On Being an iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

The ‘Millennials and Church’ thing has been written about to death in recent years. Theories about what millennials want in church range from the newest, flashiest most technologically advanced thing to the oldest, most artisanal traditions. If you are sick of reading about how to get millennials back to church,  join the club. In fact, I wouldn’t blame you for not reading yet another blog post about the topic… but bear with me, I promise not to talk at all about what millennials want or how to get us back to church.

That being said, figuring out millennials is big business for Christianity these days… and finding the magic bullet to get us all back to church would make someone rich.  Lots of church consultants and ministry experts are making the speaking rounds telling the church all about millennials and the big “change” the world is experiencing.

And yet, as a millennial myself, I am rarely asked why I didn’t follow the rest of my exiting generation… and when I am asked why I am still around, it is usually after I have pointed out that I am rarely asked.

Being a millennial and an ordained Lutheran pastor has provided me some insight into the Church’s quest to regain millennials. Almost always the starting point for this conversation is, “how do we get the young people back?

Yet, it is almost never asked, “Why are young people leaving?”

Church people are convinced they know the answer to why people are leaving. The surface level answers have to do with sports on Sundays, shopping on Sundays, lack of commitment, not having prayers in the schools, boring traditional worship, not enough youth ministry, too many rules, too much organ, etc…

The experts have more sophisticated reasons like people being busy and carefully choosing how to spend their discretionary time.

Yet, none of these things seem to really name the reason that my contemporaries are not going to church. None of these reasons seem sufficient to explain my anecdotal experience.

Admittedly, I have never had parishioners my own age in the last 6 years of ministry. Yet there is one area where I have consistently done ministry with millennials.

Baptisms.

I have met with dozens of millennials who are bringing their babies to be baptized, but who don’t otherwise go to church. Since, I require that I meet with them for friendly conversations about baptism, I have the opportunity to ask about the role of faith in their lives.

And there are two things I have taken away from these experiences:

  •  Even though I fit the big teddybear-like white-guy-with-a-beard mould of the stereotypical pastor, I don’t fit the age mould. And I don’t talk about faith like they expect me to. And I tell them way more about baptism than their parents, grandparents or my predecessors have. Almost always, the millennials I meet with find it refreshing that I didn’t just expect them to magically know everything about church and that I encourage questions and skepticism.
  • While the first takeaway is troubling, the bigger takeaway when I meet with other millennials (even ones that are almost completely unchurched) is that I don’t have to make the cultural commute that I am constantly making with most of the people I serve.

What is a cultural commute you ask?

Well, it is the whole “iPhone pastor for a Typewriter church” thing.

It is the idea that in order to engage or interact with a certain community or group of people – or generation of people –  you need to speak in their cultural language.

An easy example is actual languages. Even though I am an English speaker, I took grade school in French. It was draining to operate in a second language all the time.

It is the same for immigrants and foreigners, even when they already speak English. You don’t just speak the same language, you learn  a whole system of symbols, images, colloquialisms, inside jokes, history, and baggage that go along with a group of people. And when you don’t get that culture, you feel constantly like you are on the outside.

I remember when I first got my iPhone and would pull it out to make appointments or send messages in front of parishioners. They would often look at me like I just beamed down from the starship Enterprise; these were people who remember riding to school in a horse and buggy.

But more than that, when I sit in most meetings or conversations with church people, the discussion ends up being full of cultural references that pass me by. TV shows, music, movies and historical references from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, of which I don’t understand the meaning, are regular parts of conversation. While at the same time, I have to park my cultural baggage. I can’t make Friends or Breaking Bad or Jay-Z or Mumford and Sons or Hipster or Twitter references because most people won’t get them.

But it isn’t just pop-culture symbols. It goes deeper than that.

It is the whole way church and faith were approached 50 years ago versus how things are approached today.

The most draining cultural commute that I experience as a millennial pastor is the difference between congregations who still expect that every good Canadian (or American) citizen would be a church goer versus my expectation that only people who are interested and for whom faith is very important would be a church goer.

It is a cultural commute that takes shape most clearly for me in this way:

When I go and talk to unchurched millennials about baptism, I often get asked about why faith and church is important to me. This is often is the most exciting part of the conversation.

Yet, when I ask churched boomer and older members about why faith and church is important to them, I get uncomfortable looks and uncertain answers.

Now don’t get me wrong.

