Category Archives: Theology & Culture

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!

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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.

What is a Millennial anyways? And why does the church want us?

IMG_1437So as not to be left out of the loads of internet conversation about this article written by American blogger, Rachel Held Evans, I figured I would throw in my two cents.

If you follow down into the comments section this follow up post to her first article, you can see that the blogosphere seems to be rather inspired by her thoughts. Her article reminded me of something I wrote just over 2 years ago for a local paper in Stony Plain, AB. 

First Published in the Stony Plain Reporter in May 2011                                                                                                  A Millennial’s Confession

I have two confessions to make. The first is to those who don’t regularly attend church or consider themselves religious: I am a Lutheran Pastor. The second is to those who are actively involved in churches as members and adherents: I am a Millennial. What is a Millennial you say? Well, we are a generation. We are the children of Baby Boomers, and we follow generation X and some call us generation Y. I was born in 1982, but those in my generation were born between the early 80s and early 2000s.

Many of us have a very different life experience than that our predecessors. Computers, the internet and cell phones have been around most of our lives. Our parents were not disciplinarians, but more like friends. We expect to work with others, and to be treated equally in the workplace and community, despite our perceived lack of experience. We see value in a variety of ideas and points of view. Many of us are passionate about the issues facing our world: the environment, poverty, education, politics. We also like things like social networking, video games, youtube, and bad reality TV. We grew up in a tolerant, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-faith world. Millennials are uncommitted to institutions, like the Church. We like options and having choice. Our parents, teachers, coaches, instructors, and community leaders have told us our whole lives that we can do anything and be anything. And we have been told that fixing the world’s problems will fall to us – we carry the burden of being hope for the world.

And for people of faith, we are the generation that is distinctly absent from most churches. In my denomination, I am the second youngest pastor serving in Canada. I am also the only 20 something that attends my congregation on regular basis (they do pay me to be there after all). A lot churches are wondering how to get us back, how to entice, attract and charm us into the Church. The rationale is that organ music, hymnbooks, pastors in white robes and old styles of worship are too boring for us (all of which our congregation uses in worship). But let me tell you this: rock bands, projection screens, video sermons and laser light shows won’t get us there either. If you catch us in a moment when we are not distracted by Facebook status updates or funny internet videos, we might tell you what we really want from Christians are honesty, integrity and meaning. We want to know that faith isn’t just a set of rules or ideas that we have to swallow whole. We want to know that faith isn’t easy but requires struggle. We want to know that being part of church isn’t just about dropping money in a plate, but about being welcomed, loved, forgiven and challenged by a community of faith.

And now some more thoughts on being a Millennial.

Being a millennial pastor, I often feel like I am living in this weird world where church members will ask me how to… well, get me back in church, or my generation. Yet rarely am I asked why I stayed, or how I was “retained”.  Many of my older colleagues, mostly Boomers, tell me and other young pastors that we are the hope of the church, usually with the weight of the church visibly sitting on their shoulders. Yet, we are rarely given the reigns to lead the church into future (although that is changing as my second call was to be the Senior Pastor of the biggest church in the synod I was serving).

And it feels even weirder to be intensely focused on as a group by church folks. Nearly 30% of people in Canada are boomers, making them the biggest age group alive. And I know scads of boomers have left the church too, yet how many of us are wondering where they went as much as where the Millennials went? I think the generational focus is bigger than the church, as we grow into adulthood as a generation, Millennials are changing and shaping the world we are encountering and it is making our Boomer parents uncomfortable.

Now, I am not sure that I, or we Millennials, have really got each other figured out. And only God knows what we would do at the helm of institutional church bodies. But as we constantly seem to wonder as Lutherans, as Mainline Protestants, as North American Christians “Where did the young people go?” Maybe one place to start answering the question is with the young people that are here. And the boomers don’t have to pass the buck to us quite yet (I think you could clean up the ecclesiastical and social messes you have made instead of leaving them to us), but you are more than welcome to include us Millennials in leading the church, heck society even, into the future.

