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Why Jerry Falwell has ruined it for the rest of us

So a few different things this week!
For the first time since June of 2006, I did not have to preach on Trinity Sunday. While I consider this a milestone reached in my career, it also means that I don’t have a sermon to post here.
And also, since I am at camp this week, there will a short break in my review of “Love Wins”, since I left my book at home.

In the meantime, I am here at camp, helping to train counselors. Which has started me thinking (again) about something that I get asked pretty regularly, along with “Aren’t you too young to be a priest?” and “Is the Nielsen television rating system ridiculously antiquated for today’s increase in Internet video streaming technology?” (Answers: no and yes).
About once every two weeks, I get asked some question, beginning with the phrase “so you’re a young person…[insert question here]?”.
It’s hard to explain. Evidently, the population under 35 years of age, is like a foreign land, not unlike the past. But it is important to the church to try to understand these Young People, to speak their language, to know their customs and their ways, and I feel myself to be an Ambassador from this unknown land.

To that end, I present the first in an occasional series entitled Megan’s Helpful Hints for Preaching and Teaching with Millennials.
To be clear, these should not be taken as absolute gospel. (Part of what amuses me about being asked to give voice to an ENTIRE GENERATION is that I am a priest. I am not a ‘normal’ young person.)
Neither should these be restricted to only useful for young people. In my experience, as the church, and our American society as a whole, undergoes this massive change, the way we speak to and about each other has changed. For this reason, the language and rhetoric we use in church needs to change. Or no one will understand what we mean anymore.

Hint #1. Assume extreme mistrust.
This is not personal. This is not to say that you are not a perfectly lovely, friendly person who is delightful to know and associate with.
But you need to assume that anyone you meet, under the age of 40, and very many other people besides, be they churched or unchurched, be they cradle Episcopalian or a walk-in from the Baptist church down the street Does. Not. Trust. You.

This is for a few reasons (and lest I give you a complex, none of these are your fault, strictly speaking). First off, this young person has grown up in an world where Watergate and Vietnam have always been. The government has never, ever been seen as truthful or trustworthy. These things have not existed in her/his world. Institutions lie, and her/his whole existence has been shaped in part by a barrage of advertisements, trying to sell them things on a continual basis. Ads and shifty advertising language have been coming at them since the moment of birth, another fact of life. Most unfortunately, in their mind, the church is an institution, in there with the government and corporations.

Also, the only voice of Christianity in this person’s lifetime has been the televangelists through the media. Millennials are media-saturated. While you cannot assume that they can tell you the story of the good Samaritan, you can assume that they have heard the phrase ‘being saved’ or ‘personal relationship with Jesus’. Or ‘going to hell’. The infamous purple Teletubby incident? Pat Robertson saying 9/11 was the fault of the feminists and the ACLU? They heard about that. In their lifetime, Christianity has earned for itself a reputation as hypocritical and hateful, with little countering public voice.

It may sound abstract– it’s not. It takes a serious psychological toll to hear that an all powerful, all knowing God wants you (and probably most people you know) to burn in hell because you don’t believe the right thing/do the right thing/live the right way/say the right words. Great news! The smartest, best power in the universe sees you for what you are, and wants to destroy you, because you are so bad.

This is the ‘gospel’ that televangelists have managed to communicate for the last 35 years. Consistently. On the radio, on television, on the street corner, on billboards, in the media, and in politics.

Think of it as a generation that has been spiritually abused, subtly and continually.
Millennials see you, the religious authority, and all they expect to hear is more of the same.
Either outright condemnation and a guilt trip, or hypocrisy.

So, the ball is in your court, which is unfair, but there you go. While, yes, you personally didn’t create the phenomenon of 1970s-1980s televangelism, and the rise of the Religious Right in America, you are still going to have to work three times as hard to convince a terrified population that you really won’t hurt them. You don’t hate gays, you don’t believe Obama is secretly the Antichrist, and you don’t believe that rock and roll is the devil’s music. Evolution is quite nice, and no one is going to hell.

There is no magic cure, or easy fix, but a big help is realizing how damaged a huge portion of the population is. So maybe we’re being called to be not so much a social club for the pampered, but a refugee shelter. There’s a lot more care required.

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About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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