Tag Archives: millennials

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?

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.”

Annual Meeting Season: What church budgets say about ministry (It’s not good.)

As we begin the new year, most churches are entering Annual Meeting season. Budgets will be proposed and approved. Reports on how the past year’s ministry has gone will be presented. Plans for the year will be laid out.

For a lot of church people, annual meetings are a necessary evil. Boring meetings about boring things. But annual meetings have a significant effect on ministry. If you really want to know what a congregation values, look at the budget. If you want to know what a denomination focuses on, look at the budget.

Churches might put things like “All are Welcome” on signs, but have nothing in the budget for hospitality ministry.

Churches might have mission statements about growing in faith or serving the poor, but have no budget lines for educational resources or funds directed to outreach.

While what churches have failed to budget for or invest in is interesting, what they do put their time, energy and money towards is even more interesting. And so often churches invest in things that simply make no sense and make one wonder what is actually trying to be accomplished. In fact, churches often invest in or put their resources into ventures that have little chance of yielding fruit. 

Let me explain with some examples:

Lutherans in Canada have been primarily rural during our history. Most of our congregations are in rural communities. This made sense as it has been only in the past decade or so that the shift in Canadian society has been from a majority rural to majority urban population.

Generally urban congregations tend to be larger with more resources. Rural congregations tend to be smaller with fewer resources. So seeing struggling rural congregations, church leadership tends to invest in places where the church is struggling. Our seminary has developed an entire institute devoted to rural ministry offering a Doctor of Ministry degree in rural ministry. Multi-point and regional parish ministry is being explored and developed to help a few pastors serve many congregations in a team setting. Rural congregations are often given travel subsidies for church events. Skype and other video conferencing technology is being used to include rural folk.

This is all good and rural congregations deserve good ministry.

Yet, all our efforts are fighting against the demographic realities of shrinking rural communities. There are fewer and fewer people to minister to in rural contexts. We are putting disproportionate resources towards smaller groups of people.

At the same time, because urban congregations are perceived as large and self-sufficient, we leave them be. Yet, they are shrinking too and it is not related to demographics. In fact, there are more people than ever who have no church affiliation living down the street, within blocks, driving by urban churches every day. Shrinking urban churches are the result of changing culture, mission-drift, a lack of evangelism and failed education systems in churches. 

Yet, there is little energy, time, resources or even concern going into helping urban churches understand the people that live next door to them.

Many urban churches are now at a place where they simply cannot communicate or connect with 21st century culture. This isn’t about phones and projector screens in church, but about understanding that most people 70 and under engage community differently – through smart phones and social media. People understand their real life world through an online lens, from scheduling birthday parties, to finding restaurants to eat at, to getting their news, to listening to music or watching TV etc…

And another example:

Churches will bend over backwards to keep nearly comatose Sunday School programs alive. They will long for the youth to come and “get involved.” They want young adults to “come back” to church in order to get take up the jobs that older people want to give up. Precious volunteer energy and resources are spent on doomed to disappoint ministries. Yet, the things that they are asking of kids (to attend regular faith education programs) and youth (to fill most leadership roles in worship), adults are mostly unwilling to do themselves. They expect young people to want to do things that older people want to stop doing… it makes no sense.

But perhaps more importantly, we have hit another demographic tipping point where there are more over 50-year-olds in Canada than under 50-year-olds. That means at best, a church can hope for 1 family of 4 for every 2 empty nest couples in church. If you have 30 couples over 50 in church, you will only have about 15 families. Of course it will seem like the young people aren’t around… but that is because they don’t exist.

Churches long for young adults and young families thinking that they will have the time, energy and money to keep congregations going. Yet increasingly, young adults and young families are under-employed, highly indebted people with precious discretionary time on their hands and who are trying to make it through a high cost time of their lives.

Yet the Baby Boomers, the richest generation in history, are reaching the end of their careers. The largest group of retired people ever is about to have loads of time and money on their hands. Why don’t we have Sunday School for them? Retiree workers instead of youth workers? Why don’t we want 65-year-olds putting on an alb and lighting the candles in worship?

Many churches spend a lot of angst on young people, who (demographically speaking) don’t even exist. But the people who do exist, a glut of boomers, are largely ignored. 

Why do congregations, church bodies and leaders so often see their hope and future in unrealistic visions of church? Why do we invest in ministries and activities that have little chance of yielding fruit for us?

