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Do people still argue about whether Taylor Swift is country? My daughter has been a Swifty her whole life so, even though I’m more of a 21 Pilots guy, I confess to knowing most Taylor Swift songs by heart. Her new song “Lover” may turn me into a Swifty yet (it’s such a great song!), but I digress . . .
A few years ago, I remember the great controversy of Taylor’s big move away from country music and into the mainstream. Was Taylor Swift too big for country? Wasn’t her music becoming more pop than country? Wasn’t she grateful for all that country had done for her? Then, in 2014, she released her album 1989 under the label “pop album” and her departure from country music was official. Today she is a bona fide worldwide, mega pop star making it hard to believe that this was ever an issue, but just a few years ago country music was lamenting her and even chastising her for selling out to pop music.
One of the real television highlights of 2019 was Ken Burns’ epic documentary series Country Music. It’s a riveting 16-hour long investigative history of country music that explores the influences and personalities that helped shape the unique genre. One of the themes that Burns follows throughout the documentary relates to Taylor Swift’s flirtation with the boundaries of the country genre. It turns out, Taylor Swift is but one artist in a long line who have toed the line between what is and what isn’t considered country. Some of country’s most famous artists including Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and even, Garth Brooks, all dealt with controversy from an affronted fanbase who feared their favorite artist had sold out.
The early episodes of Country Music describes the roots of country from deep in the hills of Appalachia and to its hillbilly inhabitants. In fact, country music was initially referred to as “Hillbilly music,” and that phrase has appeared endearingly in songs ever since (though the phrase is also used pejoratively). As Burns followed the evolution of this region’s music, I couldn’t help but note the similar trajectory that another hillbilly reality was following during this same era. The more episodes of Country Music I watched, the more I thought about the church tradition of which I am a part. There were so many similarities it was eerie. Country music is hillbilly music, and the Churches of Christ of which I have long been a part, might best be described as hillbilly religion.
They originated in the same part of the country around the same time. They both share simple, humble, rural roots. The emphasis on family values and morals extolled among the pioneers of country music reconcile well with the small, simple hillbilly churches many of those pioneers attended. Both movements were almost exclusively white in the beginning but have always had influential (though underappreciated) interactions and relationships with black, Southern culture. Throughout the history of country music, some of its most successful personalities have had direct relationship with the Churches of Christ (one website claims Loretta Lynn, Don Williams, Randy Travis, and Waylon Jennings to name a few – and I know Dwight Yoakam grew up at the Northland Church of Christ in Columbus, OH where I live).1
2020 seems like a pretty natural year to talk about the idea of vision and looking into the future. Before we get too far looking ahead, though, I think we need to spend time reflecting on our past and provide an honest assessment of our present. Before we consider where we are headed, I think we need to realize where we are now. The Churches of Christ could use our own 16-hour documentary series. We face a lot of the same challenges that country music has. Country music has always been – and will always be in a lot of ways – hillbilly music. In the same way, the Churches of Christ are and will always be a hillbilly religion. And every few decades a Taylor Swift – in the Church of Christ world our Taylor Swift is Max Lucado – comes along and forces to us ask the question anew, “How do they fit into our hillbilly identity?”
Last week I ventured further into the hillbilly world by reading J. D. Vance’s critically acclaimed book, Hillbilly Elegy. As I read J. D.’s story of challenging family dynamics and overcoming the plight of rural America en route to an ivy league law school education, I was again struck by the similarities of my life in the Churches of Christ. Vance’s story of a hillbilly family immigrating to Ohio from the hills of Kentucky sounds like the first-person testimony of almost everyone I’ve ever gone to church with. I don’t know the percentages, but a huge number of the Churches of Christ outside the South are populated by Appalachian hillbilly transplants.
Country Music documents how the music was influenced by Texans like Waylon Jennings and Buck Owens’ Bakersfield Sound from California, but the heart and soul of country always has been Appalachian hillbilly. In the same way, Pepperdine’s Malibu campus and Abilene Christian University have emerged as important institutions in the Churches of Christ, but national gatherings, personalities, and most of the institutional heft of the Churches of Christ are mostly hillbilly people in hillbilly places.
