Christian Self-Sacrifice: Your Pastor is doing it wrong.

washing_feet_01Christians are called to self sacrifice and to give of themselves, their time, talents, energy, finances, commitment and heart to churches and other ministries.

As Pastors, we are called upon to be the ones who lead the way, who exhort our people to give and to model a self-giving, self-sacrificing lifestyle. What this ends up looking is like is pastors working 60-70 hours a week, trying to get to every meeting, trying to make every visit, preach the perfect sermon, lead the best bible studies and have office hours for drop in visits… not to mention counselling appointments, sweeping up the kitchen after youth and taking that extra half hour to deal with parking lot concern in the “meeting after the meeting”.

And I regularly hear the statement, “How can I ask my people to give if I am not leading the way”.

This style of ministry is very well intentioned. But it is utterly wrong headed and counter productive. Yes… I know that my colleagues and friends might disagree.

So let me start by making a confession:

I can count on one hand the number of weeks I have worked more than 40 hours in nearly 5 years in the parish.

I have lost count of the number of 35 hour weeks I have worked in the same period.

And guess what, not a single parishioner has ever asked about my hours. In fact most assume I am very busy (which I never say that I am), and most are very surprised when I can make time for them.

A part of this is that I am a fast writer. I can write sermons, reports, newsletter articles, blog posts in just a few minutes or short hours. I also very rarely have writers block. Now I know this might give me a good 5-15 hour a week head start on many of my colleagues. But now that I am done humble bragging, I think there is a much more important issue in regards to those other 20 hours that so many pastors are working over 40. And that issue is feelings.

Yup, feelings.

As pastors we encourage our members to give of themselves for many reasons. Because the hungry need to be fed, committees need members, Sunday school students need teachers, choirs need singers, sick and lonely people need visits, buildings need maintenance, etc…

But we also know that giving of ourselves is a very important part of our relationship with God and with our community. It feels good. And not in the self satisfying way, but in the soul- transforming-I-genuinely-know-the-other-and-God kind of way. So we encourage our people to give of themselves because we know that self-sacrifice is part of that soul changing work. 0511-1009-1319-0462_Black_and_White_Cartoon_of_a_Stressed_Out_Guy_with_the_Word_Overload_clipart_image

And because we know this as pastors, we often get ourselves into way too much of it and suddenly we are working 70 hours a week in a not so soul transforming way. I think there a few reasons for this:

  1. Pastors have hard time defining what our work is.
  2. It is an easy way to feel good when you are constantly on the front line of ministry.
  3. It feels really good to feel needed, and it is an easy way to be appreciated when we are praised for our busy-ness.
  4. Being busy is measure of value, specifically justification for our salaries.
  5. Many pastors lack the confidence to believe that our training gives us skills and knowledge that our people need. It just isn’t as evident to us as it is to doctors or lawyers or teachers who know very well that the people they work with need their expertise.

So here is the thing. We know that self-sacrifice and giving of ourselves feels good, and it is an easy way to justify our jobs.

But that stuff is in fact what we have been called out of and set apart from as those who fill the “office” of ministry in our congregations.

I went to a retirement party for a much beloved pastor. There were hundreds of people there, people from across the country. There were skits, songs, speeches, videos and many, many tears. And all night long there was this awkwardness because it was clear this pastor had sacrificed his family life… even brought home work for his family to do… The pastor’s family even gave speeches themselves saying their husband and father was never home and always working… but it was for Jesus.

I have heard colleagues tell me that their spouses won’t commit them to anything, or even tell them about kid’s concerts, sporting events or family functions because they know their pastor spouse will be absent.

This is more the sad norm than the exception.

Being a pastor changes the way we get to do that soul-changing work. We are set-apart from the normal stuff that everyone else gets to do and it is really hard, especially when you consider that most pastors were sent to seminary because they love and were good at that the stuff we call and exhort our parishioners to do. It is hard because the self-giving stuff that we encourage our people to do is above and beyond the 40+ hours they spend at their work, and we should be there too. It is hard because it is a powerful example to be leading the way in self-giving and sacrifice.

