For the past few months, perhaps even the past couple of years, my desire for some kind of hiking pilgrimage was evolving from wishful thinking to an actual plan.
Originally, I was hoping to get to Spain and hike the Camino Santiago. But with traveling restrictions due to COVID-19 and financial limitations, that was not going to be an option.
It is solved by walking.
This is a common phrase and hashtag you will see often as people talk about pilgrimage, especially on the Camino.
Many see prayer as merely asking God for things but I came to know prayer in a different way as I hiked up, down and through the southern Appalachians. Richard Rohr talks about prayer as “opting into the divine” and submitting one’s life to a union with Christ. Although I certainly spent time interceding for my family, friends, and circumstances…prayer became more like invitation. In prayer, we have the opportunity to participate with God in his project of redeeming and reconciling the world around us. Prayer should probably be more about God changing us than our own petitions for God to change the people and circumstances around us. There’s certainly a scriptural call to intercede and ask God to work, but as I was hiking, prayer became more about my own awareness of God and the abundant opportunities I have to participate in the life of the Kingdom.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus coaches us on prayer and challenges us to pray as if we would like for the way things are “in heaven” to be the way things are here on earth. “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
When you spend 8-12 hours a day hiking along a path, it is easy to focus on the creatures you see, the interesting plant life along the trail, the pain in your knee, the sweat dripping from your nose, the gnats and flies buzzing about…but as I re-developed the prayer muscle of my mind and heart I found that there was a sense of the Divine, of God’s presence all around me.
Now after returning to day-to-day life OFF trail it is even easier to be distracted from prayer. Yet I find that opting in with God through prayer can be as simple as directing my thoughts towards the One who invites us to live in constant awareness of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and all the goodness around us.
Backpacking on the AT taught me something new about prayer and how to be in constant conversation (speaking and listening) with God.
During my years of ministry with youth, college students, and young adults there have been so many books that attempt to analyze each generation and they ways in which they perceive the world. The most recent book I’ve read in this genre is by James Emery White entitled “Meet Generation Z.” White is a former seminary president (Gordon Conwell) and a pastor in Charlotte, NC.
He begins by describing our current cultural context as an age in which a post-Christian mindset is becoming more and more prominent. About 30% of adults under the age of 30 now claim no specific religious affiliation. The have come to be known as the “Nones” because when asked about their religious affiliation they tend to mark the “none” response. The combined factors of secularization, privatization, and pluralism have created an environment in which the church has lost much of its influence and no longer represents the predominant world view of this generation.
In Chapter 2 he goes on to list five defining characters of Generation Z. They are Recession Marked, Wifi Enabled, Multiracial, Sexually Fluid, and Post Christian. Being “recession marked” refers to the impact of the Great Recession as their main economic memory. This causes them to be more entrepreneurial while also wanting to make a difference in the world. Although their older counterparts, the Millennials have been referred to as “digital natives,” Gen Z is even more immersed in technology living their entire lives with the “internet in their pockets.” They are the most racially diverse and inclusive generation so far. And they are sexually fluid, with great acceptance of gay marriage and transgender identities. Finally, post-christian is how White describes their basic understanding of spirituality. All of these characteristics tend to flow from their highest value of individual freedom. For Gen Z more so than any other generation, affirmation equals acceptance.
Chapter 3 touches on the issue of how Gen Z has come to be so self-directed and indicts Gen X parents as enablers. Being fearful of over-parenting and over-protecting, many parents have erred on the side of under-protecting…leaving Gen Z literally to their own devices. Although they have endless amounts of information, they have little wisdom and virtually no mentors!
The role of the counter-cultural church is discussed in chapters 4 and 5 and White challenges the church to be the “called out ones” (ecclesia is the greek word which is translated as church and means “called out ones.”) Unfortunately, the church often postures itself either as cloisterd (disconnected from culture) or combative (culture wars) instead of being engaged with culture. If the church would stay on its mission of helping people simply follow Jesus well, more cultural change would be affected. The church has to reclaim its prophetic voice and translate the Gospel for the current culture without transforming its message. Here he cautions the church to change methods but not change the message. This of course presents a real challenge for a demographic that equates affirmation with acceptance. So care must be taken to communicate well a Christian worldview which is the only worldview which really supports the value and meaning of a human life. According to a secular worldview, the human is really just a product of chance.
