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.