However, it always ends up messy. It is so easy for congregations to begin expecting 70 hour weeks, rather than seeing that those 30 hours as “extra”. Thom Rainer conducted an experiment to see what his council of deacons (or church council) expected him to be doing and how many hours a week he should spend doing it. The result, a 114 hour work week. And this was what the informed leadership expected of the pastor.

What begins as well intentioned modelling of self-sacrifice, morphs into congregations paying the pastor (and staff) to do most of the ministry of the laity or congregation. And a lot of my colleagues express this frustration, but don’t know any other way of doing things.

The answer is simple. The execution is hard. Stop giving 30+ hours of extra, dare I even say, “lay ministry” to your church.

This is extra hard for most pastors because leading the way in giving time and energy to the church is where that calling to ministry first grew.

This is what I know: My most important jobs are first and foremost Preaching the gospel and Presiding at worship. Doing those things with integrity takes 40% to 50% of my time. The rest is devoted to teaching, visiting the sick and dying, preparing people for baptism, marriage and funerals for another 20% to 30% and the last 20-30% is devoted to visioning, planing, getting everyone on the same page of mission and purpose.

What does that last piece look like? It is helping people to understand that the highest value and goal of being a church is to be a good worshipping community. A community that loves, respects and cares for each other, and a community that gathers and is formed first and foremost in worship.   When a congregation’s purpose is to be a good community formed in worship, the responsibility of the leaders becomes to name the destination and point the way. And it stops being getting all the jobs done… which is the goal of a church that is paying it’s pastor for 70 hours a week of ministry.

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Liturgy – The First Social Media

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So a few days ago, a blog post, by a fellow Lutheran Pastor, Keith Anderson, started making the social media rounds. The post suggested the simple idea of getting people to check-in with their smart phones prior to the service using Facebook or foursquare and to tweet using a hashtag particular to the church.

Not a bad idea. Or is it?

In the past couple years, it has been becoming clearer that social media is here to stay. People are getting more and more connected through virtual community, and more importantly social media use is becoming a seamless part of our lives. We interact with online communities almost automatically.

It has also become clear that churches will need to have a social media presence if they want to be a part of people’s lives away from Sunday mornings. It used to be that Churches would have a small ad in the local paper or phone book. Churches knew that was a given in order to be known in the community. Social media is now our local paper and phone book, Facebook pages and twitter accounts are the new given for community presence.

However, the idea of “checking-in at church” generated some interesting discussion. Checking-in at church means smart phone use at church. Smart phone use at church means checking social media during worship. And that idea is not as exciting, I am sure, for most pastors. I even wrote a post about putting down the iPhone in church recently. I don’t know if I am ready to look out into the pews and see the white smartphone glow on faces staring down at knees while I am preaching. Part of me loves the possibility for live-tweeting a sermon, and I also know that I watched a video about cats stealing dog beds this morning. 3 times. Maybe twitter can wait until worship is over.

But churches and social media are, at their core, all about community. Social media and church are only going to become more entangled over time. Understanding how and why people use social media might help churches understand themselves.

The wikipedia definition of social media is about online virtual communities. Social media is where people share content (posts, updates, comments, shares etc…) through virtual community media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pintrest, Reddit etc…

I think that definition is too narrow.

“Social” is simply a word that describes human interaction in community. “Media” is the vehicle for that communication. Social Media doesn’t have to be online. Social Media really is just naming a medium through which people interact socially, or in other words, through which people share themselves and their lives with others who are sharing.

The liturgy is exactly that. It is a social or community experience. It is a medium through which we are shared with and to each other. Worship should be a similar experience to opening Facebook and seeing the updates from your community. It is medium for ritualized and filtered community. We greet each other as the whole assembly. We share in common experiences in song and prayer. We hear anew the news, opinion, and thoughts of the timeless community of faith in scripture. We share our concerns in prayer and reconcile in the peace. We open and bind ourselves to each other in the Holy Bath and Holy Meal. We promise to return to the community as we are sent out into the real world.

Liturgy is the first form of social media.

But more importantly, there is a clue to what people are looking for in community and at church. So often we think it is the medium that “attracts”. We think that if we become the newest phone or computer or website or viral video sensation that we will have people camped outside our doors three days before worship, like early adopters before an apple product launch.