I don’t know if there is one answer. I think it has to do with fear of disappointing those led us into faith in the first place by doing things differently than they did. It has to do with longing for a return to the glory days of the past. It has to do with a fear of change, and our world is full of change these days.

Now, I wish this was the part of the blog post where I explained the magic bullet to turning this poor investment strategy, this poor ministry culture around. But I don’t know the answer.

Well, let me rephrase. I do know the answer… and so do you.

But the answer is hard work.

Churches need to look around ask what faithful ministry looks like in their context. Find out who our neighbours are. Find out what the needs of our communities are. Ask what opportunities is God putting before us. Discern who God is calling us to serve. Be willing to let go our expectations and vision for ourselves, and ask who God is calling us to be.

Strive to be faithful in our investments and ministry planning rather than successful. 

This Annual Meeting season instead of seeing long boring meetings about boring reports and boring talks, consider it an opportunity to discover where God is leading our congregations and communities.

Who knew Annual Meetings could be that?


What does your church invest in? How can you see where your priorities are? Do you love Annual Meetings? 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 Part 2: Finding the iPhone Church

Last month, I wrote about Being an iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church. In particular, I mused on the concept of cultural commute – having to operate in a cultural different than one’s own. As a millennial and as a Lutheran pastor, I find myself often operating in a Baby Boomer culture. And while this doesn’t compare to the struggle of making a language commute, an ethnic commute or even socio-economic class commute, making this generational commute is a struggle. And it is one of the reasons I think millennials find the church frustrating these days.

Since writing that last post, I have been wondering what would an ‘iPhone Church’ look like.

Part of me loves the idea of serving a church full of people who are social media addicts like me. Where the bulk of our community planning and organization could happen on our Facebook page. Where ‘Netflix Binge Night’ with discussion afterwards could be a legitimate study and fellowship activity. Where I could make reference to Grumpy Cat, Walter White, #ThanksObama, Donald Trump memes, Taylor Swift and Apple without explaining memes, hashtags, Ferguson, Netflix, Breaking Bad, Apple Music… basically without having to explain the internet.

But the more I think about the ‘iPhone Church’, simply replacing the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ references with Kanye West “Imma let you finish” references doesn’t really solve the issue of the cultural commute.

One the one hand, the Church absolutely needs to be culturally savvy more than ever before because our society is more up to date and inundated with the latest news than ever before.

Just a few weeks ago, the denomination I serve in – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) – worked hard to bring our denomination up to date on current issues facing our country and our congregations.

At the ELCIC’s National Convention, our church live streamed our gathering and many delegates were using social media to share the very relevant work we were doing:

  • We addressed issues of right relationships with Indigenous Peoples by having a Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner present to us only months after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its report with much national media attention.
  • We adopted resolutions on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW), Climate Justice, Restorative Justice in the Canadian Corrections System
  • We talked about decline and adapting to current cultural realities through constitutional and bylaw changes.
  • And we embarked on an ambitious 500th Anniversary of the Reformation Challenge to:  Sponsor 500 refugees to Canada, Provide 500 scholarships for Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land schools, Plant 500,000 trees, Give $500,000 to the Lutheran World Federation Endowment Fund

I have to admit, that at the end of the 4 Day convention, I was feeling like my church was working hard to address issues that are important to me and to my peers (most of whom are not church members but are very socially conscious).

So yes, on the one hand the church absolutely needs to be more culturally savvy and up to date.

On the other hand, ‘Being an iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church’ really doesn’t fully express just how cultural commuting is inherent to the life of the church.

Really the tag line should be ‘Being an iPhone Pastor to Typewriter members of a Papyrus Church.’

The Church has always been demanding a cultural commute of its people.

500 years ago Martin Luther was a ‘Printing Press Reformer for a Hand Copied Books Church.’

2000 years ago Jesus was a ‘Papyrus Saviour for a Stone Tablet Temple Religion.’

As church people in the 21st century, we have to realize that the good news is constantly being transmitted to us through the cultures of our forebears. Our stories of faith are told in a book that represents a whole swath of Ancient Near Eastern culture and history spanning thousands of years. Our manner and symbols of worship come from Ancient Israelite roots into Roman customs and symbols adapted by medieval culture and readapted through enlightenment, reformation and modern eras.

