Low Church Numbers Vs. High Church Numbers: The Stories Are Not Adding Up

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Like many of you, this week I have seen many posts and re-posts of that chart from PewForum detailing the current rises and falls in religious demographics.  (Spoiler Alert: It was mostly just falls.)  The nones stole the show again and rightly so as they are booming.

Click to read full report.

But the second place winner seems to be us evangelicals who have decreased by less than 1% in 7 years.  This is noteworthy because 1% is well within the margin of error, which may mean we shrunk a bit more or that we even (*gasp*) grew.

This was very curious to me considering for the last year I have been inundated with articles claiming that evangelical youth are fleeing evangelicalism at rapid rates and that evangelicalism is all but dead.  I have heard that an overwhelming number of millenials are finding safe sanctuary in more ancient, high church traditions like Catholicism and Mainline Prostestantism.  I had a sneaking suspicion this claim was not true because those articles never gave any sort of hard data.  They just quoted popular millenials and assumed their narratives were normal.

I bring this up because I just got done reading another such article called “Dear Church: An Open Letter from One of Those Millenials You Can’t Figure Out.”  I agreed almost wholeheartedly with the author’s theological standpoint.  I too am sick of flashy worship and very skeptical of “church mascots.”  I really loathe the patriotic moralism that fuels evangelicals.  And I want a higher church and a truer church with more Eucharist and less pyrotechnics.

But I am not meeting too many other millenials who agree with me.  And when I read the actual studies done by people who know how to compile and interpret data, I am realizing that I am a rare breed.  The numbers just don’t add up and have not for some time.

The mainline churches with their liturgies, liberal theologies and well developed ecclesiologies are still hemorrhaging members while the low church, coffee selling, cowboy mimicking, America loving Evangelicals are at least holding their own.

There is a huge disconnect between the narrative that millenials are fleeing into the arms of the loving high church and the data that says high church’s doors are all but closed.

Where did this come from?  I have a few guesses:

1) Nobody listens to the millions of uneducated, never churched.  The dominant stories filling our headlines are almost always the stories of wealthy millenials who grew up in the church and hold master’s degrees, usually in Philosophy or Theology.  These wealthy theology buffs are frustrated that the church of their theology classes is not the church of their childhoods.  I definitely share that frustration but no one who has not taken a theology class does.

Instead anybody who has worked with poor, uneducated, never churched millenials knows their story is vastly different.  They still want the booming worship and religious paraphernalia and silly mascots and rock bands and they are absolutely okay with the patriotism.

If it is true that we are not listening to them, I think that is sad.  After all, us educated church types are always talking up a great game about loving the marginalized and outcast.  Yet we are refusing to hear their stories.  Is it possible that those cowboy church, honky tonk evangelical churches are listening to them better than we are?

2) We assume that because someone’s story is popular, everybody agrees.  Therefore we focus on the blogs that get the most clicks and assume everybody who is clicking has the exact same story.  This is not true.  Those blogs are certainly relatable, but they are not normative.  Take for example my wife, who has read every Rachel Held Evan’s book and is leading discussion groups on them but isn’t about to go join the Episcopals.  .  .I hope.  Likewise, I very much relate to Rachel Held Evans but I am not going to become Episcopal.  .  .unless my wife does.

This is compounded by the reality that a high for Christian blogs is 10,000 clicks.  There are 80 million millenials.  That means if only millenials are reading those blogs (which isn’t true) there are 79,990,000 millenials who aren’t reading them.

3) The Baby Boomers might still be alive and important to America’s religious landscape.  I am not naive.  I know that the Evangelical statistics could have absolutely nothing to do with my generation.  It might be about the great retention of baby boomers, who love everything that booms especially worship services.  These baby boomers might still be alive and still loving their low church, yeehaw praising, mascot leading, rock worship services.  And that might not be a bad thing.  There are still quite a few Baby Boomers who don’t go to church or never have. (source).  And though their attendance numbers are declining, they are mostly declining in mainstream churches.  If the current model of evangelicalism is reaching them or retaining them, than the church is better for it.

Conclusion

I am also reading reports this week that a huge blockbuster movie about superheroes punching robots has managed to fill auditoriums with those from every age.

It would seem you don’t need the Holy Spirit or liturgy or sacraments to fill up a venue.  You just need theatrics.  And if the theatrics of evangelicalism are keeping their pew chairs full, it means absolutely nothing.