Yet, take a look around you the next time you go to the mall or coffee shop or take the bus. Look at people’s phones. Some are the latest version. Most are scuffed, beat up, covered in ugly yet functional cases, sometimes severely cracked, barely functional devices. People don’t seem to care that much what their phone looks like as long as it still gets them online. One of the most popular activities on Facebook is complaining about Facebook. People hate the features of the site, but they need the community that they find there. If they didn’t need it they would be somewhere else… (Google+ maybe?)

Church people make the mistake of thinking it is the flashy screens or cool guitars or cushy pews or hip sermon references that will bring people to church. Yet, every time I ask church members why they keep coming back to their church, the first answer is always community. Everyone who is at church is there for the community yet we try to attract new members, our youth, inactive and drifted away members with buildings, music, programs, projectors and screens, staff, and whatever cool features we hope will work.

Is it that we hope the medium will be the message?

Or that most congregations find it hard to believe that they are the reason that they come, that each other and the community we form are what people are actually looking for?

When Jesus said wherever two or three are gathered, he didn’t add, “on Facebook or in architecturally post-modern buildings or wherever drop down projection screens have been installed” I am there.

And it is no mistake that the church, that our community, is called the Body of Christ.

Churches are the medium.

Liturgy is the social media of the Body of Christ. It the place where our community is hosted, updated, friend added, followed, and shared.

Community is the reason we all keep coming back… maybe it is time to give in and accept that community is what God is actually using to bring us to the Body of Christ.

A Sermon for the Last of the Millennials

Luke 18:1-8

Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Sermon

Confirmands, today you have done something bold and courageous. Something that, in fact most, people on the street would consider crazy. Something that, many people here today would not do, even for money. You have stood before us and pointed to God, and specially to the things that God is doing in your life.

 

Next week I have to talk about the Reformation, something that happened 500 years ago, and Baptism and Affirmation of Baptism, things that Christians have been doing for 2000 years. So today I am going to talk about you, and about what you shared, your faith. And of course about God, and what God has to say about you and your faith.

 

Let me begin by saying that I am you.

 

Or rather you and I are a part of the same generation. Most of the adults in the room probably don’t know this. And you guys might not really get what a generation is. But we are Millennials. Millennials, our generation, have been in the news a fair bit lately. Our parents, the Baby Boomers have been calling us lazy, they have been telling us to get jobs, they have been complaining that we grew up in a world where everyone gets a soccer trophy, and every game ends in a tie, and the thing that we have all been taught growing up is that we are special and deserve special treatment.

 

That doesn’t sound very good does it?

 

So what really makes us Millennials? I am 30 years old, and I was born in the second last week of 1982. Which means that I was born in the 20th century, but I didn’t become an adult until the 21st century. I am among the oldest of our generation, and you, confirmands, are the youngest. Most of you were probably born in 1998 or 1999? Right? So you were also born before the year 2000 but you won’t be adults until 2016 or 2107, the 21st century. But it isn’t our just our birth year that makes us millennials. Important events of history have also shaped our lives. You might not remember it, but September 11th, 2001 changed our world forever. You were in diapers, and I was in my 2nd week of university. The world was all of a sudden at war with terrorists. Five years ago in 2008, Banks started failing and the world economy entered a recession that was last experienced by our great-grandparents. And just recently, we have been praying about this government shutdown in the US. This too is now part of the history that defines us.

 

But we are also the first generation to have computers the whole way through grade school. We are the first to grow up with internet, with cell phones, smart phones and with texting, with facebook, twitter, youtube.

 

This is a world very different than that of your parents and grandparents. And having faith today, is very different from the way your grandparents and parents had faith.

 

When your grandparents and parents were born, most people went to church. Most of their family, their friends, their neighbours were church goers.  Being born in Canada usually meant you were born a Christian. The weird people were the ones who DIDN’T go to church.

 

But for us, most people don’t go to church. Most of our friends, family and neighbours stay home on Sundays. Being born in Canada today means you can be a Christian, or a Jew, or Hindu, or Buddhist or Muslim, or Atheist, or Agnostic, or a Jedi, or nothing. And weird people are the ones who DO go to church.

 

When your parents and grandparents were born, being a Canadian, and going to church because everyone else did was a good enough reason to be a Christian.

 

But today for us, we need more reasons than that. And your parents and grandparents need more reason than that these days too.

 

You have all just shared your faith with us, and so I want to tell you why Jesus is important in my life too.

 

Remember the bible reading that I started with? The story of Unjust judge who doesn’t  care about anyone, not even God. And the widow who bothers him so much that he finally gives in and gives her what she wants? Well, most people these days think God is kind of like that unjust judge. That God is up in heaven deciding who is good and who is bad. And some people say that if God is like that, they don’t want anything to do with God, or the Church or Christians. And other people say that if God is like that judge, we better be really good Christians and have lots of faith or we are all going to hell.

 

Now for me, if I thought that God was an unjust judge I would never be at church. But even if God was a kind and friendly judge who was deciding to let most people into heaven, even if you didn’t have try very hard for God to choose to let us in. I would not be a pastor, I would not be a Christian, I would never come to church.

 

So then why I still am a Christian, why I am a pastor? Because I was lucky enough to have a family, to have a church, to go to and work at Bible camps, to go to university and have teachers and professors, to have pastors in my life, and confirmation teachers and youth leaders like yours who taught me something different.

 

They told me about Jesus who is not like the judge at all. They told me about Jesus who is much more like the widow.

 

Jesus is the one who keeps coming, and bothering, and annoying and interrupting and trying to be a part of my life. Jesus is the one who will keep trying to find me and who keeps loving me no matter what.

 

Church is not a place for perfect Christians or good people. In fact, if any of us were perfect Christians or truly good people, we wouldn’t need to be here. Instead, Church is a place for weird people. For widows, for broken people, for sinners, for sick, depressed, lonely, losers like you and me. Church is a place for people who need to be loved and cared for. For people who need justice like the widow in the story today.

 

As you grow up and go out into the world, there are going to be a lot of people who will tell you that God needs you to be a better person and that God needs you to be a good Christian with lots of faith. And there are also going to be other people who tell you that God is evil and bad, and that God probably doesn’t exist at all.

 

They are ALL wrong. Don’t believe any of them.

 

Remember the widow… the one who just keeps coming until she gets what she wants. That is who Jesus is like. Jesus will just keep coming for you, bothering you, annoying you, interrupting you until realize that God loves you unconditionally. Church is not for better people and good Christians with lots of faith. God’s church is for broken and sinful people, people like us who need healing and forgiveness. God’s church is for people with weak faith or no faith, people like us who need good news. God’ church is even for people who aren’t sure if God exists, people like us who God believes in and who God has known since before time. Jesus always has a place for you here. A place at church, and a place at his table. A place here with all these other broken and sinful people, here with God’s people.

 

Confirmands, today, you have told all of us about how Jesus is important in your life. And we have been honoured to hear it. You have done something bold and daring. But there is something else you need to hear. Something that overshadows Jesus being important in your life. Something that is a good enough reason for Millennials, like you and me to go to church. And that reason is that you are important to Jesus. You are the ones that Jesus will keep coming for and Jesus will never stop until he gets what he wants, until Jesus gets a hold of you, and you know that you are important to God and that you belong here.

 

Amen.

Marketing Church – Boomer Brand Loyalty and Millennial Resentment

awesomechurchA few months into my 5th year of ordained ministry and 6 months into my 3rd congregation, a constant lament I have heard from Boomer generation, and older, parishioners is something along the lines of, “Why don’t young people come to church anymore?” or “What can we do to get them back?” or “Young people don’t come to church because they can play hockey or go shopping on Sunday morning instead”.

As a Pastor, you hear this enough and it certainly makes you start wondering what you are doing wrong. It is even worse when you are a “young person” yourself.

I also get to go to a lot of church conferences, conventions, seminars, educational events, etc… And sure enough, every time there is a church gathering with some kind of expert guest speaker, someone will ask that question, “Tell us, expert, how to get the young people back”.

