Beyond Label or Category

I sat with a table of clergy and laity leaders talking about reaching “young people.”  In frustration, I asked them to define for me who these “young people” are and what they are like.  It became apparent that the “young people” we want to reach are a generic, bland hash of upper-middle-class, calm, well-behaved “newer” versions of ourselves.  The expectation is that “young people” will either share, or quickly adopt, our values, that they will enjoy what we enjoy, think what we think, and not question or challenge the way things are.  Oh, and they will all nicely and cleanly fit simple categories — easy to label and control.  This conversation is a glimpse into a huge problem we face — trying to reach and relate to people we don’t know or understand at all.

A recent experience illustrates my point.  I stop most mornings at a local coffee shop — a gathering place for locals of every stripe and form.  Each day a core group of town regulars collect and others stop by to visit and chat for a few minutes, then move on.  One morning, a cute, perky, deeply dimpled blond woman — maybe 21 or 22 — dressed in shorts, a tank top, and carrying a pink Hello Kitty backpack bounced in and joined the group.  See chatted for a while and departed, and awhile later the whole group broke up and left.  When I prepared to leave, I noticed that the young woman had left her backpack.  I took it to the cashier and asked if he knew the woman, he said he did not, so I looked in the backpack for identification so we could contact her.  Here is a list of the contents of the backpack:

  • an iPhone
  • a wallet, with an “Icthus” fish emblem
  • a set of headphones
  • two tampons
  • a strip of seven condoms (five opened and empty, two fully intact)
  • a well-used Bible — heavily annotated and underlined, with about two dozen bookmarks with yarn tassels marking favorite places.  The Bible was held in a protective cover, and the cover had the following four stickers on it:
    1. “Abortion is murder”
    2. “We stand with Scott Walker”
    3. “All means all — Support Lesbian and Gay Rights”
    4. “Capital Punishment is a Hate Crime”
  • a pint of Raspberry vodka, two-thirds empty
  • a .22 caliber handgun

Okay, quick now — liberal or conservative?  Republican or Democrat?  Would this young woman be comfortable in your church?  Would she be welcome?  Does she “fit”?  Is she the kind of young adult we have in mind when we say we want more young people?  Is she “normal” in today’s world?  Trying to categorize or label this young woman is a fool’s errand — a total waste of time.  And if we think she is someone who needs fixing or we want to judge her based on one or two items from her backpack, we just need to understand we will never see her in any of our churches.  One woman responded to this story by saying, “Just what we need in the church, drunken sluts with guns!”  Jesus wept.

I have shared this story with four or five groups and those forty and older are flabbergasted (flabbergasted being a word used by forty and older people) while those under forty just smile and nod.  The older group struggles to “figure her out,” while the younger group merely shrugs and says she isn’t unusual.  I wonder how well many in our mainline churches understand what a “young person” really is?

It brings to mind an incident that happened years ago in one of my churches.  Two young guys were hanging out in the church parking lot.  Both were wearing baggy, dirty, ragged clothes, but one had dyed-black hair pulled into long spikes, tattoos on both arms and the back of one leg, and multiple piercings through ears, nose, lips, and eyebrow.  He had a belligerent demeanor.  Both had skateboards, and someone obviously thought they were up to no good, because the police showed up and began hassling them.  I came out to see if I could intervene (meddle) and I was surprised to find that the police officer was speaking disrespectfully and aggressively and the young men were both being very polite and humble.  I told the policeman that the boys weren’t doing anything wrong, and he left.  The young men thanked me, then said they had to run.  I asked where they were going and they told me they were going to work at the soup kitchen at the Episcopal church.  Turns out that they worked at the soup kitchen three days a week and that they each tutored a special needs child every Friday.  I asked if they attended the church where they worked and the pierced and tatted boy said, Nah, they don’t want us there on Sunday.  It makes too many people nervous.”