Our sacred stories and histories have been constantly reframed by political and secular influences. The Church has been coopted by the rise and fall of empires.

The church has been dealing with cultural commutes for 2000 years… maybe longer.

So yes, it seems trivial that the fact that Boomer pop culture references makes it hard for this millennial pastor to sometimes feel understood and at home in the church. But our post-modern world is changing so rapidly with technology that generations living today are taking in the same amount of information in a day that most people would not have access to in a lifetime even just 100 years ago.

The effect, I think, is as significant on church as the Roman Empire coopting the church for its imperial bureaucracy, as significant as printing presses making bibles and other writings widely available, as significant as scientific and scholarly advancements challenging the way people of faith understand the world and their history.

The good news is that the church will survive. It might become an iPhone Church for a while, it might then become something else. But the church knows how to survive cultural commutes.

The challenge is that knowing that the church will adapt. The challenge is knowing that we have to adapt. Boomers will have to speak Millennial. Millennials will have to speak Boomer. Gen Xers, Silent, Builders, Boomers, Millennials, Generation Z, we all have to learn to speak to each other, just as we speak with Ancient Near Easterners, with Medieval Christians, with Reformers, with moderns and more.

As an iPhone pastor, finding an iPhone church won’t really solve my issues of cultural commutes. It will just change my role and experience in the problem. Some version of Typewriter churches and iPhone pastors will always exist. The real issue will be to recognize the ways in which the dominant cultures that exist in our churches keep us from connecting with people from outside of our own experience.

And in the same way that we work to understand the cultures and speak the languages of the bible, of the ancient church, of the reformation and of our forebears in faith, we will need to work to understand the culture and speak the language of a rapidly changing world and the variety of people that make up our church communities and congregations.

Being an iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church requires a cultural commute… but that is simply being a pastor and being the church.


How does the cultural commute affect you? 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’.

Confessions of a High Church Millennial – The Church according to ‘Friends’

As a pastor, I think a lot about group dynamics. I reflect on family systems and congregational systems. I wonder a lot about why groups of people behave in certain ways, sometimes to their own detriment.

My interest in group dynamics or systems thinking might be because I am a millennial. As Baby Boomers were the generation heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement, their focus was on the concerns of the individual, the individual lost in the shuffle of the masses, the person ignored by society, the one on the bottom. However, as Baby Boomers moved into leadership and power roles in the world, this concern for the individual has shifted to those in power and those at the top. Presidents and Prime Ministers are elected for providing individual tax cuts, not for offering society things like education, healthcare and a social safety net.

Millennials grew up differently. Our experience was tremendously focused on the group. Our education was often focused on group work, we were taught to consider others, to share, to be respectful, to work as a team. We are also the social media generation. We often define ourselves by the communities we keep.

28c79aac89f44f2dcf865ab8c03a4201So with all this in mind, let’s turn to Netflix, who made all 10 seasons of Friends available to watch recently.

It only took Courtenay and I a few weeks to binge through all the episodes. Friends became a kind of houseguest, hanging out in the background as we cooked, read, interneted, played with our son, or snuggled up for the evening on the couch.

Friends was a culture defining show during its run. The quirky group of six young adults in New York, getting their footing career and relationship-wise, represented the experience of Generation X. Friends was decidedly un-Baby Boomer-like in how it portrayed its main characters and the world around them. The characters on Friends were not from the dominant generation; there was an undercurrent all along the way that despite personal and professional success, they still lived under the thumb of “The Man” (the Boomer Man).

Friends brought the culture of a disaffected Generation X to the fore. Many of the Gen-Xers I know strongly identified with all things Friends. Yet, Friends was also important for Millennials. Particularly for older Millennials, Friends was a glimpse into the life we were about to live (not really, but it sure seemed like it).

I was in 6th Grade when Friends airing started in 1994. I was in my 3rd year of university degree when Friends faded to black for the last time. For Generation Xers, the cast of Friends was living life along side them. For Millennials, Ross and Rachel, Chandler and Monica, Joey and Phoebe, were like older siblings, or cool older cousins, the hip kids at the back of the bus. They were the people we wanted be when we grew up. They showed us what young adulthood looked like as we lived our teenage years and first years of adulthood.