Social Network Liturgy: Putting down the iPhone

I will be the first to admit it. I am addicted to my iPhone.

Most days I am much more willing to risk leaving my wallet or keys unprotected than my phone. I will leave my computer bag and my wallet  in the car in bad areas of town, but I won’t leave my phone on my desk in an empty church when I go to the water cooler in the adjacent room.

0_23_ibreviary_churchElectronic devices now dominate our time and attention. It is hard for many of us to be away from the constant stream of information. I am often glancing at facebook and Twitter, reading (writing) blogs, searching for something new to read, to learn, to laugh at, to be offended by, to think about, to distract.

This morning, in his opening essay, CBC Q’s Jian Ghomeshi talked about unplugging and being present. He gave two examples of experiences, a wedding and a concert, where attendees were asked to not use, and even surrender their devices, in order to be present and fully experience the event.

This is really hard to do.

This Easter I had the chance to simply sit in the pew because I was in between calls. During the sermon, the teenager in front of me was playing games on his iPod Touch. And his dad was watching over his shoulder, and his grandma was annoyed.

I think our default reaction is to be angry at a situation like this, to feel disrespected as pastors or long time church members. But here is the thing… I don’t think that teen had a choice. I don’t think his brain and body would have let him just sit and listen. He would have probably started “iWithdrawal” 30 seconds into the sermon.

This is sad.

A few posts back I wrote about Old and New Thinking, saying that the church really doesn’t know why people have drifted away. I also said that people might start drifting back, and we won’t know why either. But I think, without really doing it on purpose, the church has become a place to unplug, to fully experience the here and now. A rarity in our world these days.

Jian Ghomeshi mentioned a wedding and concert, occasional events that most of us might experience a handful of times a year. Yet, each week as I write my sermon, study scripture, prepare worship I have to slow down and be present. Each Sunday, as our congregation gathers, I get to put down the phone entirely. I get to fully engage and be present, to experience the here and now. The church, without being any different than it is now, provides a space to do that, week after week.

Liturgical worship is at one time a fully engaged experience of the present, and at the same time, the first and oldest form of social media. As I have heard it said, liturgy is like the stream of the faithful, of ritual and tradition, of history and community, of interconnectedness with people of all times and places. We get to wade, splash and swim in it, but the stream has been here long before us and will remain long after us. In liturgy we are bound together more powerfully than Facebook or Twitter, we see more deeply than Instagram, we weave stories and threads more powerfully than Pinterest, we proclaim wider scandal than Reddit, we experience something older and more forgotten than MySpace, we seek the lost and forgotten more thoroughly than Google+.

When many in our world begin to discover our devices are really satisfying that part of our brain that drives us to eat too much, drink too much, smoke too much, use too much… places where we can put down the devices will become sought after. In fact, Jesus says something to Martha about that this week.

And a place where we can put down the device but find an incredible social experience of community deeper than any network?

Well, the church will always be that place.

Trying Not to Burn it Down: Managing Change in the Church

20130701-143707.jpgYesterday was my 4th Anniversary of Ordination. Yes, as a Canadian, it is hard to share that day with the Americans, but it is still also my day.

In 4 years,  I have served 3 congregations. I love all 3 in different ways. Each has taught me different lessons. Each was a place to express my vocation to pastoral ministry in different ways.

With 4 years under my belt, there are a few things I am beginning to notice that seem to be common across the church (ELCIC for my experience). Throughout seminary I remember being warned, often, with this message: “You can’t make too many changes in a church”. “You only have ‘3 Blue chips’ or 3 big changes in a ministry – Use them wisely”. “You shouldn’t do anything new for 6 months.”

Often, congregations seems to give the same message. “We do things this way”, “This is how we do things around here”, “We have always done this”.