J.D. Vance’s story is truly endearing because he cherishes and embraces the good things his hillbilly upbringing taught him while, at the same time, giving those things the reality check of the corresponding shortcomings of that same culture. The Churches of Christ are in dire need of a similar self-reflection. When I consider the perceived threat that Taylor Swift was to country music, I have seen the same perceived threats facing the Churches of Christ. In the 80s and 90s it was Max Lucado’s rise to prominence in the evangelical world. The last twenty years have seen diversifying church practices that have complicated the question of who is and who isn’t “Church of Christ.” Beneath these, and other, developments, the stubborn concern seems to be a fear of losing the hillbilly legacy.
To be part of a group of churches that have always lacked any kind of national governing body or organizing structure, a local congregation is a critical part of faith identification. Much like the hillbillies wanted to know that it was still “their” music, a lot of members of the Churches of Christ want to know that it is still “their” church. In reflecting on hillbilly culture, Vance writes, “I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.”2 Because my family doesn’t have hillbilly roots, I often feel like an outsider in the Church of Christ culture. I grew up in northern Ohio and no one in my family was from the South or from the hill. However, everyone in my small childhood church up had a West Virginian lineage. Everyone.
I have met plenty of people who grew up in the Churches of Christ culture who also lacked direct hillbilly lineage, but we are definitely the minority. What Vance’s book helped me realize is that the influence of hillbilly culture in the Churches of Christ is pervasive, complicated, and mostly lies beneath the surface. Vance grew up in a small town between Cincinnati and Dayton – not in Appalachia like his grandparents, but the point of his book is that the culture of Appalachia still directly affects their family. It’s in their bones. I have come to believe the same thing about the Churches of Christ. Hillbilly is in our bones.
Perhaps more than anything, the hillbilly story is best understood against the backdrop of upward mobility. Hillbilly music, just like hillbilly religion, began in mountain shacks and extreme poverty. Of all the things that change along the upward mobility track, perhaps the most dramatic is our vision of what is possible. Country music is now a powerful, cultural institution whose stars make millions of dollars playing in front of arenas and stadiums – a far cry from the front porches of hill country. Look no further than the emergence of Nashville as an “it” city with unimaginable growth to grapple with the cultural manifestation of this. This paradox was addressed decades earlier by the sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies.” In a lot of ways, the Churches of Christ have become the Beverly Hillbillies of US American Christianity.
In the Churches of Christ, our scholars attend Harvard and Yale. Some of our churches are among the largest in the country. Our megachurch preachers are among the biggest stars in the evangelical cult of personalities. We have countless millionaires, politicians, sports stars and even a national network news anchor among our number. Our universities’ profiles have been elevated nationally by success in sports. One of our missionary doctors was featured as a person of the year by Time magazine in 2014. This is a far cry from the small country churches where a majority of our people originated. We mostly celebrate this upward move, but it doesn’t come without its share of challenges and growing pains.
Our hillbilly roots can keep us humble. They can remind us of the simple life that God calls us to – even amid a growing bank account and public stature. They can keep us focused on the Bible as a trustworthy guide to our lives. They can maintain the important role of the church in our lives as the community of God’s people. They can remind us of what life was like before political clout and cultural influence, and help us wrestle with the way these things negatively influence faith and ministry.
At the same time, they can also hinder us from following God where he is leading us today. As metroplexes continue their rapid growth and culture becomes increasingly secular, hillbilly calls for the “good old days” will be increasingly a foreign language. As technological advances rapidly alter our daily routines and dominate our lives, the simplicity of hillbilly religion may seem desirable, but it is going to be harder to connect with. As our culture continues to diversify in race and religion, our bleak history of racism and lack of diversity must be confronted head-on.
More than anything, it is well past time for us to move beyond concern for what is and what isn’t “Church of Christ.” Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks, and Taylor Swift all proved that their talents and abilities were much too great to be confined to the label of country. As they began producing music that was beyond that label, not only did they broaden the audience for country music, but they also helped further shape the future of what was considered country. Surely, there is a similar mission for the Churches of Christ. While we aren’t making music, we are pursuing mission. My vision for the future of our churches is that we start considering how the gifts God has given us will shape and change the future of the church – reaching new audiences and shaping the future of what is considered Church of Christ into something beauty, amazing, and something our hillbilly forefathers would be proud of.
2 JD Vance, Hillbilly Elegy (New York: Harper, 2016), 144-145.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find bigger fans of Saturday Night Live than my wife and I. The way the show has recast itself and re-envisioned itself over the decades is enigmatic to say the least and, truth be told, nothing short of a media miracle. The number of major comedic stars who got their big break there is remarkable, and for the last 25 years, I haven’t missed an episode. We even started watching the very first season with our kids (don’t judge us!)
