God’s Runaway Train

God’s Runaway Train

TrainThat is the image that came to me this morning as I thought about the journey we have all been forced into in this awkward, troubling, and fertile time. I can’t help but think and feel that something really big is happening to us, among us, and around us right now.

Yesterday was a sobering and revealing day for me. I heard in the context of a meeting two different statistics that woke me up to a sobering reality. The strange thing is that it seems like every week I am having some new sobering-reality-wake-up-call and they just keep coming like waves in the ocean.

The two statistics that woke me up were these two realities:

  • On July 1, 2019 Millennials overtook Boomers as the largest generation and the percent of the U.S. population that was Millennial or younger was 52%, and;
  • In a Racism Index study white mainline Protestants showed higher levels of racist attitudes (69%) than white non-religious Americans (42%).

blindnessLately there has been a lot of talk about structural racism and structural bias. While I believe there is truth to these increasingly obvious realities I also feel a certain blindness to them—which is, of course, a big part of the problem—people just like me! Those of us who have racist attitudes by virtue of the DNA of our culture often can’t see them because it’s just the sea we swim in.

But hearing these two statistics woke me up to this reality just a little more and it was the first statistic that helped me see the second statistic.

While the church has long yearned to “get the young people back in church” I suddenly heard that refrain in a completely different light. I realized that the young people we keep talking about are now almost 40 years of age and now represent a majority of the U.S. population. Our refrain to get the young people back always felt like we were pondering, “How can we bring this loosely established minority group into our established majority community?” Hearing the 52% statistic made me realize that we have crossed a threshold. Now we might be asking, “How can our dwindling minority community be attractive to a growing majority demographic?” Those youths we keep yearning for now outnumber us.

assimilationThe statistic made me realize that there is a whole new structure emerging in our culture that is not dependent on our traditional structures or even values. For decades we have written books and offered workshops on “how to assimilate” new people into the church. I suddenly realized that in this new environment assimilation is the problem. Isn’t that what we are hearing? People don’t want to be assimilated into our culture. They don’t want to have to fit into OUR structure!

Why would a 52% growing majority younger demographic want to assimilate into a declining aging demographic?

And then the second statistic made sense to me. I could see it.

Why would a group that scores lower on racist attitudes want to assimilate into a group that scores 65% higher on racist attitudes?

gay menAs I thought about this, I remembered the comments of our featured speaker at the Lectionary Seminar in 2018 at Menucha. Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary New Testament scholar, Luis Menéndez-Antuña, was speaking about the shift in the LGBTQIA culture over the last three decades. He said that in the early years of the fight for gay and lesbian rights the chant was, “We want what you have. We demand equal rights.” He said the refrain today is, “Why would we want what you have? We demand you get to know us on our terms.”

What I keep hearing—finally—is a problem with structure. “We don’t want what you have! We want to create our own world and our own structure.”

And then I thought about the obvious implications of this:

Could these words be applied to our young people (meaning 40 and under!)?

We don’t want what you have!

Could these words be applied to our secular white non-religious neighbors?

We don’t want what you have!

Could these words be applied to our African American brothers and sisters?

We don’t want what you have!

Could these words be applied to the LGBTQIA community?

We don’t want what you have!

Could these words be applied to single and divorced people?

We don’t want what you have!

Could these words be applied to any person and any community who has felt that they don’t belong in the structures of the established church?

We don’t want what you have!

  • art image personMaybe it is time to quit trying to force the world to fit into our structures.
  • Maybe assimilation workshops are part of the problem.
  • Maybe it’s time to question whether our structures serve the cause of justice and peace, mirror the liberating message of the gospel, and bring greater glory to God.

Maybe it’s time to let others teach us and lead us and educate us.

TrainMaybe it’s time to get on board or get out of the way of God’s runaway train.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

14 thoughts on “God’s Runaway Train

  1. I have often thought about the longing some of us have about “getting back to the good old days.” Your ponder piece suggests that the good old days aren’t all that enviable, at least in the present context.

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  2. Brian,
    Your provocative blog this week leaves those of us “on the cusp” – that is, 40-50, – wondering, or at least I am wondering, what can I do when I serve a church made up of the older minority, who operate as if their world and all they know is still the majority culture, when what it sounds like we need to be doing is to collect some Millennials to assimilate us into their world view? And how do we become assimilated and bring our congregation along with us?
    Scott

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    1. Scott,
      You might think about preaching on the Babylonian exile and the debate between whether the Jewish community should be a faithful remnant or assimilate into the Babylonian culture. The other thing I have seen is when congregations take the radical step to invite the community to help shape the church’s future or, in some cases, legacy. At Eastminster in NE Portland we put a Vision team together that was comprised of 2 Session members and 9 community members. That kind of balance communicates clearly, “We are hear to listen and to support the vision that you see for our church.” It is highly effective, but getting a congregation to let go of the reins to that extent is tough work!

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  3. You nailed it, Brian. Instead of hanging onto a church that doesn’t really exist anymore, it’s time for us to get on board God’s train of new adventures.

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  4. I’ve often said that the church keeps answering questions that people aren’t asking.
    The dynamic comes to mind of parents wanting to downsize and bequeath precious furniture, often bequeathed to them by ancestors, to their children or grandchildren. Who has room? We don’t need it. We have what we like. I don’t want your wedding china or silver! What is precious to past generations may not hold value for a new one.
    We’re in a different world now, ostensibly a better I one. It would be nice to value what has come before, but it’s complicated by what needs to change.

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  5. Yes, Brian. I don’t see folks running to jump on “God’s runaway train.”

    There is a gospel tradition of songs about trains which aren’t very relevant to the model of God’s runaway train:

    People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’
    You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board
    All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’
    Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.

    This train is bound for glory, this train.
    This train is bound for glory, this train.
    This train is bound for glory,
    Don’t carry nothing but the righteous and the holy.
    This train is bound for glory, this train.

    The gospel train is coming
    I hear it just at hand
    I hear the car wheels moving
    And rumbling thro’ the land
    Get on board, children (3×)
    For there’s room for many a more

    I’m goin’ home on the morning train
    I’m goin’ home on the morning train
    I’m goin’ home on the morning train
    If you don’t see me, you can hear me singing
    All my sins been taken away, taken away.

    Riding this runaway train feels more like the asylum seekers from Latin America dangerously jumping trains and gripping perilously through the night as they ride northward. Are we desperate enough or have we been nudged/pulled by Spirit to jump on God’s runaway train headed on a risky journey to a destination we can only imagine?

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    1. Kathy,
      I wished I had remembered that song when I wrote this. Thank you for the thoughtful and insightful reply. Your image of asylum seekers is very powerful and, I think, apt. Are we ready to take the risks to grab onto this runaway train? We can on the sidelines and watch it go by or grab on and see what new land it takes us to.

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  6. Brian, you have a way of putting fuzzy ideas/suppositions floating around in my head into focus. I believe you’ve got it right. Covid may have changed our venue for ‘church’ – but for many, attitudes from us ‘Boomers’ about the “way it’s always been” have not changed and are inflexible. Why would Millennials want that?
    I look forward to your next blog. Have a great week!

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    1. Yes, Schooner, this was my big epiphany this week. We keep thinking that if we just said it right or presented ourselves a little better that people would start coming back to church. It was the realization that we are becoming a remnant community amid a culture who is saying, “But we don’t want what you have.” What does that mean for how we live out the gospel in this time?

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  7. Yes yes yes. Every generation has had to at some point assume the responsibility for creating the world they want to live in. Those of us in the Boomer generation certainly did so. Sometimes the younger generations take the lead with barely a ripple. Other times there is great upheaval. I suspect the greatest upheaval correlates in some portion to the resistance and intransigence of the older generation. Great post, Brian!

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