Almost always I think these thoughts:

1. The young people you remember were here 25-50 years ago.

2. Those young people are now you – and not young anymore.

3. We never had most present day young people to begin with.

And invariably, the “expert” doesn’t want to give the answer above, and usually fumbles around some answer of not being sure what to do or hoping that things that worked for a while a decade ago might still work now. I have heard suggestions like using 80s/90s christian rock in a Friday night worship service, or having youth conferences (Boomers love conferences) or having Nickleodeon / Lazer tag, or sending youth on short-term mission trips to build houses or whatever thing kind of worked but really didn’t a decade ago. I have also heard lots of experts simply say they have no idea.

I was recently at yet another church conference where I got to hear Nadia Bolz-Weber do some “cultural anthropology”. The basic gist of what she said is that generations have different experiences… obviously. But particularly, the experience of the Boomers is one of marketing. The age of advertising and the prominence of Madison Avenue took off in the 50s and 60s, just as the boomers were growing up. Advertisers knew that if you made a product that boomers wanted, and found a way to get them to buy it, they would be loyal brand customers. From cars to cigarettes to toothpaste the marketing took place. And often today, boomers will likely stick with brands they know.

And for the Boomers’ part, their generation had immediate influence and power in their world. They were the generation of civil rights and tremendous social change. They transformed or toppled the prejudiced social institutions around them in favour of individual rights. Governments, schools, corporations and even churches were transformed. They lifted up the cause of the individual and the minority in the face of oppressive systems.

The boomers were the marketing, political and economic focus of society.

But it was also the beginning of a shift from social accountability to individual freedom.

Churches bought into the Boomer centric meme too. Figure out what people want, get them to come and they will be loyal. Church members were shifting into church consumers.

So Boomers, who have been the social, cultural and ecclesial (church) focus their whole lives, now run most churches. And they are struggling with the fact that the millennials (their kids) are absent and are turning to what they know – marketing.

The next part of Nadia’s point was that Millennials have been marketed to as well… but we resent it. We have experienced marketing as manipulation and disappointment. Now I am not the spokesperson for my generation by any means, but my sense and experience of millennials is that this is true. Yes, we are often the ones who camp out for three days to get the newest iPhone… but Apple has historically done no marketing of a product before it is launched. And maybe that is part of the point.

My sense is that millennials are more content driven. Sure it might be cat videos and inane Facebook updates or celeb-gossip. And maybe it is getting that new phone to see what the features are rather than being told how it will make you feel. But just like our parents who were the masses behind civil rights, many millennials are interested in the issues (content) of our day. The environment, wealth inequality, globalization, food security, gender issues, political corruption, wars in foreign lands – these things are most of my friends are posting about on Facebook along with their cat videos. Marketers have already caught on and are using what is called “Native Advertising” to mask marketing as content (advertising pretending to be news, opinion, facts, educational material).

At the same time, I think Churches have been reluctant to put our content out there because we have been busy being brands. We have been reluctant to engage questions and discussion about what the content of our faith, our churches or theology is. We have been good at giving boomers what they want, a product to be loyal to – a church building, a pastor, a budget, a regular worship service and in my case a Lutheran brand.

But over the years I have been surprised to hear many Boomers will say things like this to me, “Oh, I don’t know what the Bible says or understand it” or “That was a really interesting adult study, I didn’t know most that stuff (despite being a life-long church attender)” or “You are the expert pastor, you are the one who is supposed to know all this bible/church/history/faith/theology stuff.”

On the other hand, my experience of  non-church-going millennial friends is that they will ask me things  like, “well what do Christians actually believe about that” or “What does the bible say about this” or “I am not sure I agree that all Christians think that way given what I see in the media.”

The balance of my experience is that Boomers tend be brand loyal, and millennials tend to be content adaptive.

So is promoting content the silver bullet for marketing to millennials? No. We will still resent being marketed to, in my humble opinion. Is making church less about brand and more about content the trick then? Probably not, but it might be the first step. Branding is controlling the message and we like control. Yet, putting our content out there is risky, because you never know what people will do with it.

But, I also heard about this Jesus guy who put his content out there too… I should see if I can find more about that on Twitter.

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Have something to say about Church Marketing to Boomers and Millennials?  Think this post is spot on? Think I am totally nuts?

Share in the comment section below!

The first time I realized I was a Millennial.

yb1I am a Millennial.

But I didn’t always know this.