Sometimes an episode is a total dud, while other times there are moments that you know immediately will be talked about for weeks – a reality only fortified in today’s sound byte and Youtube world (now, they even have the President’s tweets helping drive the show!) My experience with the show is similar to Matt Damon’s as he detailed in what I found to be one of the most heart-felt moments in the show’s history during his opening monologue for this past year’s Christmas episode. [Side note: Back in 2010, I surprised my wife with a trip to New York City for our anniversary and we actually got to go to a live broadcast of the Christmas episode that year – one of the highlights of our lives – sad, I know. I detailed the story here if you are interested.]
To say the show has been polarizing and has had its share of controversial moments would be an understatement. Many people reading this article are probably already rolling their eyes and have written the show off because “it used to be funny,” or “it’s gotten too political,” or “it’s just too crass.”
Political satire has always been at the heart of the show, and there have been too many times they have crossed the line to count (just one recent example is back in November cast member Pete Davidson was publicly rebuked for comments made about Texas politician Dan Crenshaw who was injured in combat). These moments are just too much for some people – on top of the incessant ridicule-turned-baiting of the President, and I get that SNL is not going to appeal to everyone’s sense of humor.
At the same time, there have been moments when I have marveled at the way that they sometimes navigate controversial and polarizing waters with a tact, grace, and level-headedness that I, frankly, think the church could learn from. I’ve always felt that comedy is modern day prophecy. The best standup comedians can artistically weave through issues that no one else will (racism, classism, politics, etc.) regarding current events that is at the same time humorous and thought-provoking. And when they are really on their game, I’m not sure anyone does it much better than Saturday Night Live.
I mentioned the recent gaffe by Pete Davidson, and in one of those transcendent moments on SNL, they reminded us of what forgiveness and reconciliation looks like when Crenshaw appeared with Davidson the following week.
A sketch during a Thanksgiving themed episode a few years back has always stood out as a prophetic witness to me. The Presidential election season was really heating up and the rancor of polarization seemed to be at an all time high, and SNL seized on that climate and offered a gift to us. It’s hilarious, but like all prophetic-comedic messages, cloaked in truth. In the sketch, it’s Adele that saves us from division and helps bring us above our rancor. Clearly, it seems to me, the church is called to be Adele in this way (as weird as that sentence sounds – better watch the skit to make sense of it). [Furthermore, one moral of this article is the church needs to laugh more and relax! That would be a good first step.]
As we gather around the table of Christ, those political differences and opinions we have aren’t magically going to go away. Hatred is in all of us, and we – as Christians – are seeking to drive that out of our hearts. Adding to the challenge is that it’s often cloaked in subtlety and nuance and we tend to live our lives among others who look and think like us. Then, the youngest girl at the table gets up and reminds everyone what unites them – hopefully in our churches that something is more substantive than an Adele song!
Then there was the sketch that has risen above all others in the history of the show in my opinion. In the preview of this month’s theme on Wineskins, Matt wrote, “We’re going to go there.” Well . . . a few years ago . . . SNL went there too – politics and racism all right there in a sketch called Black Jeopardy (and with almost 40 million views – I think it struck a cord).
Ever since the first time I saw this skit, I wished that I had had the foresight to create something like this in church. I love everything about this skit. It’s funny, it’s edgy, it’s not trite, it calls us to rise above ideology. Just the still picture there of the preview helps us question where it’s going to go. Two young African American women and an old white guy sporting a MAGA hat. There’s a tinge of emotion stirred in all of our stomachs as we see that image. And yet as the game plays out – the moral of the skit is that we are so much more alike than we are different. “Doug, you’re alright!” The problem is, when we hide behind our ideologies and code words all the while labeling and dismissing those who are different than us, we become separated as “other.”
What saddens me the most about this skit is that this message seems to be ringing out more loudly in a late night comedy show than in the lives of our churches. THIS is what the church is supposed to look like! It seems to me that Saturday Night Live is doing politics better than churches are. What do we need? We need to come together and learn from one another, listen to one another, and find out that our life experiences are much different. We will find out that we have much in common. Until then, how can we ever hope to have substantive conversations with each other about the Gospel? Until we have neutralized the ideologies that divide us, how can we expect to have a seat at the table and share Good News? How can we learn from those who are different from us, if we never sit down and talk to them?
