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Closing 9000 churches in Canada – Why decline might still be a good thing in 2019

I have been writing about decline for a good while now… as a Millennial and a Pastor, the entirety of my life has been in a “declining” church. Church buildings that greatly outsize worship attendance, mostly grey-haired people sitting in the pews, budgets that are strained and a whole lot of grief about what we once were and anxiety about the future.

And yet, the deeper we get into this era of decline the more complicated the situation becomes. Or perhaps better said, the more aware of how complicated this situation is we become.

Still, the narrative we often tell is that the people have drifted away from church for a number of shallow reasons like laziness, sports, shopping, and a general lack of commitment.

Just this week, there was a CBC news article about the impending closure of 9000 church buildings in Canada over the coming decade.

Sounds very ominous.

The article interviews a representative of Faith and Common Good, a group working to preserve historic buildings in general. At one point the interviewee says,

“If you follow the statscan data you can see that since the late 1970s, early 1980s less and less Canadians attended faith services. I think, to some extent, that also has to do with the way families have changed. They’re off at hockey and soccer and this and that and it’s harder to have a set Sunday date to go somewhere. So, that happened slowly and then suddenly the congregation, there were very few of them and they were quite elderly and the amount of money they could contribute to the plate couldn’t keep up these often very large and historic spaces.”

I think that this situation is a lot more complex than this interviewee describes.

And honestly, I think this is a shallow and misleading narrative. Hockey and soccer are not responsible for keeping people away from church. Church attendance did decline in the 80s and 90s as immigration from European countries dropped. However it has since stabilized in the 2000s according to Reginald Bibby, Canada’s sociologist of religion.

It is also true that as the bulk of Canada’s current immigration from Asia and Africa is bolstering mainly Catholic and Pentecostal groups. The mainline in many cases continues to slowly decline, more or less depending on which denomination you look at.

But a significant piece of this “decline” that is rarely mentioned by anyone but Bibby is that it wasn’t until the 90s that the census allowed people to choose ‘no affiliation’ in the religion section. So lots of people were filling out censuses and checking off a box of religious membership despite rarely or never having been to church. The precipitous decline of the 90s was mostly about more accurate information.

The accompanying narrative about decline is usually that churches are mostly older members now, which implies young people not coming. And yes, it is true that attendance has declined through successive generations. But there are some real demographic realities in Canada that need to be acknowledged when it comes to current church demographics. In the 60s, families had 4.2 kids. Today the average Canadian family has 1.6 kids. And Canada has gotten older. In the 60s, the first baby boomers where leaving childhood for adolescence. Today, 50% of us are over 50 with all the baby boomers falling into that category.

So what does this mean for churches?

For every young family of four (2 adults, 2 kids) like mine, there will be two empty-nester households (4 older adults). Two grey-haired families for every young family. Expand that to the whole congregation, it means the best demographic you can hope for is 2/3 of your congregation will be “grey haired” households. The congregation that I serve is pretty close to that demographic spread. Of course, some churches out there are indeed trending towards mostly grey haired folks and that is problematic.

But the point is, all the young people that we often imagine not coming to church anymore are not who we think they are. In fact, all those young people we remember that used to come to church are actually the grey-haired family units coming now, and the new young people to replace them were never born – they literally don’t exist.

And the last demographic reality faced by churches these days, and the one that probably most accounts for the prospect of closing 9000 churches in the next few years, is the rural to urban demographic shift. Canada’s population has been shifting from the rural setting to the Urban one for decades. Churches in rural communities are closing at an alarming rate, but so are schools, hospitals, banks, grocery stores and on and on. Rural communities are losing people to support most of their local institutions, not just their churches. Rural depopulation is also coupled with people being as mobile as ever — many rural people are shopping, seeing doctors, going to school and to church by driving into urban settings.

Okay… so that is a lot of factors and complications added to the picture of the institutional decline of Christianity in Canada and by extension the United States. Clearly this is NOT about hockey and soccer being more appealing activities on Sunday mornings.