Rethinking Evangelism is the focus of chapter 6 and involves recapturing the idea of process, orienting heavily towards explanation, and communicating in quick engaging ways. Remember, if Gen Z is post-christian and biblically illiterate, we will need to use an Acts 17 vs. and Acts 2 model of evangelism. In Acts 2, the apostles were speaking to a religiously literate crowd with heavy Jewish influence and background. But in Acts 17, on Mars Hill, the apostle Paul is dealing with a much more secular crowd of people. So we need to be creative (as Paul was in Athens) and visual as we communicate the message of the Gospel and talk about Jesus in effective bridge-building ways.
White suggests in chapter 7 that our two most fruitful “bridges” to cross when communicating spiritual truth to Gen Z involve their tendency towards belief in the supernatural (paranormal activity, horoscopes, spirituality, etc) as well as their appreciation for cosmology–a basic awe and wonder when it comes to science and the universe. Gen Z is perhaps more open than recent generations to the idea that science may not be able to fully explain reality.
Chapter 8 is all about the “decisions” which White’s church (Mecklenburg Community Church) has made in order to effectively reach younger generations and would really be a great chapter for any pastor to read and consider. Some of the philosophical decisions they have made as a church might be considered a bit radical. For example, they have made a commitment to “Skew Young” by hiring young leaders, putting young adults on the platform, and generally acknowledging their younger audience. Those of us with ANY experience in church leadership know how this can potentially alienate some of the older folks in congregations. But White is for prepared for response to that kind of backlash. “Hey, it’s not about you.”
The book is conclude with 3 sermon manuscripts which give you a good idea of how he pastorally engages some difficult topics and again, pastors especially might find these appendices as quite practical and illustrative.
So here’s my take on “Meet Generation Z:”
Keep in mind, that it is written by a pastor
There are helpful observations about this currently emerging generation but they aren’t purely sociological observations
Rethinking Evangelism is something we have always had to do for every generation. White’s emphasis on being focused on process, explanation, & communication can lead to some great insights
The Five Characteristics are descriptive but not exhaustive (in my opinion)
As the parent of 3 Gen Zers, it challenges me to effectively pair truth & grace in my conversations about faith with my own kids…as well as with college students and young adults in my ministry
Helping the church engage culture instead of becoming cloistered and combative is crucial.
As someone engaged not only in a local outreach to University students (see more on The 86 Coffee Bar at the University of Cincinnati) but also as someone helping catalyze and resource campus ministry initiatives with church (see the Campus Mission website) I gained some very helpful insights from Meet Generation Z.
Although this is the first book of Dr/Pastor White that I’ve read, he is obviously not a one-hit-wonder. He has several other books worth looking into. You can find more of that here.
If you have never hiked much on the AT, you probably wonder what it must be like to hike for 10 or 12 miles and then setup camp. About 10 years ago, I hiked a few miles into Maryland from Harper’s Ferry (West Virginia—what some think of as the half-way point on the AT though it’s technically not). That was first time I ever saw an AT shelter so I had a vague idea of what to expect along the way. But after several days on the trail, you realize how important these shelter locations can be. This is the Stover Creek shelter, the 2nd shelter you come across if you begin to hike northbound (not counting the Black Gap shelter on the approach trail from Amicalola Falls) from the southern terminus at Springer Mountain.
Whether or not you actually sleep in a shelter, these locations provide a good place to get out of the rain, cook a meal, and meet other hikers. On Day 1 of my AT hike, I got to this shelter around 4pm after hiking nearly 12 miles. A light had just concluded so I hung my sweaty damp clothes to dry while I setup my tent about 15 yards away from the shelter. And this became a daily routine.
By about 7pm, 3 other hikers had joined me at this shelter and then “May” showed up as I was settling into my tent for the evening. “May” and I would leave together the next morning and share much of the first 16 days of this hiking journey. Most days, we would pick a shelter that was anywhere from 10-15 miles away as our next campsite.
So shelters represented a daily destination. A place to rest, eat, and experience community.
As I continue to reflect on the trail experience, I think about the “shelter” experiences we have in our every-day lives. For most of us, our shelters are our homes…the place we land at the end of day to seek solace from work, play, or whatever activities we might engage in away from home. But our “shelter” is a place of safety and a place where we can get comfortable, share a meal with family and prepare for the next day’s adventure.
Being on the trail and sleeping at or near shelters gave me a much greater appreciation for the comforts of home and the joy of spending time with my wife and kids. Returning to life “off trail” came with a deep sense of gratitude but strangely, I find myself missing the trail. And that seems to be a tension that we all live with at some level. There are things that draw us away from daily life. Many of us crave adventure and variety…new terrain with incredible vistas. But the need for safety and shelter and the love of our domestic blessings also provide so much goodness. Although I am beginning to plan out my next section hike of 100-200 miles of the Appalachian Trail, for now I will make the most of my “shelter” and my time with family.
“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Psalm 23:6