One of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever had (and that’s saying something!) was the time I decided to surprise my then-fiance-now-wife with a day trip to King’s Island for her birthday. We lived in Nashville at the time and King’s Island is almost exactly 300 miles away from Music City – a five and a half hour drive according to Google. We were in college, and it seemed like a great idea to my young, smitten self. Had we spent the night in Cincinnati, we might look back at this as one of Adam’s successful birthday surprises. Instead, we look back and wonder in awe at my stupidity.
The trip there was full of excitement and anticipation. While we enjoyed our day together at Kings Island as a young couple in love, it was hard to ignore the impending long car trip that we knew awaited us. We had left Nashville early that morning, and we knew it was going to be a long, late night of driving after spending a full day at the amusement park. We hoped to leave earlier than we did because we were having so much fun – well, and because we were young and dumb.
When it came time to head back home, we stopped for a quick dinner, and headed south. The first few hours of the trip passed pretty quickly, but as the late summer sunset gave way to the darkness of twilight we got tired. Really tired. I feel like in those times when I am fighting back sleep behind the wheel of a car, I have a pretty good sense of what it must have been like for Peter, James, and John in the Garden of Gethsemane. Once sleepiness and fatigue begin to afflict your body its power is overwhelming.
Somehow, God saw to our safe return home in the wee hours of the morning, though we had at least two sleepy, dozed-off swerves into the shoulder. That ride home was the most tired I have ever been. I have come to realize, however, that there are different kinds of tired.
About a year and a half ago, I realized that I was really tired – but it was a different kind of tired. I was entering my fifteenth year of full-time ministry. I had been fortunate to serve that entire time at the same congregation – the same congregation where I still serve. It’s a small church and we’ve been through a lot together. As the only minister on staff, I dabble in every corner of ministry. I have come to love the diversity of my responsibilities, but I have also come to realize that the breadth of ministry was taking a toll on me. Fifteen years of ministry had made me tired. Tired more deeply than I was that night we drove back from Cincinnati. More tired than the word “tired” conveys. My body was tired. My spirit was tired. My soul and emotions were tired. I was more than tired – I was weary. I was a weary pastor. I am a weary pastor.
It wasn’t that I was feeling called to a new ministry. It wasn’t that our church was having major problems or falling apart. We could use more people. We need more money. There is conflict within the church. But these problems exist everywhere, and overall we were in a healthy place. I didn’t want to run away, and the church didn’t want me to run away – but I needed a break. I was beginning to experience the collective drain that is life in ministry. The incessant pouring out of myself into other people, the constantly being there for others, the devotion to preaching and teaching the Gospel from deep inside my bones, the pursuit of authenticity and empathy, and the increasingly difficult juggling of family life all were building an affront on my spirit . Paul might have said, “Don’t get tired of doing what is good” (Gal. 6:9), but I was on my way. I needed rest. My soul needed nourished. Our family had a nice vacation last summer, and it was refreshing, but only to a point. It helped cured the tired, but I still felt weary.
At the beginning of last year I began to explore the idea of taking a sabbatical. In our tradition the whole concept of sabbath is largely ignored, and the practice of a pastoral sabbatical is rare. So is a minister sticking around for 15 years. A weary pastor is not an effective one, and I believed a sabbatical would provide the refreshment that I needed to rejuvenate my soul and rekindle my passion for my current ministry.
Since around 2000, the Lilly Endowment has offered churches and their pastors what is known as the Pastoral Renewal Grant. The grant is for up to $50,000 to be shared between the pastor and the congregation. The beauty of the grant is that each applicant is encouraged to pray, dream, and create a custom and unique sabbatical experience. Approximately 150 grants are awarded to churches throughout the United States each year (many more are offered to churches in Indiana since Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis oversees the grants).
Early in 2018, I began the application process for our congregation to receive the grant for 2019. I found the application process itself to be life-giving and refreshing as I began to dream and pray and tend to my neglected soul. I worked hard on the application and met with a 2018 award winner who happened to live in Columbus too. He was generous to help and provide advice. I was convinced that whether I received the grant or not, the application process turned out to be a rewarding and worthwhile experience. I refused to get my hopes up too much as to stave off disappointment and focused on the positive experience that applying had been. The distraction of this opportunity was beginning to give this weary pastor some refreshment.