I love the people I have served and do serve. And I don’t begrudge them this in anyway. If anything, this is a failure of church leadership to not help people think through why church is important to them.

I also think that it is an important part of ordained pastoral ministry to be constantly making cultural commutes to those whom you serve in order that they might hear the gospel (wasn’t the whole incarnation a cultural commute?).

But this cultural commute… this expectation that as a millennial I will always cross the bridge in the cultural gap and engage – work, speak and serve – in a world that is culturally different is not just because I am a pastor. Church people so often expect that anyone outside the dominant culture or generation – millennials, foreigners, seekers, new converts – will be the ones to make the commute. And often this expectation is unconscious.

It is okay for a millennial pastor to be the one crossing the bridge, making the cultural commute in order to be a part of a church community. But it doesn’t work for millennial church members.

And I think this is a big reason millennials aren’t in church. It just isn’t a world that most of us can even access.

I am about to go to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada’s (ELCIC) National Convention next week. The 4 day event is filled with important agenda items. We will talk about how to do ministry in remote parts of country where pastors are unavailable, we will talk about right relationships with Canada’s indigenous peoples, we will talk about working for justice in the correctional system, we will pass resolutions on climate change and immigration issues. And we might event talk about “how to get the young people back.”

These are important issues, things we should talk about, things we should speak out about.

But we aren’t talking about why people are leaving church.

And we certainly aren’t talking about how to translate ourselves into a church for 2015 and beyond. Instead, we are talking about restructuring, and right-sizing… the corporate language of the 80s and 90s.

I suspect that this is where a lot of conversations in local churches, in districts and national offices are going. Churches are trying to catch up to the 80s… while my millennial contemporaries are leaving churches because the cultural commute to even access church is just too far a journey.

Being commuting pastors is something that many of my millennial colleagues and I just accept. I know that helping congregations and church bodies into the 21st century (hopefully before it ends) is just going to be my lot… no, not just our lot, but our calling…

Yet I wonder as I prepare for this national gathering of my church body and as Christians across North America struggle with young people walking away… I wonder when we are going to start looking to the millennials still here to help us become a church for all generations faithfully looking forward into the 21st century.

Until then, I will keep being an iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter church.


What cultural commutes are you making at church? How can we help the church into the 21st century? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

PS Thanks to Nadia Bolz Weber for introducing me to the concept of  ‘cultural commute’.

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43 thoughts on “On Being an iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church”

  1. I can relate, having been an iPhone administrator in a typewriter college. Many of my boomer colleagues are there because a steady job with union benefits is what you do, and people just work, period. Those of us Millennials who came in with a passion for educating the next generation can come off a bit strange. There is talk of hiring more young talent, but no one takes the time to ask us young people what we need, or if we do mention it, they can’t wrap their heads around it. So the people with the most passion go off to start businesses or something. Today’s millennial is just a bad fit for most traditional places. Those of us who adapt, accept, and cross cultural barriers daily, as you mentioned. Perhaps that is the calling of people like you and I that can translate- bridging that gap between old and new so the world can move forward. I don’t love the role, exactly, but if God lands me in such a place again, I guess I’ll just try to accept it and find some enjoyment in it. it was fun when I actually got people to listen.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I can speak on this topic as I am in that generation. I think what young people want is Authenticity. We also want to be able to ask questions and get clear answers. I myself love knowing the history behind the tradition and the why’s of why we as believers should do it. Loved the blog.

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  3. The cultural commute is large and time consuming… but like most of cultural Christmas was invented in the 50’s and 60’s and will not be changing anytime soon, I wonder if the church has any hope of making significant change. More likely I see a dying and rising coming.

    Perhaps a blog of ‘what’s really important now’ and ‘Cultural antiques the church needs to leave’ would invite the church to start doing doing the work? I was thinking of Obama’s sermon from last week and how relevant his preaching seemed to his cultural group… what should we be saying?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I responded the same way to the eulogy! I was thinking about connecting and wondering about our response, about our need for not only comfort, but direction and hope and a cause to stand up for. It seems telling that this is what so many of the churches I know are really missing: a rousing sense of the missio dei.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love this. I feel the same (young Xer), finding the cultural commute a difficult, but rewarding grind. I find I also do it a lot in clergy gatherings, which is far more draining. And being Episcopalian (Anglican), I don’t only have to endure references from the 50’s to 70’s that I know virtually nothing about, but British comedies from the 80’s that I’ve heard of but why would I watch them?