So what is it about?

Well, I think there are a few things that those of us who are trying to understand decline and continue to be church in the 21st century need to keep in mind.

1.We need to stop seeing the exception as the norm.

The current “shrunken” state of the church is far closer to the norm of Christianity over time than the bursting full churches of the middle 20th century. Rather than asking how we got here, we need to be asking what happened that caused such widespread church attendance in 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

2. We need to admit that the full pews did not translate in to widespread discipleship and faithfulness.

There was (and still is for many older people) a significant social and cultural aspect to attending church 50 years ago. Many societal norms simply slotted people into church during the golden age of attendance. Being a citizen of Canada or the United States also made one a Christian during that time. You had to be a good church going person to do business, to have a community, to get married and have a family, to navigate many day-to-day interactions in most communities. People came to church because of social advantages and social pressure.

But did they come to church because believing in Jesus and being a disciple was important? The answer has to be that for many the faith and discipleship aspect of going to church was not a significant factor.

3. We need to admit that before we can be healthy again, we need to shed our attachment to cultural and social Christianity.

While there is a lot of grief about decline and a sense of loss of what churches once were, there are also important truths to hold on to. By now, most people consistently showing up to church on Sunday morning are there because faithfulness and discipleship is important. Following Jesus and hearing again the Good News of God’s love, mercy forgiveness and promise of new life is why people are there. Sure some are stubbornly holding onto social/cultural Christianity, but I think most people in the pews most Sundays are present because the Holy Spirit has brought them in faith. We are becoming communities gathered around faith, rather than around societal expectation.

Decline is still all the rage in 2019, as evidenced by secular news articles about closing church buildings that emphasize their importance to secular communities. Yet, I am not sure decline is such a bad thing for Christianity. It is a common state of existence over our 2000 year history. It is a difficult adjustment but also a call to change, to find news ways to preach the gospel and encouraged faith in a 21st century world.

Decline is shedding baggage that we need to rid ourselves of… because cultural-social Christianity is not about the gospel nor about helping people grow in faith and discipleship. Yet a Church free from adherence to the norms and expectations around it is a Church free to proclaim the radical grace and mercy of God, free to proclaim the God of New Life and Resurrection to a world hellbent on dying.

And isn’t that not just a good thing, but the most important thing?

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A Millennial Pastor with a Blog

The first church I served out of seminary was a small open country church, literally on a quarter section of farmland just 25 minutes outside of my hometown Edmonton. In my first week, a couple of knowledgeable members of the congregation took me on a tour of the 6 acres of land that the church sat on. The church and parsonage on one end and of course the cemetery on the other. As we walked to the cemetery in order to meet some of the “older” folks of the congregation, one of the members told me about how he remembered when electric lights came to the countryside. [All of sudden it wasn’t just blackness when you looked outside of the farm house at night, you could see your neighbours.] The other member told about how her parents would heat rocks in the wood stove in order to put them under their feet in the horse drawn sleigh, which they rode to church in winter. 

And there I was making notes of all this on my iPhone, of course.

For 3 years this community frozen in time loved this weird kid pastor from the city who liked to be emailed and texted rather than called, even though the same phone line rang in both the church and parsonage. 

But during those years, there was always something of a disconnect that I just couldn’t put my finger on. And it really wasn’t until I started ministry at my 3rd church two provinces away in Manitoba that I started to figure things out.

I like to call my first summer here in 2013, the summer of millennials. The first of us had just turned 30, the world was about to discover we existed. Rachel Held Evans a blogger you may have read, wrote a piece for CNN called, “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church.” And all of a sudden we were everywhere. 

Everywhere but church that is. 

If you look around mainline denominations these days, particularly in Canada it is pretty rare to see millennials in church, let alone as pastors. In fact, here in Manitoba there are only two millennials serving Lutherans churches – my wife and I. 

Yet…getting the youth back seems to be of a chief concern for many churches these days. And by youth, we mean people under the age of 50. 