It was with a trembling heart that I pulled out a large envelope from Christian Theological Seminary out of our church’s mailbox in early September. I tried to keep my excitement at bay, but I immediately convinced myself that a consolation envelope would have been much smaller. Patiently, I decided I would wait until our family was around the dinner table that night to open the package that determined our fate together. Around our dining room table that night, we learned that we had been selected to receive a $50,000 grant, and that our family would be spending ten weeks in the summer of 2019 in Europe on a spiritual pilgrimage. My weariness was already beginning to fade.
One of the things that Joel (the local minister who received the grant last year) told me about his sabbatical experience was that it opened up so many doors and put countless things in action that he could have never foreseen. My relationship with Joel was an obvious one, but in the months since receiving the good news, I have met new people and we have had new experiences as a result of this grant. One of the things I really hope to do is to make more and more people aware of the Lilly grant opportunity, and also bring attention to the weary pastors across the country – particularly those in the Churches of Christ. I know of only one other minister in the Churches of Christ to have received this Lily grant. I know there are many of us who work in small and often thankless churches. We keep our noses to the grind and stay busy about our ministry. Our networks are small, we are seldom asked to speak at conferences, and we go relatively unnoticed. Those of us serving at churches with less than 100 members don’t find ourselves on the front of many brochures, and yet there are more of us serving these churches than large ones, and our challenges are different than what often get addressed.
I have started a blog to document the experience of applying for the grant but also for addressing the heart of the weary pastor. Whether I received the grant or not, I was going to have to do something to address my weary soul. I know there are many others out there in my shoes, and I hope these blog postings can be a blessing to you. As exhausting and tiring as driving back from an amusement park can make you feel, years and years of ministry take their toll on us in a more penetrating way. May your weary soul find rest.
I once remarked during a sermon that farts are funny. They just are. Even seeing the word typed out makes me giggle almost as much as I did the first time I ever read the word booger. I always thought it was spelled b-u-g-e-r but “booger” just looks way funnier. And it seems to be that the only people who aren’t willing to admit that farts are funny are old people and church people. I’ve said “fart” in a couple sermons and people always seem astonished and it has led to more than one conversation about what’s “appropriate” and what’s not.
I don’t go to many conferences or conventions since they are expensive and small churches like mine have difficulty paying for them. However, the last one I went to (I won’t mention any names) I just kind of sat there thinking, “Someone needs to say that farts are funny from up there on stage.” I mean, the conference was fine and I felt that it was worthwhile going to, but I was surprised at how seldom people laughed. How uptight they all were. There was a smattering of small groups of people who all seemed to know each other and were engaged in pleasantries with one another all the while smiling and laughing. But the joviality of those groups still seemed limited to the confines of the distinguished and genteel. It’s more likely that they were laughing about puns and their most recent trips out of the country than talk of bodily functions.
If you haven’t noticed already, I have a bit of a rebellious streak in me, but that’s not really what this is about. This isn’t about being crass for the sake of a cheap laugh. (Although I should warn you up front, this article will probably test your tolerance for crassness.) I realize that I stand at the other end of the spectrum when it comes to potty humor and what is or isn’t appropriate (like I said – farts are funny), but I think that I’ve got something worthwhile to say on this matter, so if you can plug your nose and watch your step, I’d like to throw something a little different out there at you.
It’s always interesting when I tell people that I’m a pastor. I always try my best to withhold that little bit of information for as long as possible, and the way that people react couldn’t vary more widely. For some, it instantly creates a sense of camaraderie. Those conversations usually begin with: “REALLY! I go to church down at so-and-so and I love my pastor, do you know him . . . and . . and . . . and . . .” For others, it brings up immediate guilt and goes something like this: “Oh, yeah, I really have been meaning to get back to church – when is your service? I’d like to check that out sometime,” I never hold my breath awaiting their arrival. Inevitably, there are those who are instantly turned off. It’s almost as though I can see the discomfort set in as the vomit rises in their throats slightly. They are almost always polite, but they try to get away from me as quickly as if I had Ebola.
There’s a lot of ways I could describe these people and there are a lot of things I could say about them, but I think that a good way to look at it is this: those folks think that farts are funny, but they don’t think that I think they are funny (got that?).
Our church owns a rental property. We recently rented it out to a new family – a young man, his significant other, and their child. We never asked, but just assumed they were husband and wife. One of our elders went over to do some work on the house and in talking with him he (the renter) referred to his significant other as his wife. Turns out, they aren’t married. The point isn’t that they aren’t married, it’s just that he felt uncomfortable admitting that they weren’t married to a “church-going-guy.” In other words, he didn’t feel like he could be himself. Now, this elder just happens to be one of the most perceptive people that I know, and so what he said next made me smile. The elder told me, “Yeah, I was sure to use a cuss word when I was talking to him next, so he knew he could be himself.”