Because our God given call is not to fill auditoriums.  We are definitely not called out of the world, equipped with good gifts, empowered with the Holy Spirit and sent out so that we can draw in the millenials, or the baby boomers or even the silent generation.

We are called, equipped, empowered and sent so that we can love.  If love works, praise the Lord of Love.  If Love does not work we still serve the Lord of Love.

And my frustrations with evangelicalism have nothing to do with their failure to fill pews.  We have always been very good at that part and still are.  My frustrations stem from our failure to fill the world with love.

All of the generational headlines are dominated by this idea that the church should do what works.  But if church is about what works then it is not about what loves.  And if we don’t love, we have nothing and are nothing and will accomplish nothing.

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Becoming Absent to Save the Absent Generation

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This is the fourth and final post in a series on my attempts to relate cross-generationally.  After the introduction post on Monday, I wrote on Tuesday and Wednesday about the older, Silent generation and the middle aged Baby Boomers.

I want to finish this series with a unique post about being a Millenial Pastor who is trying like crazy to understand and relate to those my age.  .  .and failing miserably.

I was born in late 1984, two years after they stopped making Generation X babies.  My older sister was born in early 1981, right before they started making Millenials.  The chief difference between her and I is that she didn’t have a home computer in High School and didn’t take a laptop to college.  I had a computer in my room and bought my first laptop a few days before my freshmen year of college.  More than that, my sister was in grad school when Facebook was invented and I actually had an account a full 3 years before she got one.

However, as I read the descriptions of Gen X and Millenials I find that I land somewhere between the two.  You might call me an X’d Millenial or a Milleniax or a Xillenial.

Despite my commonalities with both Generations, I am a kid who grew up in the church and am now a leader in it.  Concerning spirituality and morality I am fairly traditional.  I pastor an old-school traditional church that opens every service with a hymn.  I don’t play the electric guitar (or acoustic) and I still think that waiting until you get married is in your best interests.  I do not swear, nor do I have any tattoos, nor do I drink alcohol.  And the older I get, the less inclined I am to watch violent or pornographic television.  I couldn’t watch more than a few episodes of Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead or Orange is the New Black.

All of this makes me unique because the average Gen X or Millenial will not attend a traditional church nor follow its traditional morality.  They didn’t wait until marriage.  They love those graphic and obscene television shows.  If they do go to church it will be to a church that brews organic blends, not Folgers and plays super emo, mellow choruses while sporting their newest tattoos of religious iconography.

But not many Gen Xers or Millenials go to church.  In fact, regarding the church, they are an absent generation.

This makes me a very rare breed among my peers.

More than that, the young adults in my small town all ready have 3 kids from 3 different partners.  They are addicted to everything from cocaine to marijuana to tobacco to alcohol to video games.  They do not know who King David or Isaiah or the Apostle Paul are.  And their tattoos are certainly not of a religious nature.  They all believe in God but beyond that they don’t understand religion nor have a use for it.  And, to be honest, as an ordained religious icon, I do not understand them.

I say all of this in the way of confession because my congregation hired me to bring in the young adults and I do not know how to even begin to bridge the gap between my traditional morality and their libertarian lack of values.

Last summer we started a Tuesday night dinner group for young adults at the church.  Over a month it grew to 15 and died just as quick because those attending moved away or got evening jobs.  During those dinners I struggled with whether I should even bring up Jesus or just continue to talk about video games, hunting, firefighting and sports.  In the end Jesus went unnoticed and they all checked out of church.  But don’t get me wrong, the result would have been the same had I been overly pushy about Jesus.

They claim to love our Sunday services but they are always too hungover to get out of bed to come.  They say they will come to church events but always end up finding a reason not to.  They say they want a children’s program but when we start one they do not show.  They say they want a nursery for their children and when we opened one, they took their kids into the service with them anyway and continued to complain we were not “toddler friendly.”

Meanwhile they wallow in bad decision making.  They can’t find a place to live because nobody will rent to them because they trashed the last 20 apartments and screamed at the last 10 landlords.  They desperately want to work and some are hard workers, but they have no idea how to treat their coworkers and bosses so nobody will hire them.  They are all in complex and miserable custody battles for their children with ex-partners, parents and grandparents.  The more details I hear, the more I am sure none of them should win custody.

The end result is they complain about their self inflicted “bad luck.”  I help them dig out of their latest mess, all the while hoping it will mean they will own their bad decisions and turn their lives over to a loving God.  It hasn’t quite happened yet with any of them.

I know this is not the case for all Gen Xers and Millenials but it is certainly the norm in my small town.