Being a millennial serving a church desperate for young people to come back has been a weird and mind-boggling experience. 

My wife often likes to say that while we graduated from seminary ready for the church of today, no one got the church ready for us. Churches want millennials in the pews, but aren’t exactly sure of what to do with a millennial in the pulpit. 

Still with the arrival of millennials and the the generational lens it provided, I finally began to understand what wasn’t connecting between me and the people I had been serving. My experience of faith, and in particular church, was fundamentally different than that of the mostly older generation of people in the congregation. I do not remember the glory days of bursting full Sunday Schools, regular potlucks that could feed the 5000, churches being built on every street corner and pews full of families with 4.2 kids and a stay at home mother with time to volunteer. Nor am I grieving the loss of this church… The church that I know and grew up in and love and am called to serve has always been aging, shrinking and struggling to pay the bills. 

The churches that I have served so far in my time in ministry have been primarily ones centred around different generational cultures than my own. The frames through which the world is seen, and the references and images used to make meaning are not mine. So ministry has been a constant exercise in commuting to another culture, often resulting in feeling like an alien in a foreign land. Nadia Bolz-Weber, another blogger and pastor you may know, calls this a cultural commute. 

Every time someone makes reference to leave it to Beaver or Hogan’s Heroes, or Beattlemania or where they were when JFK was assisinated, all I have is a blank stare to offer in return. Still, I have had to go and look up all these references, so that I can speak in the cultural language of the people I serve. But the commute isn’t always a two way street and when in a sermon I reference a meme from twitter or a scene from an episode of The Walking Dead, I can hear the crickets chirping in the background. 

And so to begin thinking through what it means to be a millennial serving different generations, I started a blog. The Millennial Pastor – An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church. I never expected anyone to read it, it was just a place to organize my thoughts and experiences. 4 and half years, and over 500,000 visitors later, I am starting to sense that I may have hit a chord with some people. My experience pastoring declining, grieving churches and doing so as a millennial is resonating with the experience of others out there. I am still regularly surprised when people who aren’t my parishioners or my mom tell me that they are reading my blog. 

That being said, I don’t think my blog is about figuring out the answers or offering solutions to the struggles we face as church. Rather, I think of the exiles in Babylon with the prophet Ezekiel. He preached about the destruction of the temple for 5 years before it finally sank in. And it is taking the church some time to accept where we are now, rather than looking back to where we used to be. 

The thing is, along with the message that we are where we are, is also the reminder that God is with us now as much as before. And in fact, the church we are now just might be the church God is calling us to be. Because it is the church we are now and the church that God is calling us to become, that will be church for the next and future generations.

Now I just need to keep repeating that for 5 years and it might sink in. 

*This is the manuscript of presentation I gave at an ecumenical continuing education event on May 9, 2018 in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

 

On Being a Millennial Pastor – Leaders who don’t remember the glory days

“You give us hope for the future.”

The first time I heard those words, I was 23 years old and in seminary. A group of us had travelled 7 hours, from the prairies to the mountains, to attend a study conference for pastors and other church professionals. We were a group of 20 and 30 somethings, all Masters of Divinity students already having bachelor’s degrees and work experience, but compared to the average age of pastors in the mainline, we may as well have been teenagers. So we probably seemed like a group of disruptive students crashing a conference for older folks.

But instead of being grumpy with us or giving us glares (as church folk can sometimes be guilty of doing with young noise makers), we were heartily welcomed by our future colleagues. Our relative energy and enthusiasm seemed to bring them some life and excitement.

And that is when it started happening. Sometimes one or more elder colleagues would sidle up to us and say things like, “You all give me hope for the church’s future” or “You make me feel better about the future.”