This story illustrates the point I’m trying to (rather strangely) make. I’m afraid that there’s been a very significant side effect of the growing professionalization of ministry in our church culture. Church people just aren’t very good at hanging out. We “host small groups;” we plan events and activities; but it just all seems so contrived. The overwhelming majority of ministers that I talk to seem to be wearing some huge protective shield around them that makes it very difficult to get to know them. And it’s becoming indicative of the broader church culture that they help lead.
In a nutshell, we’ve got to stop taking ourselves so seriously. Too many of us spend way too much time perfecting our sermons and classes to be sure that we say things just the right way – the stakes are high: heaven and hell, right! But come on – we’ve got to get over ourselves. Working with teenagers helped teach me this lesson. There have been times when I just really seemed to have a group of teenagers right in my hand purveying my vast wisdom for the sake of their future. As they all sit there in the palm of my hand, with me about to make my life changing climactic point, and someone in the back row rips a huge fart and all is lost. Or is it? Can’t we learn to laugh? Even at ourselves?
There are certainly times that call for seriousness and solemnity, and undoubtedly our young people need help in discerning the preciousness of these times. At the same time, we mustn’t think that solemnity is the only godly posture. I am convinced that the church would see amazing and sweeping changes if we were somehow able to stop taking ourselves so seriously. God has called us to be different – not weird.
I’m convinced that once we stop taking ourselves so seriously, others will start paying more attention. There’s a crass idiom my parents used to have for people who thought that they were better than everyone – they didn’t think that their farts stink. I’m afraid that that’s exactly the impression too many of us are giving off. We need to begin to ask ourselves – have we lost the ability to talk with real, everyday people? Do people feel comfortable talking to us about anything and everything? I bet even Jesus laughed at a fart or two in his day – don’t you think that that might just make people think differently about the people who claim his name? If taking ourselves too seriously is an obstacle to the gospel, then it is important enough for us to consider a better approach. It doesn’t mean you have to take the approach given in this article but it does mean we have permission to lighten up and be real with people.
“Readers are Leaders.” That’s a mantra that I’ve heard ballyhooed from teachers and those involved in education for as long as I’ve been attending school. My love of reading did not come naturally. I can still remember skimming through the required reading materials all the way through college exerting the bare minimum effort because I just didn’t care for reading. I think it was sometime in graduate school when I began to actually enjoy reading. I can still remember sitting on our front porch reading a book one day, not long after I had finished graduate school, and thinking to myself – “Why am I reading? I don’t have to read anymore!” They had neglected to tell me that a side effect of my graduate school education could be an increased interest in reading. Now, I find myself reading all the time.
I recently finished my Doctor of Ministry degree, and for each of my doctoral classes I had to read anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 pages. Even for someone who enjoys to read – that’s a lot of reading. All this time spent in formalized education has helped instill in me the habit of reading. I read as often as I can, but recently, I’ve been taking note of just how much more I read than most people.
Usually, a statement like that is followed by an affirmation regarding how important reading is and how it’s what smart people do. However, I’ve been realizing that all this reading could be a detrimental thing for ministers. The thing is, people in my church don’t read nearly as often as I do. No one in my extended family reads as much as I do. As a matter of fact, the only people that I come across who seem to read as much as I do are either English majors or other ministers. Just about all the ministers I know read a lot. But the people who are a part of our churches don’t seem to read as much. And something about that difference seems significant to me.
This series of articles I’ve set out to write are really a reflection on at least one part of the church subculture that I am realizing that I am a part of. Churches have long been a leading voice in the need for formalized education. Look no further than the institutionalization of education in the United States and see the fingerprints of churches all over it. It was largely pseudo- seminary education that helped craft the landscape of today’s liberal arts. Pastors, priests, preachers, and clergymen have long been some of the most respected and highly educated scholars in their local communities. These attributes all seem to point positively towards an enduring, scholastic legacy, but I’m wondering if there aren’t side effects.
A few years ago our congregation conducted a survey of our membership, and I remember the most astonishing finding was the fact that like 80% of members of our church had a college degree. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when you consider the fact that our church is in a wealthy suburb, but I never would have supposed the number to be that high. People often talk about the comfort of the suburbs in terms of financial comfort, low crime, and big houses – but we often seem to overlook the implications of being, generally speaking, more highly educated.