So I do not have any easy solutions here except to say at least I know their names and consider them friends and all that happened outside the walls of my church.  In a very real way I have had to become absent to reach out to these absent generations.  I am not just talking about the now old trope of a minister spending more time out of the office than inside of it.

I am talking about leaving the religious establishment of my youth.  I am talking about choosing to forget about things like Bible Quizzing and Mission Trips and Summer Camp and Private High School and Christian University.  I have to forget those memories and pretend like I know nothing so save those who don’t know nothing.  I have to re-imagine my life as if it had been devoid of things like potlucks, VBS, G rated movies and two loving parents.  Instead I have to picture how my life would be with cocaine, abuse, neglect and X rated porn.

This does not mean I start getting tattoos and smoking cigarettes  and drinking myself into oblivion.  It does mean I pretend I have no idea who Paul the Apostle is so that I can help my peers discover him for themselves.  It means I do not preach at them concerning the dangers of alcoholism, or even cocaine, but instead ask questions about what such use is doing for their lives.

I don’t defend their employers and landlords but listen to their complaints accusations against them.

And I certainly don’t take sides in their custody battles.

Pulling this off is incredibly difficult, especially since my patient compassion for them has yielded no measurable results.

Yet I have found that if I meet them where they are at, then at least I keep the conversation open.  And I hope without much reason that when they are ready to move forward I can introduce them to a God and His church that longs for them to be reconciled.

Happy Halloween!  May the presence of our Lord together with All the Hallowed Saints be with you this weekend.

Booming to Save the Boomers

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This is the 3rd post in a series on my attempts as a Millenial pastor to engage the different age groups in my community.  On Monday I wrote an introduction to the series.  Yesterday I talked about my difficulties with The Silent Generation.  I argued that the younger clergy should be grieving with them and as I have met them in their grief I have been able to pull some of them to hope as they spend their last days in this tumultuous world.

That has been hard but not impossible.  Compassion, after all, is a biblical mandate and one I feel us younger folks have in high measure.  With that said, my real struggle is relating to Baby Boomers (my parent’s generation).

They were named the Baby Boomers because of the high birth rate during the 1940s and 50s.  However, “boomer” might also define their predilection towards everything noisy, glitzy, glamorous and showy.  A big production, whether a concert, a reality TV show, an action movie or a Promise Keeper’s Revival trumps all else in their minds.

It was this generation that fell in love with Rock And Roll and the crazy concerts that followed.  This generation loved and invented the classic action hero, an unstoppable lone wolf played by Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Mel Gibson who took down an endless number of bad guys, aliens, robots and monsters in movies like “The Terminator,” “Die Hard,” “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones” and the like.

It also took this generation three months of watching Titanic in theaters once a week to realize the movie actually didn’t have a plot.  What it did have was sappy emotionalism between shots of a ship sinking.

But it was also this generation that fell back in love with Jesus.  Before them Jesus was a ticket into heaven.  Christians before the Baby Boomers were much more likely to talk about “God” than “Jesus.”  But the Baby Boomers, particularly the hippies among them, rediscovered Jesus in the 1970s and have led the world back to the gospel stories.  This was an incredible and needed movement in American history.

But no sooner had they fallen back in love with Jesus than the cross became a trademark and Jesus became a product.  Cue the invention of Christian music (and the radio stations that came with), Christian T-shirts, Christian movies, Christian coffee mugs, Christian book stores and, my favorite, Jesus on Facebook.

All of this is bottled and sold in the now classic mega-churches with their business-like church growth models and worship services that resemble rock concerts.

To the Baby Boomers Christianity is a club and Jesus a product to sell.  He is the ultimate Boomer rock star with the ultimate Boomer rock concerts.  He is the Boomer Action Hero that can dodge a million bullets but fire six that magically land in the enemy’s torso.  He is also the fulfillment of all their felt needs.

The Baby Boomers love sappiness.  They are the ones who are currently filling my Facebook feed with horrible and over used cliche sentiments like, “When God Close a Door He Opens 10,000 windows” (add picture of sunlight through 10,000 windows).  They “like” and “follow” Jesus and insist that if you don’t, you are a less than par Christian.  They are quick to forward culture war propaganda and rally behind anybody who is “standing up for Jesus” by re-tweeting or re-posting or re-forwarding whatever out of context Bible verse darts across their screens.