    I’ve used the similar argument that the many older members of the church fight over satisfying (feeding) Boomers and Silents 100%, not 7, but 8-out-of-8, feeding them till their full. And I point out that I’m living off that 1-out-of-8.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you Erik for your reflections. There is indeed a huge cultural commute for many—and just just millennials—to make when they cross the threshold of a typical ELCIC church. I have generally thought about the notable absence of the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of people who are passionate about and deeply committed to their church as some sort of intersect between family dynamics and relevance. Sometimes people don’t go to church because they associate it with the negative side of their childhoods, and to not go to church is to assert one’s own identity over against one’s parents, etc. (In my case it could be said—though this would be a gross oversimplification—going to church gave me an identity different from one side of my family, and going to the Lutheran church gave me and identity different form the other side). But the things we participate in have to have some relevance to our lives, some meaning, some attraction that rewards in some way, either as amusement, or as revenue source, or a source of meaning, or as place of emotional or intellectual fulfillment. Clearly for most of those offspring and offspring of offspring who choose not to go, this just isn’t happening (or not enough of it is happening) to make it worth the effort.

    I don’t think the generational construct is sufficient to explain the decline of religious (and volunteer) institutions across the western world. There are too many odd exceptions. For example, I have long been a closet Orthodox. When I am on holiday and am in a place where there is an Orthodox church I will slip in and attend Divine Liturgy to be filled once again through the Orthodox church’s mystical and multisensory way of worshipping. In my time in Vancouver I got to know St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church, a congregation started as an intentional non-ethnic (everything in English) outreach to a younger generation. As I stood there worshipping I saw a group of about 100 people, most of whom were in their 20’s and 30’s, and most of whom had come from other Christian traditions: clearly the lake of pizzazz or electronics or liberal ideas was not the reason for leaving their previous traditions. It had something to do with meaning and purpose. By the same token, much of radicalized Islam is inhabited by a younger crowd—as is much of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism for that matter.

    I don’t purport to have any answers, but these are a few of my thoughts evoked by your most excellent blog post. See you in Edmonton!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I find this entire discussion mildly patronizing. I’m a boomer, but I would wager you could have a conversation with me without crossing the great divide that you perceive between the generations.

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    1. I hear your point. And yet my experience on the whole is not so… Boomers in particular have lived their whole lives as the focal generation of society… until the last few years as Millennials (their children) have begun pushing in on that territory.

      But ultimately, this is about whether you or I can need to or no make that cultural commute… but about how the church as a whole is structure to require those outside of non-dominant cultures to make the commute.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I’m an Xer and non-pastor, and I would like to quote the following:

      “[Y]ou could have a conversation with me without crossing the great divide that you perceive[.]”

      I think you missed the point. Could YOU have the convo with THEM?

      Biggest issue with my current (rapidly expanding) church is that newbies are expected to assimilate. So the rank-and-file grow, but do the hearts and minds? Nope. And church sits empty until Easter and Christmas.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. I am a late bloomer (55) pastor from United Methodist background who has spent my ministry trying to move the print / radio generation to TV / audio visual. I think the term “Cultural Commute” is just more jargon because we’ve had “phrases” before to describe the same type of activity. I think the church really needs to ask the question how do we die to our traditions, not our heritage, but our traditions so that we may speak to a generation of people who are without knowledge of our faith or if they do have some knowledge that we get into a deeper dialogue. People leave because they’re not connecting. A great Canadian book about this is “Outside Looking In” by Turner (It was his doctoral thesis). And it’s about Jesus.

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  8. Agreed, and, “they” didn’t get it for Gen X or Gen Y either. The Millennials aren’t the first to experience this — it’s the biggest. So the traditional church is highly experienced in shrugging as young people leave or never enter. And it’s sad now to see efforts that are targeted at Millennials — and leave us — the others who were also lost in the cultural divide — out because we are now 30 and 40 and 50 with kids and exhausting jobs. There’s a start up ELCA congregation near me now that is just for Millenials even though it is across the street from a big high school and in a neighborhood of all kinds of folks.

    When I checked it out – it was clear these folks thought I had aged out of their ministry and they kindly redirected me — as I have three kids and have aged out of their target – to the traditional church several miles away. Irony — as my kids are the generation after Millennials and are more impatient and disconnected with regular boring church — which is why — even though I have an mdiv — we don’t go.

