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.
Some people seem confused when I talk about my Appalachian Trail experience, that I’m throwing in lots of stories about community and the people I was hanging out with on the trail.
“Didn’t you go hiking alone?” they might ask.
So here’s the deal. Lots of people hike the Appalachian Trail. Some for a few days, some for a few weeks, and even some for a few months. There was only 1 night during my 23 days on the trail that I was completely alone at a shelter or campsite at the end of the day.
In the picture above, “May” was one of the people who joined our “shelter family” that first evening at the Stover Creek Shelter. I didn’t know it at the time, but he and I would hike together for a little over two weeks. His trail name was “May” because when he was 19, he shattered his femur in an accident and one of his doctors said “You MAY never walk again.” Over those two weeks, “May” and I got to know each other pretty well and spent several hours each day chatting about his life in Charlotte and my life in Cincinnati. So the relationships on the trail really became a substantial and great part of the experience!
Trail names are also an interesting part of the hiking experience and community on the Appalachian Trail. Some people can get a trail name when they do something weird or interesting. Like one thru-hiker we met was “Subway” because when he started hiking at the northern terminus, he had several Subway sandwiches in his pack so he didn’t have to cook anything for the first few days. Folks started calling him “Subway” and it stuck.
One of the other guys I hiked with (actually the first hiker I met when I was signing in at the visitor center in Amicalola Falls) whose real name is Jim almost got the trail name “Boyscout” because I noticed him wearing a Philmont t-shirt. But then I learned his nickname in the Navy had been “Catfish” because of his mustache…so we called him “Catfish!”
My trail name didn’t take long to stick because I woke people up each morning with the sound and aroma of grinding fresh coffee. “JAVAMAN” quickly became my moniker.
One of the younger guys we found ourselves trying to keep up for a few days was “Boots.” He seemed to be intent on experiencing maximum pain & suffering because he had a 50lb pack and boots that must not have been quite right. There were several times when I saw blood as he removed his hiking boots and socks to doctor the feet. But he was an ROTC-engineering student at Princeton who was just trying to develop his ability to withstand intense physical struggle in preparation for future military training. Super smart kid and fun hiker connection! Here he is with May & I shortly after (or before) we cross the state line from Georgia to North Carolina.
And there were lots of other hikers we spent time with along the way…like Sherpa, Smiles, Duct Tape, Veggie Delights, the Gossip Girls, another “Sherpa”, Stone Legs, etc!
The Appalachian Trail has this power to create community. It brings together a diverse group of people who share this passion to be outdoors and challenge themselves physically. Any amount of suffering (sometimes what hikers may call “embracing the suck”) tends to create some extra relational bonding energy that catalyzes community more quickly than what we usually experience in our normal day-to-day lives.