After World War II, through the 1950’s and especially in the 60’s-70’s and since, America’s culture has been more and more dominated by youth and youth-oriented themes, fashions, preferences, and images. An entire “youth culture” was created and its energy has filled the land. Churches, especially those who have bought in to church growth philosophies, have capitalized on this, changing or throwing out longstanding traditional teachings and practices in order to provide religious settings that fit more comfortably with the lifestyles and preferences of the youth-dominated culture. The more traditional and historic church traditions declined dramatically as the culture of evangelicalism became more and more publicly dominant, energized by the youth ethos.
That is a very broad description of the religious landscape in which I have lived, grown up, received my spiritual calling, and served as a pastor and chaplain. Having weathered this storm, many of us have now come to lament the destruction this tidal wave of change has wrought to the faith and the church. We’ve chosen to choose what Robert Webber called, “the Ancient-Future” path, hoping that we might find a way forward while recovering a more healthy appreciation and integration of tradition and historical perspective.
That’s the pedantic version of what I wrote yesterday when I expressed my longing for “Grandpa’s Church.”
However, there is a big problem that I see about seeking an adult faith and Church in the midst of youth culture, one that frightens and worries me deeply.
The problem is me. You see, I am “grandpa” now. I am the one who supposedly has the wisdom and experience to be able to lead with seasoned perspective and patient love. And yet I now understand what “grandpa” must have felt like when he was in charge. “Who is adequate for these things?” Paul wrote, and I ask myself the same question every day.
Never have I been less sure. Never less self-confident. Never more aware of the dangers and pitfalls around me. Some nights, I have trouble sleeping.
On the other hand, never have I loved the Bible more and wanted to know Jesus more. Never have I been so convinced that all is of grace and every day is a gift. Never so interested in conveying the grace and mystery of Christ to others. Never so sure that simple acts of kindness and love will do more than all the megachurches humans can build.
In the tradition in which I now find myself, I am a novice. Yet I am also an elder. I have gray hair. I wear a collar. People call me “pastor.” They treat me like I’m the adult in charge. All this, and yet in many ways I just got off the boat. I’ve read a little Luther. I can stumble my way through the liturgy. I can engage in pastoral small talk and make a decent first impression.
But yesterday I talked about how the Church needs to be “nourished by spiritual leaders with gravitas and maturity.” The mirror tells a different story. This fumbling disciple still feels like he needs to receive a whole lot more of the good stuff before he is ready to give it to others.
I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, but please don’t write saying, “Oh Chaplain Mike, you’ll be fine. Besides, remember that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.” I am not trolling for compliments or encouragement here.
I’m just trying to be honest. And I believe strongly that leaders need to be more honest about this. We are children trying to lead others in a grown-up faith. It is never comfortable. I sincerely doubt if that ever changes. In fact, that’s what scares me most.
My greatest pastoral hero, the apostle Paul, wrote to the Philippians, “Be anxious for nothing.” However, to the Corinthians he wrote that his own greatest burden was the “daily pressure of his anxiety for all the churches.” Same word. Same inner panicky, sick to your stomach kind of fear and concern. Paul the pastor had trouble sleeping.
On the one hand, he spoke with authority. He even warned rebellious congregations like those in Corinth that he could deal with them harshly, displaying God’s power if need be. On the other hand, he called himself, “less than the least of all the apostles.” Chief of sinners. Hesitant to boast of anything but his weaknesses and sufferings. There is no evidence he ever followed through on any of his threats to personally enact discipline.
The death to which Christ calls us can often seem slow and agonizing.
I wish it could be different. How I wish! In my mind I imagine that it would be wonderful to feel like an adult, capable of leading a grown-up church. Capable of being solid and dependable and grounded in deep assurance. Capable of passing on wisdom. Capable of gentleness. Capable of love.
Like a grandpa should be.
I have never missed mine more than I do now.