Monday, November 12, 2012

Generational Differences

Crying to one's bartender anime-style.
One of the things I like about being a priest is that people are eager to share stories and perspectives with me on religion and spirituality.  I guess it's kind of like how people tell their relationship woes to a bartender over a beer or a very old glass of scotch.  In both cases, it comes with the territory.  Today, I was sitting in my doctor's office for a checkup, and he was curious to know how my life was going as a priest in Philadelphia. Dr. B. is in his early 40s like me, but attends a Greek Orthodox church with his Greek wife, who is also a physician.  Every appointment begins with a well organized set of questions about the state of religion in this country, which he has clearly prepared beforehand in anticipation of my visit.  He and I both love a good intellectual tussle.  Too bad we only have a few minutes in the examination room, rather than a whole evening over beers or a very old glass of scotch.  What a privilege that would be.

Fr. Ethan looking playfully authoritarian.
I explained to Dr. B. that St. Clement's is growing and that I have been very gratified by the ministry I have been able to do there.  I confessed, however, that I have been disappointed by the intense social pressure against organized religion, particularly among younger generations of Americans.  At this point, Dr. B. perks up and declares that these generational differences are a serious barrier to getting people into church.  What's happening in mainline Churches, like the Episcopal Church, is also happening in the Greek Orthodox Church, he tells me.  "Can you believe," he thunders rhetorically, "that the priest in my church still refuses to give the sermon in English?" I am, of course, likewise, incredulous.  "And so younger generations of Orthodox, who don't speak Greek" he continues, "have stopped coming to church with their children, and now attendance has dwindled to my wife and me and a bunch of old ladies."  As an American, he also complained about the unwillingness of this priest to abandon a "Father-knows-best" leadership style in favor of a more collaborative, collegial, and consensus-based model more in keeping with the American democratic ethos. He was understandably very frustrated.

Norse storytelling in a Viking longhouse.
"So, how are you," he pointedly asks me, "going to reach out to younger generations of Americans who are down on religion, because they are taught that science is the only thing they can trust?"  "Well, funny you should ask that," I reply, "because one of the things I've been trying really hard to do is to overcome this generational barrier by talking about it openly online.  In fact, I just did two YouTube videos in that last month on this very issue."  Dr. B. was obviously pleased, but uncertain.  "But the problem is, " I clarified, "that people who are down on religion are often not given the tools or training to know how to process and make sense of the spiritual dimensions of human experience."  "Then, where do you begin?"  "By telling stories, stories of my own spiritual journey, and encouraging others to tell their stories. It's a lot more effective than spouting doctrine."  Now, I have to admit that this is a simplistic answer that ignores a lot of the nuance and complexity of the problem, but it's been a place for me to start.  I try to tell my stories, to be creative, and to reflect theologically in ways that might resonate with the lived experiences and perspectives of younger generations of spiritual seekers.  I try to do it with humor, occasionally with irreverence, but always seriously, which means that I have regrettably at times irritated or offended folks who would prefer a more polite and less prophetic kind of storytelling.  But stories are what they are; they are capsules of authentic human experience that need to be told.  I'm grateful that folks are sharing them around kitchen tables, at office water coolers, on the blogosphere, and in church.  Keep talking, everyone, and listen.

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