    Watch out church and watch out Millenials – the Innovatir generation is on your tail and they have and even bigger cultural divide. Your parents were Boomers. Their parents are Gens X and Y — who were lost to the church before you were. Now it’s a double lost generation coming up.

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  9. “Yet, it is almost never asked, “Why are young people leaving?””

    But that has been asked, in study after study, and millennials and their younger and older peers point to prejudicial theology – the war on GLBTQ people, the misogyny, the blindness to poverty.

    Even progressive congregations can do more to be visible in their support in these areas; too many are not doing enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. it is really important that pastors(shepherds) actually realize the kind of lifestyle his sheep (members) live and their level technology so as to move them along into his “iphone” level…

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  11. When people have their baby baptized then is your opportunity to offer them to stay at church w a great nursery and then keep them coming with a great children’s program. Offer multi times for service can help too if possible. My family got out of the routine of church when my daughter napped during church on Sunday’s. Also divorce can cause people to want to mix things up and move to a big church to meet new people. Big churches also have money to fund great kid programs. Keeping kids engaged is huge and brings families back.

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  12. My kids went church their whole life. They went to Sunday School, church picnics, pancake dinners, etc. I taught my daughter’s confirmation class for two years. My son started to question his belief in God when he read a book titled Night by Elie Weisel about his experiences as a teen in a concentration camp in 8th grade. This led him down a wide road of disbelief. We got an email to ask if he would be making his confirmation, and I replied no. He hasn’t been to church in two years. No one has called or come by. Do you want to know why he has walked away from church? Because the church let him. I dragged him for a year, and he got angrier and angrier. I decided to give him some space. Not one single person from our church acted like they cared one bit that he left. What does that tell a young person?

    Liked by 3 people

  13. I love this! Thank you. It’s really good work, and as a millennial pastor in training, I have many of the same experiences.

    Here’s a good example to add to your cache:
    Our church employs work study students from the local university for communications and security when we’re open at night. One was speaking with the organist, a gentleman in his sixties, and they were talking about money. The student said: “well my payments are starting soon, so…”
    The organist replied: “oh you bought a house?”
    Student was totally baffled. After awkward back and forth, they finally figured out that they had made completely different assumptions about what they were talking about.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Rev. Erik:
    As A United Methodist pastor of a church struggling to attract and engage people of the millennial generation in the ministry of the local church, I applaud your thoughts on this subject. We are in a small town, so it is an effort to “fish” for new disciples, since so many young families move away from the area in search of employment. I beleive that the Church has asked the question, “Why are they leaving?” but have failed to connect with the answer; failed to wrestle with it and make some of the necessary changes in order to welcome people who bring an entirely different perspective to faith.
    Thanks for a provocative read. You have gained a new colleague to your blog.

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  15. I often ask people my age… how ever that’s labeled, why they remain in church, taking the appreciative inquiry approach. I’m also curious, what’s so weird about us that we stay in church (Lutheran) when so many other’s don’t. I ask this question a lot!
    here is a reply from a couple days ago, for what its worth,

    Hey Jason

    The reason I can think of why people our age go to church is that there is some innate thing calling us back. I don’t think it’s a cultural norm anymore so that isn’t a reason. I think theologically that thing is the holy spirit. I think it probably bears itself out through things like habit, our parents, friends and past positive experience. I think realistically those are the reasons I go to church.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Good post, the question is different. How do we get them back? vs. why are they leaving?
    One is asking how can they assimilate back to us? The other says, how can we understand them in a way that is helpful for all and still glorifies God so they do not go anywhere?

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  17. My former church had two millenials, one of which was the pastor. The rest of the congregation, all ten of them, were all elders. The pastor just couldn’t get any of the elders to agree to change anything. He quit the job after just one year. I didn’t want to be stuck there a moment more so I left, too. It feels like a tug-of-war where tradition always wins. What good is making the attempt to be a cultural commuter if elders refuse to listen?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hear you on that one. I think what Boomers hear millennials saying is that we want things our way. But mostly I hear millennials simply wanting to have conversation on terms where all can participate.

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  18. I think the cultural divide discussed in this article is also a moral divide. Churches should be moral centers in society. Moral issues such as same sex marriage have a clear generational divide. For many older congregants, “one man. one woman” may be the correct moral position. For younger people, discriminating against congregants and only allowing some people to fully participate in church life is immoral. When churches take stands against morality, what’s the point to attending? We need to bridge the gap of what is expected of churches as moral centers of the community – not just pop culture references.

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