How to Raise & Eat Your YoungBlog, Essays, Featured — By David K Wheeler on May 18, 2012 at 11:01 am
In the haze of collegiate commencement, the humanities did little to lay a clear career path for me, so I thought the church might and joined the local Presbyterians in college outreach. For the eighteen years prior, church proved to be where I could turn for leadership, discipleship, even work opportunities, as a pastor’s son and cradle Christian. My first year in vocational ministry, though, proved to be the final one, for so-called ministry in so-called church.
From the age of five, when I became a leader in my kindergarten Sunday school class, I’ve been in ministry. I was raised an evangelical pastor’s son; I’ve led music teams, Bible studies, vacation Bible schools, and mission trips; I ran for student body chaplain at my Christian high school; I’ve been a college ministry intern. I never went to seminary, but I’ve always been a leader in the church.
I enjoyed it. I was helping out my family, my community.
When I enrolled at a public university, I quickly found two campus ministries because I had been conditioned to do so. My lodestar was a church home. Most of the friends I made there had lived, breathed, ate, and shat Christian doctrine since toddlerhood, too, and we each began the assimilation process into the ranks of Christian ministry once again.
My junior year, I wound up on a prayer team and a mission trip as well as a music team, all with the Presbyterian group with whom I later interned. My colleagues and I blitzed through an endless litany of weekly worship gatherings, small group coordinating, retreat planning, special events, meeting with students—manufacturing possible scenarios for students to generate a sense of community with one another and, hopefully, Christ. They were fun times; they also nearly killed my faith when the toxic intersection of my work life, my spiritual life, and my social life created a lonely vacuum in which I could turn to no one.
It was then I began to worry about the hegemony I was creating in my own vocational space. I had worked library and bookstore jobs beforehand, but I was conditioned early in life that the only true work that mattered happened within and by the church institution. Complicit as I was, there existed within me doubt that church institutions could be, or even should be, the singular outlet for what and how God was moving in the world and my life.
In the home stretch of our internship, we were charged with recruiting the next interns. Vocational ministry, by this point, was something I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt I never wanted again, and yet I still had to convince others they might. So I used the tactics used on me in years past: I played on students’ pride and guilt in tandem to offer and encourage them to seize leadership opportunities. Just as I had been coaxed, I now coaxed students into small groups, music teams, and onto planes for mission trips.
This wasn’t just my experience with ministry as a career. This was the story of every time I stepped into a church building, and many of us who have matured inside a church now resist church because we fear the over-commitment we’ve seen and experienced time and again. I was living in a bubble of Christian sensibilities, one increasingly reminiscent of what Michel Foucault affectionately referred to as the Panopticon. Always on display from childhood, I was beginning to realize that everything I did or did not say, do, and believe was subject to scrutiny within the church institution.
A simple no to the growing mountain of “opportunities” thrust in the way of the church’s coveted young people was not being heard as recourse for self-preservation and sustainability in a race of endurance, to serve better longer; it was considered, at best, a lack of appreciation for the church body and, at worst, resistance to the will of God.
When it comes to the well-being of those executing them, is it possible more—more programs, more events, more outreach—is not more? Is it possible that our current institutional models are failing us for good reason? Maybe more ministries do not mean more souls saved or the Kingdom of Heaven furthered. It could possibly mean dwindling resources of patience, compassion, and our delicate heart for hospitality.
In my years of de facto ministry, and the one of occupational hazard, I was becoming intimately aware of how we have all fed the institutional mechanisms that, under the guise of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to earth, consume the masses that fuel the sprawl of a kind of God Machine. The focus continued to be on outreach, greater numbers, and getting people connected to the church while generations were being undernourished and overworked once there, later to be tossed aside like stripped bones.
Of course, the research and studies, commentaries, blogs, and articles on the topic of what makes Millennials like me tick offer a decidedly accusatory reading of why we are leaving church. The older Christian generations writing them conclude that Millennials are consumer-driven, emotionally fragile, self-absorbed narcissists, in absentia of any problem with the system. We’re not in church because we’re finicky and spoiled and need strong structure and Biblical rigor to sort out our noonday demons. We are not in church because we resist any kind of discipline, because we adhere to radical individualism. Because we want church to suit our needs and don’t want to be shaped by it.
But has it been considered that we’re leaving for the same reason many do after two decades in ministry: exhaustion? That we are tired because the minute we step into a church, we can see our elders eying us like fresh meat? Do we want to lead a Bible study, work in the nursery, play music, serve on committees, give our perspective on worship?
It is hard not to be wary. Do I want to be run as ragged as these elders?
When I was growing up, I watched my father, a full-time pastor, become the beast of burden bearing too much of our congregation’s weight from worship to administrative tasks and everything else. During my internship I went to a conference, where I expressed my passion for literature, writing and poetry, in a chance conversation with the director of a faith-based social justice organization, whose eyes lit up and he excitedly went on to explain his organization was looking for a writer to develop their web content and newsletter. Later, as I was extricating myself from between the teeth of church cogwheels, the selfsame church upheaved a dear friend and mentor of mine and mountain of broader community respect, after years of unflinching devotion and service, with little fanfare or explanation.
This is what I mean by The God Machine.
I’ve become increasingly aware of the Other Son in all of this. People have been writing about him a lot lately, and I wrote once how the father’s response to the Prodigal’s brother seemed distastefully cavalier, a rebuke for having never taken advantage, for waiting in bated hope and expectation for a simple and singular token given from adoration and not coercion. To this day, I can’t read that story any other way because God has been replaced in the parable by a church institution who’s grown demanding in her age.
I’m wondering what it looks like for the sheep in the fold not to be taken for granted. Doesn’t the proverbial Shepherd leave the ninety-nine together to seek the lost lamb himself? In all our programs and outreach and services every night of the week, have we made it our task to follow him back into the wilderness when, perhaps, he intended us to keep each other warm and safe? Under the landfills of expectation we place on one another to serve and commit until we have nothing left to offer anyone anymore, I guess I’m wondering if we aren’t the very wolves wearing wool we have been warned about.