Let’s begin with an analogy. Picture, if you will, a meeting of the National Honor Society at Evangelical Christian Academy (school mascot: The Great Lion). These are the good kids. The teachers’ pets. They’re destined for greatness. But they’re having a disagreement.
On the one side is that ambitious if not somewhat exhausting, Rachel. She likes to stir things up. She pushes buttons and boundaries, but the teachers love her for it. She’s going to change the world someday, they think.
And on the other side is Brett. He’s the administration’s darling. Whenever his fellow students get a bit too rambunctious he always defers to the wisdom of his elders. He doesn’t want change, so much as he wants to please his teachers.
They’re arguing about the solution to a recent attendance issue the school’s been having. Not the Honor Society kids, but a lot of the others are just not showing up or, when they do, they haven’t done their homework. Rachel thinks this is evidence that the system is flawed. She thinks the teachers and the administration need to take notice. The students are speaking through their actions (or inactions) and change is what is needed.
No, Brett retorts, the system is working just fine. The students are the problem. What the administration should do is crack down. Stop listening to the students’ every whim. And no more recess.
Here, briefly, Rachel agrees. Recess is so outdated, but it should be replaced with unstructured time in which the students can explore their own identities, and maybe learn web design. Brett thinks self-exploration sounds more like selfishness and he says so, with a wink and a nod to the principal.
And then I show up. I’m new here. Not even really in the Honor Society yet, but I’ve submitted my application. I work for the student newspaper and get good grades, but I also skip school a lot. The teachers and administration know of me, but I haven’t yet earned their full attention. Anyway, I walk into the meeting and say, Rachel and Brett, you’re both wrong.
Whaaaaaa?, says the teachers.
Whooooo?, says the administration.
[And, end scene!]
If it’s not abundantly (and obnoxiously) clear at this point, I’m referring to the recent discussion of how to (or how not to) keep Millennials in the church. Rachel Held Evans suggests in her CNN piece that church leaders should listen to what young people actually want from church, and Brett McCracken counters on The Washington Post’s On Faith’s site that the church has done too much listening and young people need to be the ones to listen now. They both agree that the image-driven, quest to be cool is the wrong approach.
But they’re both wrong. Or, they’re both only kind of right. Anyway, here’s what I think they’re missing: In both cases the solution that is proposed is a conversation and they just disagree about who should be doing the listening and who should be doing the talking. But what we really need is not conversation, but action. That is, the way forward for all parties is for Millennials to get involved. Stop making a list of demands and do something.
Obviously, I’m more sympathetic to Rachel’s concerns. I agree with her substance, if not always her style, 99% of the time. (I’m just mad that my “Year of Biblical Manhood” idea never caught on.) Brett, on the other hand, is part of the Matthew Lee Anderson school of “Old People are Always Right.” And he called this website “hipster” in his book a few years ago. But in this case (and in some other cases; I’m eager to read his new book), I agree a bit with Brett, too. I think that what Millennials can best offer the church is not our opinions, but our involvement.
I’ve seen this work out practically in my own life. It’s easy to complain about a church when you’re not really involved in it, when you’re “church shopping.” When my wife and I were doing pre-marital counseling with our pastor over eight years ago, the conversation often veered toward the ways we disagree with some of the church’s policies. We actually asked him if he thought it’d be wrong of us to leave over an issue like women in ministry (we were for it, by the way). He told us very calmly that we should do what we felt we needed to do, but that if we left, there was less chance the church could change. In short, he was saying, you could leave, or you could get involved.
I’m embarrassed to say, we left. So Millennial of us. But that same scenario has played out many more times as we’ve moved to different cities (and countries) over the past eight years. Whenever we grew tired of looking for a new church, and just decided to get involved in one (usually we’d choose an Episcopal church within walking distance of our apartment), we found that we actually wanted to be there. Truth be told, this is typically a frustrating experience, churches, like other large institutions, are slow to change. But being invested in a community, particularly one wherein you’re forced into relationships with people you disagree with, feels a lot like what I imagine the Kingdom is supposed to be like.
So, in conclusion, members of the National Honor Society, the answer to our attendance problem is not more or less conversation, it is not a student-led revolution or a faculty-fueled crack down, rather it is students leading by example. By agreeing to put aside differences and work together, we can model for our classmates what an active and engaged student body can look like.
And, hey, if it doesn’t work, at least us smart kids will have a better school experience.
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