My friend Bob serves as a chaplain contractor with a responsibility for "Single Airmen's Ministry" (the term "airmen" is gender-neutral he tells me) at Fairchild. He got this gig about six months ago, and has been really excited about it, which surprised me a bit at first. Bob (though a self proclaimed "boomer") lives and breathes post-modern, missional, emergent type of stuff. So this "military chaplain" thing seemed a bit surprising, though I knew he'd do a great job at it. But then, Bob described his "setting" and I started to get it. This week I got the chance to see it in person.
While the rest of the chaplains have offices in the chapel (a large, visible, churchy looking building you can't miss when you drive onto the base) Bob's office is tucked away in a little house right in the middle of a large circle of dorms where most of the 18-22 year old single airmen live. They call this the "Airmen's Ministry Center" and they just recently set up a Facebook page for themselves. When you walk in there is a table of books and materials. I noticed Don Miller's "Blue Like Jazz" right away (the last copy, says Bob, the airmen love it) and some perfect-for-keeping-with-you-size Bibles with plastic camo covers (I almost snagged one). To the left is a computer lab and off to the right is a living room with a giant flat screen, couches, and last night's (or this afternoon's?) dirty pizza boxes. Bob's office is right there in the mix. And they've got Wi-Fi (which I guess the dorms don't), so the place is generally hopping.
Now, there are a couple of ways this could go. In what I might expect, Bob's position would be more or less like a youth director--a program provider--who specializes in the religious goods and services that young people today enjoy. Ol' Bob might be expected to show up with his guitar, sing some Jesus camp songs, lead a trip or two and call that ministry. And, in fact, Bob's job description does include trips and retreats, events and mixers. But underlying this is a real sense from Bob that the Air Force Chaplain Corps is pretty clear that "ministry as usual" just isn't gonna fly anymore. What he does is not just a dumbed-down (or coolness added) religious program. The coffee shop, the TV, the trips, etc are all simply relational entry points for him to connect to the lives of these young people, and help them connect with one another--and through both to deepen spiritually. Here's how Bob describes what he's up to:
The Air Force Chaplain Corps has recognized that these 19 – 22 year-olds are caught up in the cultural shifts of contemporary society. They are unlikely to seek answers from traditional church structures. An alternative, a “third place,” like our Airman Ministry Center, is more conducive to ministry to these young post-moderns. And so, I spend half my day and many weekends hanging out with young adults, caring for them. I am based in an “Airman’s Lounge,” which is a living-room and wifi-hotspot surrounded by the singles’ dorms.I would welcome your prayers for this service to young Airmen. While caring for people of any faith, and no faith at all, I believe the time is coming to see the gathering of an Airman community of Christian faith. Instead of building walls or pulling back from shop-mates and fellow dorm-dwellers, a group of believers should come together, and live out their covenant pilgrimage with God in the midst of the larger base community. For that to happen requires a birth from above.
The day after Bob called to invite me to check out what he was up to I was reading Reggie McNeal's (fantastic) book "Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church", in which he describes some work he's done with the Army Chief of Chaplains. McNeal has this to say:
Historically, the role of the chaplain has been to serve as a representative of the faith that people took with them into military service. However, the spiritual landscape among service personnel has changes significantly, particularly among younger recruits. Many of these soldiers are coming into service with no spiritual formation or religious affiliation.
He then goes on to describe a bit what this looks like and concludes:
It occurred to me only later that this same challenge applies to church leaders in North America. Most have been equipped to serve as institutional representatives for faith that people already possess. The challenge is to connect with a culture that is unacquainted with the Good News of Jesus. The default position for church leaders in North America is that of institutional represntatives... Leaders of a kingdom movement see themselves in a far different light. They talk about God, not just about church. And when they talk about God, they don't use the discussion as a way to get around to marketing their church.What McNeal, and Bob (and the military chaplain leadership it seems) are on about is that business as usual is just not cutting it for the emerging generation. Recruiting people into our institutions and programs just simply can't pass for ministry and mission any more. And I'd bet if there are statistics on such things, this has been a growing trend within the regular chaplain ministry as well. If the same trends that function in the civilian churches hold, the 18-22 year olds simply aren't connecting AT ALL to the programs and structures and "the way we've always done things"--but its seems very likely that the generations before them have been connecting less and less. But unlike much of the institutional church, even in my limited in encounter with it, the Air Force chaplaincy system seems to get this--to understand that if we don't re-tool we're going to miss out on a whole generation of people. And perhaps, already have.
It gives me great hope that the US military, that institution that defines institution, is catching on to what is happening among emerging generations. I wonder, though, what makes them more willing to change, to address ministry differently, and to reach out to this disconnected population than many of our church institutions? Why is the Air Force spending time, effort, and energy investing in chaplains like Bob, setting them up in "coffee shop" settings, and empowering them to do this kind of relationship based ministry and spiritual deepening when our churches by and large aren't? Is the military more concerned about the spiritual health of young people than our churches are?