I remember learning about Baby Boomers and Generation X in social studies, even as long ago as junior high. I also remember wondering where I fit in with these generations. My parents were boomers, I could do the math knowing they were born in the late 40’s. But the Millennials didn’t have their name yet. Was I Gen X? I had heard of Kurt Cobain but he died when I was in fifth grade. I was still in high school when the Dot Com bubble burst, not a new computer science grad out of work. I was barely in grade school when the Gulf war started, not of enlisting age. So of my friends have divorced parents, but we were not latch key kids, we were the beginning of everyone gets a trophy sports. Being a member of Generation X sounded cool… but I never quite fit in.

The first time I really realized that people born at different times have different experiences happened when I was 20. I was working at a bible camp. My best friend/camp director, and I had been away at a church youth event over the weekend. We came back to camp after a storm had knocked down trees. One large birch tree had fallen onto some live power lines running between buildings. We immediately began thinking of the people we needed to call: the county power company, an arborist, an electrician…and we went to get the phone book. On the way we met a volunteer. A man in his 70s who had been a life long farmer… probably a member of the GI generation or Silent generation. He scoffed at our idea to phone the experts. He set out solve the problem himself!

The next thing we knew he had the camp tractor, a small open cab John Deere, and a chainsaw. He drove the tractor right up to the tree, which was precariously leaning on a thin power line. He lifted the bucket so that it propped up the tree. We had no idea where this was going, but we knew it wasn’t going to be good. Then this old farmer started the chainsaw and started climbing up the tractor, up onto the engine, up the arms of the bucket and then stood in the bucket. Chainsaw running. No one else to run the tractor.

Having used the tractor myself several times, for more mundane things like mowing the lawn, pulling trailers and moving picnic tables, I knew that the bucket had several clear warning labels on it. One in particular had a stickman standing in the bucket with a big red circle with line through it stamped on the picture.

So 100 yards away my friend and I stood, covering our eyes as this old farmer leaned out of the bucket and had a leg dangling in the air 20 feet off the ground. Then he began to cut the tree, and off came the top, enough for him to use the tractor to guide the rest of the trunk down.

And the tree was off the power lines. The problem was solved. The old farmer was the hero of the day. And the whole time he acted like this was the most normal thing in world.

I looked over at my friend and said, “No wonder his generation got a lot more done than ours.”

With that statement I had articulated for the first time, how the experiences of different generations lead us to different ways of seeing and approaching the world.

Over the last few years, as the world has begun to get a clearer picture of “our” generation, I have gotten a clearer picture of myself. Like all millennials, I share an experience of the world different than the generations before me.

I wasn’t 18 until after Y2K, the worst (or best) thing that was going to happen to me on the millennium was that I might get to miss a few days of the 11th grade in the new year. I was in the second week of my first year of university when planes started crashing into buildings on 9/11. If I lived in the US, there might have been pressure on me to enlist for the 2nd Iraq war, a hot topic in my 20th century American History class. I took most of my class notes on a laptop, I could submit papers by email and professors were making websites with course material.

By the time I was finishing my MDiv in my mid-twenties, I had been on Facebook for years, I was building  world wide communities on online discussion forums, I was using a smartphone as my only phone line, and I had started and given up on several blogs.  My adult life has been defined by global terror crisis, global financial crisis, and the internet.

Mostly, the internet.

And in one important way my life has been defined by another characteristic – one that separates me from most of millennial peers. I have been a Lutheran Christian my whole life. I have been called to serve Jesus, to even be an authority within a religious institution. For most of my Boomer and older parishioners, the abnormality was being a non-believer. For most of my grade school friends, going to church was unusual thing to do.

This small distinction makes a world of difference. And in 4+ years of ordained ministry, this little fact has been changing everything. The grief that so many older church goers bear, wondering why society stopped sending people to church, is simply not an experience that I can share. I sometimes feel like I am at a funeral for a person I didn’t know. Everyone is mourning, but I can’t. Oh, I am also the pastor leading the funeral.

I suspect that it is going to be the reality of my vocation for a long time. Giving my people glimpses of this new world, being a glimpse in ways that I don’t know. I have been preaching, teaching, and talking about how the world is different than it was 50 years ago since I started ministry.

But that seems to be the life of a Millennial Pastor. For now.