Hope for a Mutant Mickey

Hope for a Mutant Mickey: Is Ministry with Emerging Adults the “New” Youth Ministry?

Kenda Creasy Dean
Associate Professor of Youth, Church & Culture
Princeton Theological Seminary

Address delivered to the
Covenant Network of Presbyterians
November 6, 2009

Dean_Kenda_2009Pray with me, please:

Gracious God, you know better than we do what we’re doing here. Please, take over here. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

I am honored to be here and to be a little bit of a part of the mission that you have inaugurated and are seeing through in the Presbyterian Church. I’m a little mystified to be here too. First of all, I’m a student and an admirer of people like Mark Achtemeier and my colleagues, Bob Dykstra and Stacy Johnson, who have spent a lot of their professional lives working tirelessly with the Presbyterian Church, moving towards open and affirming congregations.

But I’m neither familiar with the Presbyterian politics of this matter, nor has sexuality, or open and affirming congregations, been an explicit part of my own research. I’m here as a sympathetic United Methodist, someone trying to learn from you as my own church struggles with the same thing.

There is one other point of connection that comes to mind because of this conversation. My leadership in the United Methodist Church started as a teenager over the very issue of homosexual ordination.

I said I was against it.

It was 1974 and I was 14 years old and I was part of a group of teenage delegates to Annual Conference; we were part of a conference youth council, delegates from churches and camps around Ohio. We were supposed to represent the “youth perspective” on various issues of the church.

One of the issues up that year was the church’s stance on gay ordination.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve worked with teenagers on policy issues or not, but the way it usually works goes something like this:

The generation gap and adolescent rebellion, and the counter cultural nature of adolescence – that’s largely a myth. Teenagers are the most conventional species on the planet. It changes a little bit as we get older; but as teenagers, most of us adopt the values in public policy, in the church, in our own personal religion, in most things – we adopt the values of the adults we love the best.

So the church (and we’re not alone in this) has a long-standing practice of using teenagers to promote the agendas of well-meaning adults, for better and for worse, because young people are such malleable and passionate and energetic promoters.

I loved our adult leaders. They said, “We need someone to represent the youth position on homosexuality and ordination.” I was one of those kids who went through life her hand up in the air, so I said, “I’ll do it.” And then I said, “What’s a homosexual?”

They decided I would be perfect.

In Ohio in 1974, most of the youth leaders that I knew and loved thought that homosexual ordination was a bad idea. Officially, our denomination thought so too. The official United Methodist statement in our Social Principles said and still says, “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” So, we should love the person, but not so much that we would actually ordain them if they wanted to become a minister if they were a practicing homosexual. The assumption was that sexual orientation, if it tilted the wrong way, was a sin.

So, in front of the 2,000 people that I addressed at Annual Conference that year, I gave the “youth position” on the ordination of homosexuals. I said we were against it.

You may know that in persuasion theory, one of the tenets is that once you can state a position out loud, you are very likely to hold that position for a long time without examining it.

Political campaigns operate on that principle; if you’ve got a canvasser who comes to your door, and they ask you who are going to vote for, there’s a reason they ask you to say that out loud. They know if you say that you will vote for their candidate, you are exponentially more likely to do so.

It’s the same reason that we ask confirmands to write and read out loud to the Session their personal statement of faith.

I think, by the way, that is a dangerous practice that we need to abandon, because what teenagers write in those personal statements of faith are sometimes outright heresies; but you know sessions are filled with adoring adults who aren’t going to tell kids that. What we do instead is ask them to share their heretical statements of faith in public and out loud, which pretty much guarantees that they’re going to be heretics for a good long time after that.

It wasn’t until I was an adult, a pastor actually, that I stumbled over the lunacy of our denomination’s policy about gay ordination.

The revelation was simple. I was in church, watching a particularly hopeless seminary intern lead worship one day. I was mentally calculating how I wasn’t going to let her anywhere near the kids as a youth minister, when it occurred to me:

We’re going to ordain this woman.

I belong to a tradition that will ordain idiots who are straight, but we won’t ordain gay people who are gifted pastors. We’re still guilty of that, I’m afraid.

That’s when I started to reconsider the CHURCH I COULD SEE FROM HERE.