There are 2 things that this advice has taught me:

1. We are really good as churches and pastors at not rocking the boat. We were trained in seminary, and then we reinforce in our people a fear of change. We often seek to maintain the institution and we are suspicious of new things. We have been experts at “not burning down the church”. We are great at making sure everything stays safe, the same and in place.

I am just as guilty as anyone of over preparing my people for change. I give lots of advance warning. I tell people we are only “trying” something. I say it won’t be as painful as they think. All this for ideas and new things that I think will be great and go well!!!

Now before I get too cynical:

2. The advice on change is wrong. While I hear the refrains against change, they are the most hollow phrases that people seem to utter these days. Congregations are desperate for new things, desperate for things to be different than they are. And despite the advice, amazing things, Spirit-led things are happening all the time in little corners of the church everywhere.

Some of the best changes that I have made in ministry, are things that I didn’t ask permission for, that I didn’t forewarn people of and I just did. And they worked great!

The vast majority of changes I have made in parishes happened in the first year of ministry (well, I have only had a first year in two of 3 congregations). The opportunity for change seems ripest before established patterns and expectations are set between pastor and congregation.

Now, The National Convention the ELCIC and General Synod of the Anglican Church in Canada, are meeting in “Joint Assembly” this week. The ELCIC is considering how to move forward with Structural Changes that will help us “right size” for the future. The conversation has been going on for years, and the national plan for Synods has been rejected, in part, along the way.

From my vantage point, the ELCIC seems a little dazed and confused, particularly the National Office. I can’t really tell what the plan is going forward.

But if I can offer a theory.

As restructuring has been presented, skepticism has abounded (my own included). We have sounded like any parish, “That’s not the way we do things around here”. But the opportunity for change is probably as high as ever. We are all wanting something different than what is.

And not to sound critical, but merging synods, creating areas and making national convention every 3 years instead of 2, if it were compared to the parish level, just feels too much like cutting the copier budget, installing a high efficiency furnace and publishing 8 newsletters instead of 12 a year. Yes, this will all save money, and probably even help the environment, but it does not feel like real change.

I think if the changes were more dramatic, more sweeping and more outside the box… they might actually have been received with more enthusiasm.  The ELCIC is “re-structuring” itself into the ether of irrelevancy.  It feels like we are trying to maintain our institution, even if it is a skeleton crew. We are answering the question, “What can we still do with less?” We have not seemed to asked the question, “What do we actually need for ministry as Lutherans in the Canadian context? And what resources do we have to do that ministry?”

Now is the time to dream big, or not at all.

Or in other words, maybe we need to burn down the church?

The Sacred Act of Washing Dishes

UnknownAs I grow into domesticated life, I found something that I once saw as a chore to be so much more than that. Most nights I volunteer to do the dishes. My wife is the primary cook, yet often we cook together (I get to cook the meat, which I very much enjoy and she does most of the other stuff). So I take on the dishes.

Dishes, until recently, were a necessary evil of eating at home. Yet lately they are beginning to become something more. When you look around at a kitchen full of pots and pans and the chaos of meal preparation, knowing where to begin is daunting. But as soon as those first dishes find their way to the dishwasher, when food makes its way to left over containers and back into the fridge, the feeling to getting somewhere takes over and the task becomes therapeutic. The act of taking chaos and bringing order becomes ritualized as it is repeated night after night. As pots get washed and cleaned, as surfaces are wiped down and the state of the kitchen is returned to a dormant state, a state of waiting for the next meal. There is a sense of being connected to the real passing of time, to the real experience of simple life.

Michael Pollen’s interview with Jian Ghomeshi last week reminded me of my dishes ritual. As a food author, he spoke about our connection to food as human beings. How preparing, cooking, and eating food connects us to life, make us slow down. You (generally) have to put down the phone, stop the emailing, Facebook, twittering, browsing etc… to properly cook food (even if you are using a online recipe). That cooking is connection to where come from and to the cycle of life that we try so desperately to detach from most of the time.