I think about that kid all the time, and while it was almost twenty years ago, I don’t think the church has become any more accepting in the intervening years.  I’ve shared the story of working with the street kids in the Bronx where for the first and only time in my life I heard the word “m****rf****r” used in a prayer.  I don’t know of more than one United Methodist Church where that kid would be welcome…  And yet, these are real people all seeking relationship with God and attempting to live their faith, so why wouldn’t the church be a place ready and able to receive them?  The purpose of the church is not to provide comfort, safety, and coddling to those who know God, but to equip the comfortable, safe and coddled to go out into a broken world to share God’s love with those who need it most.

44 replies

  1. I created and taught a number of High School Equivalency classes for teens ‘exited’ from high school by either their their own choice or the school’s. My classes were always held in local church basements or once (the best) in an entire Presbyterian Manse were I could house kids who were on the streets if needed. I’ll never forget the day one of the most alternative, goth young men was assigned to kill a bee ,and the first book he grabbed was a bible. Just as he was to smack the bee, he stopped and looked at me and asked if using Holy Scripture to kill a creature would send him to hell quicker than he was already going. Yes, he used the words “Holy Scripture”.. and yes, a door was opened that we both walked through. There are millions of ‘disposable’ teens out there just waiting for someone to say so much as “Hey! How ya doing!” and making eye contact with a smile. They are beautiful, beautiful but wounded children!!!!!!!

  2. i don’t think i know “Kevin.” The thought occurs to me that his thinking Dan is “making up” the story does not bode well for any sort of speaking-listening interaction in the sermon. Preachers need to be clear about when an illustration is “real” or “made up,” and listeners need to be willing to grant that hard-to-grasp stories may in fact be true, real, meaningful, and helpful. The grace of God certainly seems “made up,” but i trust its reality and its power! Not all that well stated, but maybe you get my drift….

  3. @Jeff Conn – I was in public service long enough to know that you will find ANYTHING in a purse that’s been left behind at a store or restaurant, including a weapon. I’ve found weapons, wallets, cellphones, computers, $1000’s in cash, left behind in: backpacks, purses, handbags, and even paper sacks that people totally forgot about. I’ve seen cops leave their weapons behind in: desk drawers, car seats, on top of trunks (which then were left behind in parking lots), falling down inside of pants of improperly-placed holsters… the list goes on.

    I used to find cell phones and iPads in pews quite often, too.

    Dan didn’t make it up. He’ll catch hell for lots of things, but not his veracity.



    • Sky,

      Thanks for watching my back and coming to my defense. Having worked in the hotel industry, I have similar stories of things left behind (including lizards, a blow-up doll, and a sword — thankfully not all from the same room…). My snarky, knee-jerk response to Kevin masks my dismay that it is our prevelant unwillingness to accept such a tale as a new “normal” that may make it impossible to reach millions of people with whom we could witness and forge new community.

      • I don’t like to see someone called a liar. Snarky is sometimes in order when crap like that gets flung. (Ok… my Southern came thru on that… and I’m not editing it).

  4. Not buying it. I am supposed to believe that a woman who is responsible enough to practice safe sex will leave a weapon in a coffee shop. And I have yet to see a young woman whose cell phone wasn’t surgicallly attached to her hip. No way she would leave that behind. Admit it. You made this up.

    • Believe what you want. You obviously feel very comfortable calling me a liar. Too bad you won’t consider the truth of this. You are the reason such people will never find a home in our churches. You refuse to accept what doesn’t fit your narrow and simplistic worldview. Too bad… And, sorry, can’t pretend it didn’t happen.

      • Perhaps my BS meter needs a recalibration. I notice you did not deny that you made this story up. If you say this is 100% true I will believe you.

      • Really? Okay, great. This is true. It happened. I don’t use made up stories unless I say they are made up. And why I would make this up is beyond me. So, to spell it out as clearly as possible: true, not made up, not fiction, really happened, witnesses, real people, real situation, real backpack, real contents — your choice to believe it or not, but your choosing not to trust doesn’t make it false.

      • And please forgive my snarkiness. I reacted a bit over-the-top, but I do take honesty really seriously…

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