This series of articles is about some of the blind spots that I have noticed in my Christian tradition, and this has been one of the most glaring to me. We don’t seem to be speaking to the uneducated very well anymore. I don’t want to suggest that people without degrees don’t read, but clearly the higher a person’s education the more likely they are to read. Consequently, highly educated ministers like myself are much more likely to use sermon illustrations that we read in a book somewhere, or quote a popular author of the day, than references to working on our cars or reworking our plumbing.
I’m not writing this to bash education. I am overwhelmingly thankful for my degrees and the time that I spent in college and graduate school. However, I do think it is important for those of us who are church leaders to consider how well we relate to those who never went to college or who haven’t read a book in a decade. Sometimes I think we give the impression that when a person comes to faith in Jesus, they’ll suddenly be as interested in theology as we are. Perhaps we need to consider more often what Jesus’ message would be to truck drivers, factory workers, and farmers.
Preaching for a church that has so many college graduates makes it easy to relate to the majority of our members when I talk about God. But I’ve tried to begin asking myself how well I’m relating to the smaller group of people in my church who never went to college. To Margaret who often comes over to me and moves her hand flatly over her head to tell me my message went “right over her head today.” Shame on me. Shame on all of us for taking the message of a man who spoke in everyday parables and feeling the need to dress it up with technical language and illustrations and quotations from latest cool and trendy book.
Christian conventions and conferences are too often a dog and pony show of the highly educated and the affluent who often talk about what their hip suburban churches are doing to draw crowds on Sundays. When is the last time that a Christian conference invited a recently paroled convict to talk about what they learned in “the pen”? Who was the last high school dropout invited to preach the Gospel at a mega-church? When is the last time you’ve taken a break from reading?
As with each of the articles in this series, I know I am generalizing and overstating here. I am blessed to know that there are exceptions to the pictures that I’m painting. I, personally, have been deeply inspired by the work of Richard Beck and Richard Goode – working in prisons in Texas and Tennessee, respectively. But they remain exceptions. Have we considered that perhaps Jesus has called us to the last, the lost, and the least educated? Would they even be able to understand our message?
One of my favorite movie scenes is from the cinematic masterpiece Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. It’s when Pee Wee goes into a biker bar to make a phone call on a payphone (remember those!?) The bar is too noisy causing the uptight, gray-suit-clad Pee Wee to shout over all the bar noise in his nasal-driven voice, “I’m trying to use the phone!” You can watch the clip here, but hasn’t it been long enough since you watched the whole movie? A true cult classic.
The whole episode leads to the famous scene of Pee Wee dancing across the bar to the song “Tequila.” The comedic element of the scene works because Pee Wee is so out of place. The bikers are dressed in leather, sporting tattoos all over their bodies, and capped with do-rags on their heads. Pee Wee is in his token, gray suit wearing a red bowtie with short, slicked hair. The bikers are rough and gruff while Pee Wee is . . . well, Pee Wee. It’s one of those great scenes where the music stops, everyone stops what they are doing, and looks up to take notice of the intruder.
I think this scene serves as a helpful illustration for what I see taking place in church culture over the past several years. While I’m not sure that the church has begun to look and act like Pee Wee Herman, I do think that there is a certain “hipster” culture (for lack of a better descriptor) emerging among church leaders – and subsequently, churches. A few weeks ago I attended a local pastor’s gathering where several leaders of recently-planted churches were in attendance, and what struck me was how incredibly similar they all looked. They were all white, all dressed like they had just stepped out of Old Navy commercials, and they all even kind of talked like each other.
It made me start thinking about the blogs I follow, the books I read, the church leaders I pay attention to, and a trend I’ve been witnessing within my own tradition, the Churches of Christ. I realized that they all kind of reminded me of the pastors from that recent gathering I had attended. They all kind of look alike. They all read a lot. They all listen to U2 and Mumford and Sons. They all like to talk about unwinding at night with a glass of wine. And they all seem to either have some kind of trendy eyeglasses or facial hair. The really cools ones have both. I thought about this, and it made me think about Pee Wee Herman.
It also made me think about home. Now, I didn’t grow up in a biker bar, but I did grow up in a beer-drinking family. Like a lot of small towns littered across the good ole United States of America, beer was a cultural staple of my little Northwest Ohio town. Even though I grew up in a little, ultraconservative church, beer was such a staple of our community that I’m pretty sure most people who attended our church drank it – they just never talked about it on Sundays and put the orange juice in front of their 12-packs in the fridge when they had church company over.