“Millennials” weren’t a thing back then, but our age cohort was perhaps the first to be obviously missing from the church. We weren’t the first generation to stop attending, that was the Boomers, our parents, who led the mass exodus. But rather, we were the first to be noticeably absent. The first generation to have mostly never been there at all. And so when a bunch of Gen Xers and Millennials showed up at seminary together around the same time, it was out of the ordinary. We were a cohort of young leaders who had been the kids in our home churches who were leading youth groups, playing in worship bands, serving on church councils, attending campus ministry while at school, working as bible camp counsellors and even camp directors. Our parents had bucked the trend of the Boomer exodus, and brought us to church where we had been encouraged to lead. We had to lead because we were all there was of our age cohort.

The “You give us hope” comment became a pretty regular occurrence in seminary and after… but I always had the sinking suspicion that the church wasn’t quite ready to hand over the reigns to the next generation.

Whether it was the resistance of boomers to converting the seminary newspaper from a paper publication to an online blog format, or later on to a hesitation let young pastors serve in positions of leadership in the church, a constant comment I heard from seminary classmates in their first few years of ministry was,

“We were trained and prepared to serve in this church, but no one got this church ready for us.”

After ordination, when I began serving in my first call, I couldn’t help but notice something that seemed to be below the surface of wherever I went in the church. Not just my congregation, but the ones of neighbouring colleagues, and larger church ministries, and coming from church leadership. It took me a while to put my finger on it.

And then as I had yet another conversation with colleagues or parishioners or other church folk lamenting the absence of young people, the decline of attendance and giving, and the general sad state of the present church… it dawned on me.

These people are grieving. 

As soon as I could see it, it was like puling back the veil and seeing the weight being carried by nearly everyone around me. Everyone of a certain age that is.

The glory days were gone. The days when pews were full, Sunday Schools bursting at the seams, programs well attended, giving was enough to pay the bills and increasing, when every family had 4.2 kids and a housewife who would devote volunteer time to the church, or keep the house in check while her husband did. Those days were over.

But it wasn’t just that those days were over, it was the intense desire to bring them back. Churches, pastors, leaders who could remember those days seemed to be universally bound and determined to somehow bring that glory back. Get the young people back, get the families back, fill the pews, resurrect the Sunday Schools, meet and exceed the budgets.

My problem, as a young pastor was, I wasn’t grieving the glory days with most people around me. I wasn’t grieving them because I don’t remember them.

Even though now I have almost a decade of experience under my belt, I am still a young pastor by mainline standards.

And it has always been tension the church that most people around me are grieving, and the one that I have always known and loved. The church that God called me to seminary and to be a pastor to serve.

The church has always been filled with grey hair in my memory. Sunday School has always been pretty sparsely attended, youth groups have never been more than a handful of kids, budgets have always been hard to meet, and there are rarely times when it is hard to find an entire pew to yourself in worship.

This is only version of the church I know… and it is the one I am called to serve.

I also suspect it is the church God is calling us to be. 

While it is has been difficult for the congregations I serve to have a leader who isn’t longing for the glory days as they are, it has also been good for me and them. It has been hard and taken time, but eventually we have started looking forward rather than looking back. We have begun to listen to where God is calling us now and where God is calling us to go.

God’s mission hasn’t changed, just the vehicle isn’t as fancy as it once was. The Gospel is is still preached, sacraments still administered, the Body of Christ is still present… even in churches whose glory days are over.

And I think that this is the cross roads that many churches and denominations find themselves at these days. Will the memory of the glory days keep us looking backwards? Will we admit that our desire to bring the young people back, might actually be us saying that we want to be young again?

The synod (read: diocese/jurisdiction/area) in which I serve is about to elect a new Bishop. For the past few months we have been asked to discern what kind of Bishop the synod needs, and to do that discernment in congregations and other synod ministries. This discernment process here has got me thinking about leadership, and about what kind of leaders the church will need going forward. What will a declining Christianity need in order to begin moving faithfully into the future?

And the answer I keep coming back to is that the church in North America will need leaders who can let go of the glory days. Maybe even leaders who don’t remember the glory days. Leaders who can see the church as it is now, rather than what it used to be.

As my generation, Gen X and Millennial pastors and clergy, steps into more and more leadership positions in the church, letting go of the glory days becomes inevitable. We simply don’t remember them.