My ministry focuses on young people in the church, specifically faith formation in young people. To ask them about THE CHURCH THEY CAN SEE FROM HERE is a complicated question, in part because not too many of them are looking.

To be open and affirming of all people – of all races, heights, sexual orientation, hair color, gender, whatever – I just don’t know how to be a Christian church without that.

That includes ordination and marriage and every other means of grace the church has to offer.

It seems obvious to me that this is what the church is called to be because of what Christian tradition has to offer, not in spite of it:

To maintain the authority of scripture, to affirm the saving power of Jesus Christ,

to heed God’s call to us to live holy lives – I’m using Mark’s categories from yesterday.

I would add to live in a way that proclaims that the kingdom of God is at hand (and I presume we can take that language as a metaphor, rather than as a gender-exclusive term) – I don’t know how to be the church without those things, either.

I wondered yesterday when Mark was speaking, am I a conservative evangelical because I think like that? I’ve never thought of myself that way. I have it on good authority, and recently, that the conservatives don’t want me. But I’m not sure the liberals want me, either.

It’s true that as a Wesleyan, I take it for granted that holiness means social as well as personal holiness, that you can’t be holy unless you share Christ’s love, which means that mission is no more optional for the church than exhaling is optional for breathing.

Everybody hold your breath for a minute. You get it? You can no more hold the breath of life, the breath of the Holy Spirit to yourself; we can no more hold God’s love to ourselves than we can withhold exhaling. We have to share it.

John Wesley said it’s impossible to know the love of Christ and keep it for yourself.

I never heard the word “clobber passages” until yesterday. There are a lot of them in scripture, aren’t there? The last I checked, some of them said something about women being silent in church.

But we’ve made peace with these passages, without sacrificing the critical importance of scripture, or the primacy of Jesus Christ, or the importance of holy living in the call to embody the Kingdom of God.

Now we have a generation of young adults, who are by and large in sympathy with our views on GLBT equality. They’re buying our arguments, but actually they didn’t need our arguments, they kind of started where many of us have taken years to get to. We often say that homosexuality just isn’t that big a deal for young adults. In some ways that’s true.

But that statement needs some nuancing. And to the extent that it’s true, ironically, I think we’d better learn why it’s true.

It looks like we’re on the same page with young people around GLBT issues; but in fact we may be using an approach that undermines elements that many of us consider essential to being the church: the importance of scripture, the saving power of Christ, embodying the Kingdom of God.

So we need to stay awake so that we can live out THE CHURCH WE CAN SEE FROM HERE.

If you want to see where the church is going to be, and not going to be, in the next twenty years, look at what churches are doing with young people now.

  • What does relational ministry look like in a world of ubiquitous connection?
  • What’s the difference between pastoring somebody and friending them?
  • What does it mean when our mission field is a culture, not a geography?
  • How do we relate to that culture whose signature qualities are creativity and collaboration, where people assume that they can remix symbols and traditions to invest them with new meanings, and yes that includes norms for sexuality, in order to give them a relevance in the here and now?

These are all questions that youth ministry and young adult ministry is forcing the church to consider right now, and it won’t be long before they are questions being asked of more than just the young people. Nowhere are the responses to these questions more varied than around the issues of intimacy.

Take for example, this video: we are crossing our fingers these work. A young adult glance into the future. YouTube: “I Guess You’ll Do

Of course, this is a commentary not really on young adulthood; it’s a commentary on us. Right? What’s going on here is that young adults are taking the traditions of adulthood in this case, and they’re renegotiating them into something that looks pretty cynical. The question that is going on behind a video like this – and there are many, many versions of this kind of artistic expression that are posted on YouTube – the question being asked is: Is there an alternative to the life I can see from here in THE CHURCH I CAN SEE FROM HERE?

Sometimes the answer is yes, but it may not look like the church we’re used to. Young adults in the church also reinvent traditions of adulthood in order to make them fit into the framework as they understand the world around them. I want you to compare what you just saw to a clip that I’m about to show.

It’s the wedding procession of a couple from Minneapolis. Many of you probably saw this on YouTube this summer. This went viral immediately, even though they really just posted it there for family and friends. We’ll talk about it after you see it; watch, enjoy.

Wedding Dance/Procession

I always want that clip to end with “Dearly beloved” instead of where it does. Of course, I don’t know what you thought about that. The couple was on “Good Morning America” the following week; they had their one week of YouTube fame out of this. Even the wedding show of “The Office” was patterned on this YouTube video.

To be clear, a Christian wedding is supposed to point to Jesus Christ and not to the bride and groom, right? So, it’s not just a matter of self-expression here; and were I the pastor in this situation, I would hope that we’d have a conversation about that.

But in fact what’s significant is not just that they were dancing down the aisle. What’s significant is that there was an aisle, that this was in a church, that this was obviously a fairly traditional wedding party. They were part of the tradition of the church, clearly, but they were renegotiating it in a way that remixed, that mashed up the signs and symbols and traditions that they had come to receive with their own input. It’s part of the collaborative, creative nature of the cultural expectations that young people are growing up with.

Ministry with young people tends to operate as the research and development arm of the church. Obviously, weddings are not the only place where young people are re-negotiating intimacy in the church.

Research on homosexuality in adolescence is kind of hard to come by. Most homosexual Americans don’t come out of the closet and self-identify until after their adolescent years.

So documenting homosexuality during adolescence is a little tricky. The two largest studies on adolescence and sexuality did not even attempt to ascertain the answer to that question.

What we do know, we know mostly from two studies, the National Survey of Family Growth and the National Study of Youth and Religion. The biggest thing we know is that religion is not a significant variable in predicting homosexual attraction, behavior or self-identification.

The National Study of Youth and Religion interviewed more than three thousand teenagers. Part of what was in that study were their attitudes among homosexuality among American teenagers ages 13-17. Here’s the majority pattern, what most kids said were their attitudes:

  • First of all, I myself am not a homosexual.
  • Second, I believe it’s not normal and it’s either against the Bible or nature, or both.
  • My parents are more uncomfortable with homosexuality than I am.
  • Fourth, nevertheless, I have a homosexual friend and I don’t want to stop being their friend.
  • I sense increasing social acceptance of homosexuality, especially on TV. (In this particular study, it was astonishing how many kids mentioned the show “Will and Grace.”)
  • Finally, judging people because they’re homosexual seems wrong and unchristian to me. (They actually used that word, “unchristian.”)

Taken together, the studies seem to indicate a few things about teenage attitudes toward homosexuality that we can say.

  • The first thing we can say is that the American live-and-let-live spirit seems to be triumphing over passing judgment on homosexual practice among teenagers.
  • Second, the importance of their personal relationships trumps strong evaluations of sexual orientation. It’s more important to preserve the relationship, the friendship, than it is to be judgmental.
  • Third, it’s more common to have same-sex attraction and same-sex relations (also true for bisexual attraction or bisexual relations) than to self-identify as a homosexual while you’re a teenager. That’s pretty rare.
  • Finally, teenagers are not homophobic; they’ve got friends that they believe are openly gay and they feel empathy for them.

In Christian Smith’s earlier work (the author of the National Study of Youth and Religion), he describes the dominant pseudo-Christian creed that is tacitly shared by most of the three thousand teenagers that were interviewed in this study. We’re going to focus more on this in the workshop. He called that unspoken, unacknowledged creed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. He said it describes the dominant worldview of the teenagers in the study. But what’s interesting is that the teenagers mirror their parents’ spirituality to an astonishing degree. So Christian Smith thinks this is not just teenagers we’re talking about. Here’s what Moralistic Therapeutic Deism involves:

  • A God exists who created and watches over the earth.
  • God wants us to be good, nice and fair to each other, just like most of the world’s religions teach.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about yourself.
  • God doesn’t need to be involved in my life unless I need God to help me solve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

Smith’s contention is that young people do not hold to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism because they’ve misunderstood what we’ve taught them in church. He believes that this is what we’ve taught them in church. Smith’s view is that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is actually colonizing American churches. He says it is now the dominant religion in the United States, having supplanted Christianity in American churches. That’s a damning statement.

Smith follows these same kids five years later. He follows them into young adulthood. Drawing on the work of sociologist of religion Jay Demeroth, he makes an interesting claim. Now he looks at Moralistic Therapeutic Deism a little differently.

The old news, he says, is that mainline Protestants are suffering a loss of membership and prestige. But he says we are so busy complaining about that, that we miss this key fact, that among young adults at least, liberal Protestantism has won. The values of liberal Protestantism are almost precisely the same values that young adults espouse in their general cultural worldview.

So the beliefs of most American emerging adults, regardless of their religion (because Catholic and Jewish and Protestant teenagers all said the same thing), was not that they were moralistic therapeutic deists, but they were liberal Protestants.

The dominant discourse, Smith says, about religion, faith and God was often clearly reflected in basic cultural values and sometimes the speech modes of liberal Protestantism. Here were the values he had in mind when he said that:

  • Autonomy
  • Freedom from authorities
  • Pluralism
  • Epistemological skepticism
  • Human self-consciousness
  • Practical morality
  • Tolerance
  • Aversion to anything “dogmatic”

These are the basic cultural values identified by Smith and Demeroth in terms of classical liberal Protestant values, as they call them. They were routinely taken for granted by the respondents. As I said, even Catholics and Jewish kids talked like this, and even a few evangelicals.

Most of the young adults interviewed unknowingly described the religion that H. Richard Niebuhr critiqued in 1937: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministration of a Christ without a cross.”

Smith’s view is that the liberal Protestant worldview has just become part of the air that most Americans breathe. He maintains, and I think he’s right about this, that most emerging adults have no idea that they’re being influenced by an implicit cultural agenda that pushes liberal Protestant cultural values.

At the same time, I want to call our attention to two loopholes in this theory. The problem with the cultural triumph of liberal Protestantism as it’s being described here is that there are two missing pieces that matter a lot to our discussion of how we embrace GLBT persons.

The first loophole is that unlike liberal Protestants in the early 20th century, emerging adults do not have the characteristic optimism of that movement. They are not optimistic about historical progress, or growth, or the Kingdom of God coming about through cultural development or political reform. Today’s emerging adults are highly optimistic about their own personal futures, but highly pessimistic about everybody else’s. They’re very pessimistic about the direction of social institutions and society as a whole.

What that mean is that they’re such hyper-individualists that personal moralism trumps social responsibility.

  • They’re going to act if it hits close to home.
  • They’re going to act if it’s somebody they know.
  • They’re going to stand up for people in their lives who may be gay or lesbian if they know them, if they’re their friends, or they’re going to act if it has personal self-interest involved. But systemic change eludes them.

The second exception, and I think it’s the most important one, is that emerging adults today, unlike liberal Protestants in the early 20th century, make almost no mention of Jesus. In fact, one of the striking findings in the National Study of Youth and Religion is how religiously inarticulate mainline Protestant kids in particular are. They could say one theological word – do you know what that was? God. They could say God – sometimes without swearing. You could not get them to say Jesus. Any mention of Jesus, they just shut down. It was like nobody had ever asked them to put that into words before. So Jesus is almost entirely missing from this worldview that Smith and his colleagues are calling a liberal Protestant worldview.

The idea that salvation is in any way connected to Christ, or that salvation is connected to anything outside of themselves, is largely missing. Now it’s true that liberal Protestants wound up making Jesus mostly an historical figure and they tended to attach salvation to human effort more than to God’s divine self-giving love in Jesus Christ. But Jesus mattered to liberal Protestants once upon a time. They did wonder What Would Jesus Do? You know it was the Social Gospel that started that question, not evangelical Christianity. They did place huge stock on following Jesus’ example, even if they didn’t all agree on how to do that, or if in doing that, they were following God.

For the most part, today’s young adults have no concept, or no language for Jesus, the idea of salvation, or any of the theological categories that would help them frame their lives as something that is a gift from God rather than something they have constructed for themselves. So what? Let me suggest three cautions for advocating THE CHURCH WE CAN SEE FROM HERE from the perspective of these emerging young adults.

First, as long as emerging adults are implicit liberal Protestants, this vague religious identity, if you can even call it that, does little to bear witness to Jesus Christ. Do emerging adults approach equality of gay and lesbian people just as something good people do; or it is an outgrowth of faith in any way, a way to bear witness to the Kingdom of God, or a response to the call to imitate Christ? Even if the church accepts GLBT people in full, we are no closer to embracing all people in Christ’s name until we know that we do this for Christ and not for political correctness.

Second, as long as emerging adults are hopeful for their own personal futures but are pessimistic about social change, it’s doubtful that they can muster the momentum necessary to mount serious social reform on behalf of GLBT people or anybody else. Do emerging adults who support GLBTs in this church have the political will to expand their support beyond interpersonal relationships? If our embrace of others can only be reduced to interpersonal relationships, then we’re just hugging the people we know. But the church has to be a network of social as well as interpersonal relationships, where we are present to others, not just because we know them, but because Christ has called us to be with them.

Third, as long as emerging adults have no language or category for Jesus, the church we can see from here may be a model of political correctness, but it will not help young people imagine the world differently or think of themselves as missionaries in the Kingdom of God. Jesus isn’t optional, even for liberal Protestants. The moral of the story is, if churches embrace GLBT concerns without Jesus, we can be just any other civic organization. The church we can see from here, in that case, would be irrelevant.

But what if we already know what THE CHURCH WE CAN SEE FROM HERE looks like? What if it’s been in our tradition all along? We have to become literate and explicit and unapologetic about using it, so we can help people imagine the world as God intends it, so we can live as though the Kingdom of God is at hand. So we can help people imagine themselves to be the people God made them to be, and not just the people they’re stuck being in our culture, regardless of who they are in terms of race or culture, or sexual orientation, or whatever; indeed, so we can live as though we are the people God intended us to be instead of the people we have become.

How would we do that? What might it look like? I’ve got an idea on that. It doesn’t come from a church, but I wish it did. Does anybody know what Improv Everywhere is? Improv Everywhere is this group of random young adults – they started in New York but they’re now kind of everywhere, hence the name. They go into public settings and they insert something in a normal day that changes the rules of the game, that creates a new reality, that imagines the world slightly differently than the way it was handed to them.

One of the most famous ones that they have (they film all of them, they’re on YouTube), one of the most famous ones is in Grand Central Station. They got about 200 people to synchronize their watches and cell phones. For five minutes, all at the same time, they were just going to be in Grand Central Station and freeze. You know Grand Central Station, time, quick, gotta move, gotta move! All at once there were 200 people who just stopped. The video shows a guy who is a forklift operator, he can’t move because he’s got these people who are frozen in front of him, he’s on his cell phone, “I need some help here, these people they’re just frozen, they’re stopped, they’re stopped.” He talks it through a little bit, well then pretty soon the five minutes are up and everybody just moves on, they’re just going on their way. He goes, “They’re moving now, never mind.”

The one that I saw first that got me hooked on this was a wedding reception offered to the first couple who happened to come out of the Justice of the Peace’s office in a random courtroom in New York City. The first couple that comes out, they’ve got a tent set up, they’ve got bridesmaids and groomsmen all dressed up, they’ve got a cake, they’ve got a band, they’ve got a dance floor, they’ve got gifts. They don’t have names on the cake yet, because they don’t know who is coming out, right? They go up to the first people who come out of there and they say, Would you like a free wedding reception? These two people who thought they were having a nice unassuming little ceremony, went “OK.” They had the full afternoon, the full enchilada, they danced, they had gifts, they had celebration, they had friends that they had never met befor,e because these people from all over New York City came and gave them a free wedding reception. When I saw that video, I thought that was a church. I thought that was what the church would do for people. Then when I found out it was a random group of young adults I thought, “Huh! Why wasn’t it the church? Why wasn’t that us, why isn’t that us?”

Here’s one of my favorite ones: They’ve gathered a bunch of young adults to infiltrate a Little League game, and treat it as the World Series. Watch.

Best Game Ever

That should be THE CHURCH WE CAN SEE FROM HERE. Of course, we do it not because we want to entertain ourselves or to make people feel good. We do it because God has called us and given us the gift and the power of the Holy Spirit to go in and imagine the world, as it should be, to live into it as it should be, the way God created it, to treat people as though they’re the people God made them to be instead of the people they’ve become.

Jesus was the original Improv Everywhere guy, going through a regular day with a different imagination than anybody else. And then he called us to do the same: John 20:21, “As the father has sent me, so I send you.” You see in THE CHURCH WE CAN SEE FROM HERE, we are the church’s Imagineers. I’m borrowing that term from Disney, but it’s our job to imagine the world to the best of our ability as God imagines it, to treat people to the best of our ability, not as the people they think they are, but as the people God intends them to be, and to live alongside people as though it is true that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again, and Jesus is who he says he is, and the Kingdom of God is at hand.

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