday school class before 10 a.m. on the weekends.
Or believing that Wednesday night meals starting at 4:30 p.m. are probably the missing piece for working families who aren’t able to pick their kids up from childcare until 6:30 p.m.
Or arguing that what’s really been keeping all the young families at bay is the absence of a new building your fixed income seniors can’t afford.
Or hoping that people will bring their friends to a worship service that starts at 11 a.m. on Sunday during the working hours for roughly 80 percent of America’s work-force.
Until we understand that our shared anxiety about the state of our buildings and budgets is actually the thing keeping us from new life, we will continue to return, as the book of Proverbs so eloquently reminds us, to the vomit of whatever we ate last week, or last year, or last decade.
As pastors navigating institutional and societal liminality, we have to mourn the death of the thing we loved, the thing that (for many of us) was salvific, the thing we foolishly went to grad school for, and we have to help others do the same thing. We have to empathize with their (our) loss; otherwise, any and every change will be met with what can only be characterized as institutional fight or flight (or those ALL CAPS NO PUNCTUATION emails you keep re-reading).
However, once we empathize (even if it’s exhausting), we have to actually make a decision, and it will probably have to be drastic.
To survive it might mean (realizing that I say this as a white dude with too much education) finally coming to grips with the fact that white dudes with too much education have gotten us into the mess we’re currently enjoying as a Christian movement in America. Because of that, maybe the only way we can fix it is by handing the microphone to those who know what it’s like to be powerless, ignored, marginalized, poor, desperate, and searching for a “yes” in a sea of “no.”
When people rebuff our efforts at making space for new voices, we empathize first with their fear, but then we keep using our power by militantly releasing it again and again and again to those on the edges of our community. It’s rather difficult to realize that the marginalized were always the ones we should have been following in the first place, but it makes a lot of sense considering the guy we attribute this whole thing to was homeless, single and crucified by the religious and institutional establishment hell-bent on surviving the crisis his life was unleashing.
But then again, what do I know. I’m just a “youth” pastor.