Because we are the ones who showed up to seminary full of energy, called to serve a church in decline.

The church for us has always been full of grey haired faithful and committed people.
The church has always been small close-knit Sunday Schools and youth groups.
The church has always been struggling to meet budgets by searching for creative solutions.
And the church has always had room in the pews for more people to come.

It will not be easy to get over the grief that is lingering below the surface, and it will be easy to see the solutions to what the church is currently lacking by going back to a time when we remember abundance.

But the church cannot go backwards. And God doesn’t call us into the past, God calls us into the future.

So perhaps it is time for the church to let leaders who cannot remember the glory days, but who only know the present, guide the way into the future.

Perhaps “You give us hope for the future” needs to become:

“You give us hope now.”

Could decline be a good thing for Christianity?

You might have figured this out already, but I write a fair bit about the decline of Christianity in North American. And by decline I mean the aging and shrinking membership of churches as people drift away from church membership and attendance.

I talk about it, preach about it, and I blog about it here.

I have been a pastor for nearly a decade, but I am still just young enough to be considered a millennial. Millennials, of course, being the generation much lamented as the ones who stopped going to church (here is a secret: it was our parents who started the exodus).

As churches and denominations experience the effects of decline, both in terms of fewer members and smaller budgets, there has been a lot of hand-wringing and lamenting and finger-pointing and worrying. There has been conflict about who is to blame, experts are brought in to teach churches how to “bring people back.”

Often the habit of those still committed to upholding congregations and denominations is to try to diagnose the reasons that people have stopped coming and churches are shrinking. The Lord’s Prayer no longer being said in public schools, Sunday shopping, sports on Sundays, etc… As if just changing one of those things send people back into church in droves. We long for the magic bullet fix that will turn the church back into what we remember it being… something that was never as great in actuality as it was in memory.

Decline is very scary for churches today. It is the thing that makes us wonder where all the young people went, that makes us tired and want to pass on responsibilities to someone else, it can quite frankly make us feel depressed every time we walk into big mostly empty sanctuaries with just a few bodies dotting the pews for worship.

Yet, I wonder if we have ever considered whether or not decline is actually a bad thing for us.

Could the decline of Christianity in North America even be a good thing?

We often imagine, describe and speak about decline in unhelpful ways. We buy into the notion that more is always better. We think of churches like companies who if they aren’t growing, taking in more people and more revenue, are dying.

But churches aren’t companies trying to survive in a downturned market. Churches are more like living creatures. And when living creatures only take in more and more and more it is not healthy. In fact, we know that never-ending growth for a living creature will lead to death.

Instead, living creatures need moderation and balance. When we have too much of something we need to cut back in order to be healthy.

The decline that we have been experiencing lately just might be God putting us on a diet. God is calling us to cut back, in order to be healthy, in order that we might live.

Just step back for moment and consider all that the things that need to be true about the church if decline is truly bad and limitless growth is good.

It means that the Gospel is nothing more than a numbers game, a tool to increase attendance and revenue.

It means that the Kingdom of God is retreating from the world as we shrink, and that God can only do as much as we are able to provide the money and people to do.

It means that real ministry is about attraction, sales, and consumerism because the goal is to get more people through the doors, rather than sending more disciples out.

It means that if we could reverse the decline we lament, the church would become a virus growing until everything is consumed by it, all people and all resources.

If these things are not true, is it possible that decline might be a good thing? 

If decline is a call to give up the excess, the things that don’t help us live but weigh us down… what is it that we are being called to give up?

The churches in the area I serve in are dealing with this question in concrete ways by working towards 5 congregations being served by 1.5 pastors.

But to get there we had to sort out the difference between important things and essentials. There are a lot of important things that we had to let go of. We had to let go of the hurts and failures of the past, the much beloved traditions and expectations that feel so central to our identity as churches. We had to sacrifice comfort and security for the sake of ministry, and for the sake of our brothers and sisters in faith.