As a Pastor, I cannot help but see how my vocation is tied, on a deep level, to the act of preparing food, sharing meals, and cleaning up afterwards. This is the ritual action that I preside over week after week. Like a waiter presenting the weekly specials, I announce the meal that is being prepared and then serve it to the gathered people.

But… there is something even more divine about the dishes. One particular night, after returning to the kitchen to the place of sane anticipation. Clean and waiting for the next meal, I observed that this must be what God experiences with us. Through mercy and forgiveness, by washing, cleaning, restoring, finding new places for partially eaten meals and preserved ingredients and left overs, God restores order and calm to our world. Sure it doesn’t take long to get messy and to become chaotic, but that is part of life. A sign of life being lived. We are like meals being cooked and served. Some days we are just sustenance, and others we are works of art and beauty. But it is God, always there, cleaning and washing, redeeming and showing mercy.

So wash the dishes and know the divine, because cleaning up is a very sacred act.

Nothing Surprises me Anymore

hellfireSo this morning I got back to the office to catch the tail end of a funeral that was happening at our church because we have a larger space than the funeral home. Even though I thought it would be long over before I returned to the church from a meeting, I caught the last 10 minutes of the hour and 45 minute long affair.

Now before going further, I will say that I grew up in Lutheran church that ran the gamut from high church Norwegian Lutherans (our family), to low church pietist types, to fundamentalist missionary types, to charismatic speaking in tongues types, to social justice advocates, to not-too-sure-if-Jesus-was-a-rea- guy-types. We all managed to get along (most of the time), in a way that showed, to some degree, the diversity of the Kingdom of God. Growing up I heard some flakey stuff about giving your heart to Jesus, choosing to have faith, and even some pretty wonky spiritual warfare ideas. Along side was traditional Christ Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone Gospel. The kind of stoic yet firmly Lutheran saw that “we are saved by grace and not by works” (and not by choosing Jesus as our Lord and Saviour).

Jesus chooses us. That was always clear to me.

And yes, I know that there are Hellfire and Brimstone preachers our there. I know that you can find lots of “Turn or burn” stuff on the internet or on TV.

But to walk into MY church (it isn’t really mine, but I can pretend) and hear someone in my pulpit (again not really mine) telling people that if “You don’t choose the right path, there is a lake of fire waiting for you” was surreal to say the least. I have never actually heard some one say those words from a pulpit, and especially not my pulpit. I mean absolutely never ever. Not. In. My. Pulpit.

It sucks that you can’t be ready for these moments. God doesn’t email a memo ahead of time. And it super sucks to have too much integrity (or cowardice) to make the scene that this kind of stuff deserves.

So there I was, in jeans, sketchers and black clergy shirt — no tab in, and all I could muster was my best death stare from the back doors of the sanctuary, and the most imperceptible of head shakes as I listened to some guy tell 200 people that they better choose Jesus or get punted into the inferno. If the preacher/eulogizer/random guy talking at a funeral saw me, he probably didn’t know why the under dressed young adult was squinting at him from the back of the church.

The worst part was that every inch of my being wanted to liturgically body check the guy out of the chancel and apologize for this kind of nonsense being preached in MY Church and MY pulpit.

The worst part was that I felt ashamed that all the people were present wear being subjected to BAD NEWS in the midst of their grief while in the place where I had been called to the public job of preaching GOOD NEWS.

The worst part was having the clearest admission we can muster as a society, present in the building with us — a dead body — and there was no one to boldly declare, that in the face of death, God is making all of us alive, even this person who is dead, right here in front of us. Like really alive. Not just spiritually or in memory. To actually say that there is real, tangible, unimaginable Life. And God is doing it.

That was the worst part. Having a funeral in MY house (yes I know it is God’s house), the greatest opportunity to preach the resurrection as pastor (even better than Easter), and witnessing someone turn that opportunity into a shameful and bullying attempt at evangelism. That was the worst.

I still don’t know what to make of what happened, and I still have no idea what to do next time. But I do know that the longer I am a pastor, the less surprised I am by what I see.