Re-watching Friends this time around was a completely different experience. Sure, I knew what was going to happen, but I now know so much better what it is like to fall in love, get married, become a parent, look for work, get an education, straddle that time between adolescence and adulthood. I could see myself in the characters, rather than seeing that older sibling.

But as we made our way through the series, I started noticing something more about Friends, something about community and group dynamics, something about relationships and being part of a group. And, I think there is something to learn from Friends. Something that pastors, church leaders and people in the pews would do well to pay attention to.

What made Friends so special was that it was about deeply flawed people. The characters had deep personal flaws and their lives were greatly affected because of them. Sure plot elements were contrived and needed to fit within the elements of a sit-com, but every episode didn’t resolve neatly and nicely at the end. Relationships were affected in the long term. Life decisions had long term effects on the show. Characters started relationships and broke up, got married and then divorced. They lost jobs and started over. They had issues with addiction, mental health, infertility, sexism, racism, education. They had children and complicated relationships with family. They had all kinds of issues to confront – a lot like people in real life do.

The six characters on Friends are not that different from people in churches – people who come with all manner of complex life issues, people who are deeply flawed, people struggling with relationships, work and family.

And again, like a lot of church people these problems always hovered below the surface. Sometimes conversations about the weather, sports, what to eat for dinner, music, or pop-culture easily slipped into issues rising up and taking over. Old fights were always just one wrong comment from being dredged up again.

And still like church people, the characters of Friends struggled along the way. They didn’t always handle each other and their issues well. They weren’t perfect and couldn’t keep their problems from affecting their relationships and their happiness. Things didn’t always work out (as much as a sit-com could allow for that).

Watching all 10 seasons of Friends again, really hit my millennial sensibilities. All that time spent doing team-work and learning how to relate to others as a kid, all the time that I spend thinking about congregational systems and group behaviour, all of my interest in how we interact as people in relationship was piqued by Friends this time around.

The thing that hit me was how those six Friends stayed committed to each other despite each other’s flaws, despite the problems and issues, despite the conflict and hurts and pains. It is where Friends diverges from recent hits like Mad Men, Breaking Bad or The Big Bang Theory (where characters seem especially close to blinking on commitment). Their flaws didn’t consume them. Their commitment to each other was never in question.

And this is where Friends so often diverges from the Church. At least in my experience, church people won’t commit to the flaws in other people. We commit to the good stuff, the easy stuff. But when the painful stuff rises to the surface we don’t stick around. Well, at least we find it hard to stay present.

I think we could use a little more Church according to Friends. And I struggle as a Millennial – who was brow-beaten in school with how to manage group relationships – when church people (especially Boomers) are quick to abandon that commitment to each other when our flaws start to show, and especially when our flaws affect our relationships.

I imagine I am not the only Millennial who struggles with this.

And at the risk of making broad generalizations, I think there truly is a difference between Boomers and Millennials. I think Boomers were raised by a generation who suffered collective PTSD after World War 2. I think Boomers were taught to keep the flaws under the rug, to send the problems away when they come to the surface and to, above all, pretend like everything is okay. They were taught this because this is how their parents, the G.I. Generation survived The Great Depression and World War 2.

But when our group dynamic and congregational systems are focused around pretending that the problems don’t exist, that our flaws are hidden, that conflict should be avoided at all costs, it is really off-putting for Millennials who were taught to work things out. We were taught to let the problems come to the surface, to be laid out on the table.

I am a High Church Millennial. I am a Lutheran Pastor. There are a million reasons that I stay committed to the Church. And the flaws and failings, the hurts and sufferings of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ are the last reasons that I would ever consider walking away from the church.

But if there was something that would push me away, it is how church systems and behaviours are built to avoid dealing with or even acknowledging those flaws and failings. It is really hard for me when otherwise intelligent, caring, compassionate individuals let unhealthy group dynamics and systems of behaviour rule. It is unbearable when we let… no, when we demand, that the status quo stomp on communities – on us.

If Friends can teach the Church anything, it is that we can get past our issues, we can love people despite their deep flaws, and most importantly, we can make the most important group dynamic be a commitment to loving each other.

I think Millennials need a church according to Friends, a church willing to commit to people, flaws and all.


Part 2 of Confessions of a High Church Millennial

Part 1 of Confessions of a High Church Millennial


Did you watch Friends? Have noticed unhealthy group dynamics in churches? Is there something we can learn? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik