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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Those Kids Today

Yesterday morning I attended a luncheon for clergy at the nearby high school. It was really a nice event, and something I'd bet doesn't happen everywhere.
It's always special when public organizations: schools, school districts, elected officials, etc., reach out to clergy. Unfortunately sometimes it almost seems a relic of a time when our opinions and our relevance actually held more sway; a time when religious leaders held almost unquestioned trust and authority.
Now of course institutions and religion in general has become more suspect, and much trust has been lost.
So as a pastor, I'm really honored when I'm invited to events like these - that show there still is a desire to connect to faith leaders.
This was my first time at the high school but I know it won't be my last. First as a student and then as a sportswriter, I've probably spent more than my fair share of time in high schools, especially in gymnasiums and football fields. It's a place of promise and hope, where dreams are realized and crushed, and young people are making their way in the world.
I walked past various groups of students, some strutting and posing some heads down and shuffling along. There were couches near the drama room filled with actors, kids sampling creations in a cooking class, science experiments, and an overheard discussion about "finding a house for prom." Ah, memories ...
When I walked into the clergy luncheon room, though, I went from feeling very old to feeling very young. I was the youngest clergy member there, and I felt my age as the discussion quickly drifted to the evils of technology -- this from the clergy members, not the high school staff, who were explaining how they'd arranged Google chrome books for students in need, and even had opened up cell phone use on the campus without a negative change in student behavior or attentiveness.
A charming and delightful priest was there from the local Catholic parish, a huge place with tons of involvement and community support. In a deep Irish brogue, he broached the problem of "attentiveness" and "overprogramming."
He was frustrated, feeling that the students in his parish were so constantly connected to their cell phones that it was barring him from building a relationship with them. He felt cut off, and even though the conversation presented itself as a typical "oh those rotten kids today" one, at its root was pain - the pain of a clergy leader who desired to build a bridge with these students but felt cut off.
He'd like to see, I'm sure, kids totally cut off from their cell phones and then things might go back to the glory days of religion in the 1950s, when kids PAID ATTENTION, trusted their priest, made confessions, and memorized their Catechisms.

It's more complex than that though. Taking away devices doesn't change the fact that our world has changed in irreversible ways since then. We've become more networked. I think even the way our brains function has changed. We've become attuned to thinking more as spokes coming out of a wheel than as straight flat linear lines. Information is so unbelievably accessible and we have access to talk to whomever we want, whenever we want - basically - that yes patience has probably shortened.

At depth though, the deepest human desires have not changed. Perhaps folks are less likely to listen to a lecture-style sermon delivered straight from the pulpit with little contemporary application or the use of images. Perhaps the routinized services/masses even of the venerated Catholic church could be reinvigorated. Not changed, not gotten rid of - but done with an eye toward the 21st Century faithful.

I think about a couple of experiences in my life when I think about modern technology, texting, and "those kids today."

On Thanksgiving this past year at my parents' house, Ben and I were sat at the "kids" table with Jake. It was us, my then-23-year-old brother, and five college-aged cousins.

Literally the entire time, every single one of my cousins were on their phones. They were instagramming photos and sharing food pics on Facebook; tweeting about lame family (I'm sure), and texting over mashed potatoes. It was a good look in the mirror for me and Ben, because admittedly we are probably on our phones way too much as well.

Then again maybe we could've made more of an effort to really connect with these cousins. (I have tons of cousins, and several more closer to my age, so I have never known these "younger" cousins as well). And they were taking photos together to share with their friends, even though some were from Orange County and some rural Minnesota, so it seemed maybe they didn't think family so lame after all; they were proud of it even maybe, to share with friends back in California that "this is where I'm from;" "this is who I'm from." So it was different, and slightly annoying, but maybe I was just too old to "get it."

I think too about another meal. This one takes place every Tuesday night at St. Philip: our Community Meal, available to anyone who'd like to partake, whether they'd like company or are in need of food assistance. Two groups from the local high school participate in serving usually twice a month.

This service must be important to them because I swear to you that never once have I seen them texting. They're carrying out dishes and saying hello to people who come to eat. They've always been respectful and pleasant, and actually I was guilty of asking one of the girls to pull out her phone so that we could exchange numbers in case she might potentially babysit Jake! But she put it right back after that.

So clearly young people today are entirely capable and desirous of paying attention. Of turning off the technology and being there in the moment, especially to serve others.

I think sometimes we need to give them more credit. Challenge them. Invite them to serve and teach and make us proud. Preach particularly to them when we see them in our pews. I don't know, but I'm going to try it. I just need a few more high school kids to attend worship first ... which I plan to work on soon, through sports of course ...

And on the other hand maybe sometimes when we think kids are texting inappropriate images or looking up something dirty on the internet; instead they're Instagramming a photo with the hashtag #lovemyfamily and making Thanksgiving real and rich and meaningful in their own way. Or even hashtag #lovemychurch.

I think if Jesus walked the earth today; if he became incarnate 2,000 years later in modern-day Chicago instead of Roman Era Jerusalem, he would have had a Twitter and Instagram account (and whatever new social media stuff these kids have that I'm not cool enough to get yet).


Jesus knew how to communicate for his time, how to grab attention and keep it through genuine and complete faith, commitment, and prayer.

Paul who came later knew how to communicate too; he adapted the words of Greek philosophers for Greek audiences (see Acts 17) and referenced the Hebrew law for Jewish audiences (see Acts 13, among others).

So what about us? How are you personally thinking about communicating with younger people who may seem engrossed in their devices? What might spur Gospel conversation with them -- I find they're often interested, like most of us, in life's "big questions" and "mysteries." What might connect them to Jesus? Is it music? A drama? A certain piece of Scripture? A theological argument?

What about your church? What is your church doing to engage younger folks? Maybe you have your own app? Maybe there's a button to access with a smartphone to get a bulletin online. Maybe you livestream your worship services. Maybe, and this is free, you're simply acknowledging their existence: offering programming at times that might work for them, thinking about Bible studies or sermon series that apply to adolescents, getting to know the younger folks who come through your doors for any reason at all, on their own terms.

I have some ideas for St. Philip, and I know many fantastic leaders in our congregation have their own ideas and missions as well in this area. But sometimes the biggest thing is just asking the questions, and then learning how to listen.


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