Sometimes I think that if one of these hipster Christians walked into a gathering of my hometown with their bottle of merlot, skinny jeans, and U2 tee shirt it would look a lot like that scene of Pee Wee walking into the biker bar.
This might seem to be a strange way to begin an article about church leadership, but I wouldn’t be the first minister driven to alcohol by his church. This article isn’t really about alcohol, though. It’s about people. It’s about beer-drinking people. Some guy named Thomas Rhett even has a song called “If I Could Have a Beer with Jesus.” I’m not much of a country music fan, but I appreciate his sentiment. Moreover, the sentiment of this song actually has me thinking a lot about drinking beer and the kinds of people who drink beer.
Don’t get me wrong, a lot of these hipster Christians drink beer too, but I’ve never seen one of them take a selfie while kicking back a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The truth is, you can tell a lot about a person by the kind of beer they drink, and when the hipster Christians aren’t sipping a dry, red cabernet, they tend to be kicking back on some trendy microbrew’s craft beer.
All of this is, of course, a completely unfair over-generalization of the contemporary American church. However, I also think that this caricature helps illustrate some important trends that are taking place that should force the church to do some critical self-evaluation. Now, to be clear, I am white, just finished my doctorate of ministry degree, enjoy red wine while listening to Mumford and Sons, and therefore confess, up front, to being part of the problem here. However, as I have spent the past few years analyzing a church culture that I feel more and more alienated from, I have begun to wonder if there hasn’t been a fair bit of elitism slowly creeping into churches and church leadership circles.
I have composed three subsequent articles that address what, in my opinion, are some of the most disconcerting trends emerging within the church, particularly the group I am most familiar with – the Churches of Christ. The first article proposes that a byproduct of the church’s focus on learning and education, particularly through formal education, is contributing to a cultural divide between academically-inclined church leaders (the Pee Wees) and blue collar, high school educated individuals (biker bar folks). Many churches are (mostly unwittingly) contributing to a resurrection of a pre-Reformation climate where the chasm between the clergy and laity is ever-expanding. While Jesus taught using every day, agrarian parables, church leaders seem to be having difficulty translating their high brow theology into everyday life.
The second article suggests that the softer a pastor’s hands are, the more difficulty he or she has in relating to working-class folks. A more technical description of this article is: how has the professionalization of ministry affected church culture? Like many pastors, I enjoy reading scores of books each year. However, I have come to realize how much more often I read than the vast majority of the people in my church. This doesn’t have to be a negative trait, but how often do we consider how this impacts our perspective and our ability to minister to others? I read often and count myself regularly blessed to be able to do so, but I have begun to wonder at what cost all this time reading has had. Certainly, there is a need for pastors to be able to connect with the professionals of our communities and reading is an essential part of keeping the well full, but we must not forget the non-professionals. This emphasis seems, to me, to be almost completely absent in the church circles I described above.
The third article highlights how the suburban context has come to dominate the landscape of church leadership conversations. Next time you see a convention or national gathering, notice how many of the speakers pastor in suburban communities. Again, I speak as part of the problem here, as my church sits in the heart of Midwestern suburbia (Columbus, OH), but I have noticed how vastly ignored urban and rural ministry have become. This is, no doubt, a byproduct of the hipster Christian movement that has seemed to dominate church leadership discussions in recent years. I’ve noticed that many of these hipsters give much lip service to urban ministries and social justice, but (perhaps it is my cynicism talking here) I rarely see that emphasis put into any kind of tenable action. The fact of the matter is the suburbs possess the financial resources to be able to support professional ministers like myself, and thus provide broader influence through platform like conferences and books – all the while neglecting other significant demographics.
The point of this series is not to be unduly critical or to be reduced to bleak cynicism. I’m convinced that there is much good happening in the Lord’s church and that God’s hand is alive in all corners of our world. I speak, instead, to a subculture that I love and care about, but often do not feel a part of. I speak with a heart of the pastor of a small church that is not in the Bible Belt. I write as a nonconformist who has always struggled to go with the flow, and I believe that while swimming upstream, several of the characteristics I see on display in the stream must be addressed. Hopefully, these articles can prove to be a prophetic reminder of some of our most neglected blind spots and can spark discussions about how they might be addressed.