And in coming to what was essential, we had to ask what were the things that God called us to do that made us church… things that we had to do no matter how big or small, rich or poor we are. Surprise, surprise, it turned out the be the same stuff that Martin Luther and the reformers said was essential to being church. The same stuff that Jesus commanded us to do – Word and Sacrament ministry. And while we would not be able to do a lot of the important things that churches are used to doing (programs, events, committees, traditions, expectations), we discovered that we could make sure that everyone had the essentials.

As we have taken the first steps towards a paired down focus on the essentials, on Word and Sacrament ministry, it has been surprising how good it is for us. It is like eating healthy food and doing exercises for a church, focusing on the stuff that we need to keep doing in order to still be Church.

And we are still figuring out what to do with this new smaller, leaner Body (of Christ) it clear that a lot of churches and denominations in North America just might benefit from decline as much be hurt by it. 

No, we will not be the churches we once were. Not everyone will come back, not every fall supper, craft sale, dinner theatre production, scout troupe, curling bonspiel can be resurrection. Maybe not even every Sunday School or women’s group or men’s breakfast. We cannot go backwards, we cannot return to what we once were.

Because it was unsustainable. Memories of full churches with lots going on, and more people and finances than we knew what to do with could be described in others ways. Full and growing can also mean bloated and gaining weight. Filled to the brim can also mean burdened.

God just may be calling us to let go and cut back on the stuff that no longer works, stuff that we struggled to find volunteers for, that we tire ourselves trying to maintain, that we wish there were others to take over for us.

God just may be telling us to stop. 

To stop relying on social pressure or favourable shopping hours to bring people to church, but instead let the Holy Spirit call people to faith.

To stop seeing church membership as an act of citizenship, but instead a practice of faith.

To stop focusing our energy and time on maintaining budgets, facilities, membership roles, committees, programs and local traditions, but instead let the disciplines of Word and Sacrament ministry govern our communities. To let the rhythms and patterns of the liturgy and church year show us where to spend our time and energy.

To stop trying to do everything for all people, but instead refocus ourselves on the Gospel – the story of Christ’s saving death and resurrection.

The longer church declines and more we try to go backwards… the clearer it becomes that God is getting us ready for the future. But first God is shedding us of our old selves, cutting back on the things that once worked for us, but now weigh us down and keep us from moving forward.

Decline isn’t a bad thing. It is a diet, a diet so that the church can be healthy again. 

Why nothing seems to get people back to church – The issue at the core of decline

“People just aren’t committed like they used to be”

This week, I came across this satirical article from the site BabylonBee “After 12 Years Of Quarterly Church Attendance, Parents Shocked By Daughter’s Lack Of Faith

The article humorously reveals an issue facing many churches today. I can’t tell you how many times (56,819 times) I have had the conversation where someone talks about the fact that young people aren’t as committed as they once were. People aren’t coming to church like they did in decades past, and those left behind have started to notice. Many congregations are feeling older, thinner, and tired out. The future feels bleak. The studies tell us that the church is declining.

And so churches try any number of things to attract people back to church. Youth group programs, revamped and modern music, renovated worship spaces, hip and cool pastors with tattoos and any number of other gimmicks.

But nothing seems to work. At least I haven’t heard of any churches successfully bringing back all the members who drifted away. And yet we keep at it, week after week, year after year worrying about people who were once here. Our grand plans for revitalization is to try and appeal to people who have already chosen to leave. Sure, it works once in a while, but this is probably not a strategy for success.

Yet, while churches fret and worry about those who were once there, we rarely take the time to understand what we are asking people to come back and commit to.

Commitment to church

A lot of sermons, bible studies, meetings, conferences, lectures, consultants, coaches and more have been spent analyzing and communicating the message that the social advantages of church that drove attendance in decades past no longer exist. It just isn’t the case anymore that good citizens born here are expected to become good church members. Schools, work, neighbours, businesses, governments don’t do –  society-at-large doesn’t do – our evangelism for us anymore.

Church isn’t an expected social commitment any longer.

Yet, almost always when we speak of getting people to start coming back to church, we say it just like that – ‘back to church.’ And the issue goes deeper to than that. So often when I ask church members what reason keeps them coming to church, there is almost always one things at to the top of the list: Church feels like family, church is a community.

Churches should be communities where we feel connected to each other in deep ways.  But family and community are still social commitments at the end of the day.

Social Commitment

Most churches are, at their core, institutions formed around a social or societal commitment. The core of churches have been based on the fact that people are expected to attend because of societal pressures. And when society taught us through family, friends, neighbours, schools, workplaces, TV, movies, newspapers, courthouses, and governments that being church attenders was important, churches organized around social commitment worked well.

These churches did good ministry, they reached people with the gospel and they were servant communities.

But now that society is no longer providing the pressure to be church attenders, attracting people to a social commitment doesn’t work.

In fact, it may be the very thing that is driving people away.

Our pitch for church has often become some version of “come to church because you should” or “come to church for your family” or “come to church for the community”

Yet, people are choosing sports or music or clubs or brunch with friends or sleeping in with family because they love those things. People are choosing things that they are passionate about, things that they love. Social pressure doesn’t hold much sway anymore, even if our society did push church on people.

When you love soccer, finding a team to play on is also finding a community with a shared passion. When you love brunch, finding a brunch club means joining a community that shares your love of brunch. When you love lazy Sunday mornings with family, you have a community that also loves sleeping in.

But what is our shared loved at church? Are we just communities to join without a shared passion?

Commitment to Jesus

If I had to guess, the vast majority of people who still might be looking for a church in 2016 are not looking for a social commitment to church.

As a millennial, I never lived in the era of social commitment or social pressure to go to church. While most of my peers growing up weren’t interested in church, nor exposed to it beyond Christmas and Easter, the ones who did express interest did not do it for the social commitment.

My church going peers were interested in following Jesus.

Now, imagine someone is looking for a church. They are looking for a church with a commitment to following Jesus at its core and they show up at a social commitment church. It would be like showing up for a soccer team that stopped playing soccer years ago, and who instead gathers for coffee and donuts with friends and family. But this gathering of people still call themselves a soccer team.

Now imagine members of that “soccer team” wringing their hands week after week over the fact that no one wants to join the team to clean up coffee and pick up the donuts. You can see why soccer players looking for a team wouldn’t join. You can see why many members of the team left a long time ago.

As churches try to understand why all the attempts to attract people back to church haven’t yield better results, I think it is because the core foundation that brings most church communities together is fundamentally at odds with what people who are looking for churches are seeking today.

If I had to guess, that if people are looking for church these days, they are doing it in the same way that someone would look for a soccer team. A soccer player looks for a team because they love soccer. A church seeker is looking for a church community because they love Jesus and want to follow him. They are not looking for a church because they love church.

And it goes deeper than that. If getting people to church is the chief concern, than we will always be looking to draw people in.

But if following Jesus, and letting people know about this gracious, merciful and compassionate God, is at our core, we will reach out. And reaching out to let people know about Jesus, may or may not include more bums in pews. Either way, building the church is not the goal, but at best is a symptom of reaching people with Jesus.

So how can churches address this? How can churches built on the social commitment to church have the conversation about the fact that the very thing that brings them together as a community is their biggest problem?

With a lot of soul-searching, a lot of questions, a lot of discerning and a lot of prayer. Changing our foundations and cores will not be easy. In fact, many churches will choose to die instead of changing to the core of following Jesus.

Despite the social commitment at the core of our churches, I think that many churches and church members do want to follow Jesus too. And it isn’t that a church has to choose between being a community or following Jesus. One doesn’t exclude the other.

But churches DO have to choose what is at their core. Churches need to choose the foundation that gathers their community.

Is it a social commitment to church?

Or are we followers of Jesus whose shared passion brings us together?


What is the core passion that brings your church together? How can churches change their core? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

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’.