Like their movies, they like their worship services loud with dashes of sentimentalism.  They love perfectly played music and are quick to dismiss an entire service as being “devoid of the Holy Spirit” if there is even one tone deaf note.  My dad calls it a “lack of pastoral leadership.”  I think it is a sign of a great pastor who is willing to put the least and the lowly on the stage.  More on that in a bit.

Their love of glamour redefined the Christmas Pageant and the Easter Plays.  Now we have live camels bringing Jesus in for Palm Sunday.  We have fireworks that go off to announce Baby Jesus’ birth and we actually hammer nails into crosses on Good Friday.  The Baby Boomers love everything that booms.

They are the ones teaching us to be “Spiritual” but not “Religious.”  Religious is a code word for quiet, unassuming, and boring.  In turn, spiritual means loud, crazy, sentimental and booming.

And those are the very things their children, including myself, are rebelling against.

When I hear booming I see superficial.  Clever is manipulative.  Sappy is shallow.  And fireworks at Jesus’ birth betrays the unassuming and secretive nature of the entire passage in Luke 2.

The Baby Boomers replaced pews with chairs.  We are replacing chairs with tables.  They replaced hymns with electric guitars.  We are unplugging the guitars and going acoustic.  They rejected the hymns.  We are bringing the good hymns back but adding a lot more mellow to them.

My Power-points have a dash of clever but that cleverness is more ironic than glitzy.  Instead of a clever background image with three points, I go for black ink on white backdrop with words flying in from everywhere because the clever backdrops take away from the text I want you to see.  Most of the time, I drop text all together and just put funny pictures up there to illustrate what I am saying.  If the pictures are not funny I will make fun of them with a quip like, “That is an actual Polaroid of Jesus’ baptism!”

Beyond worship, many in my age group have abandoned the language of “caring for felt needs” and replaced it with “suffering faithfulness.”  Instead of a Jesus we can trademark, bottle and sell, we preach a Jesus who is fully human and fully God who calls us to a follow Him with sacrifice and service.

But do not get me wrong, this is not a “who is right” and “who is wrong” post or even series.  In fact, I have found as I relate to Christian baby boomers, that there is a very real and deep spirituality underlying their cliches.  For example they are just as likely to post calls for prayer for dying friends as they are to post sappy cliches.  An emotion based faith still can be “faith.”

So I have learned to “like” the sappy cliches that fill my Facebook feed. I affirm them when they post stuff I agree with.  I also look for opportunities to be sappy and “needs based” when the text or my experience allows.  I clean up my Powerpoints from time to time to make them more showy and sometimes I will even talk about the God who dries our tears.  I also listen to Christian music here and there and will quote lyrics in my sermons if I find any that are deeper than “God’s Not Dead.”

I use all of these as opportunities to build bridges from their showy, booming trademarked god to the very real God that meets us in whispers on mountaintops, works through the foolish and powerless and goes almost unnoticed while reconciling the whole world.

I have found this tension to be a very delicate tightrope.  After all, this is the generation who will quickly call your entire faith into question if you don’t listen to Christian radio or re-post the latest culture war on your news-feed.  I found they will even call you “Religious but Not Spiritual” if your sermon is about 2 Kings 12 instead of about “God Cares, Concerns and Creates.”  (Acronyms are everything to them because they combine sentiment with clever.)

But I have found a lot of success as I have learned to boom sentimentalism before I whisper the call of God.  I have also found that with all ages and peoples, that as they age into retirement the Boomers are still looking for something real beneath the artificial world they created.

And I believe wholeheartedly in a God who can provide that for them.

Becoming Multi Generational to Save the Multi Generational

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The Cross Country season ended last Friday and this week finds me working from home so that my 2 year old daughter can work on her potty training.

While at home I am reading a book that compares and contrasts ways of doing youth ministry.  I will write a fuller review of that book on Friday (hopefully).  I am also pulling together our annual All Saint’s Day service and working on a sermon for the following Sunday on 1st Corinthians 9.  All of these have me thinking cross-generationally.  Cross Country led to many great insights about today’s youth that will certainly inform my reading of the youth ministry book.  Our All Saints Day service has me thinking about the wonderful contributions of the elderly who have passed away recently.  And 1st Corinthians Chapter 9 contains every evangelist’s and missionary’s favorite Bible verses that certainly relate to the age groups:

To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.1

Over the last 2 and a half of years I have endeavored to become old to save the old and young to save the young and middle aged to save the middle aged.  This has not been easy but it has been beneficial.

The reality is that in the last 80 or so years the world has changed substantially.  For one example, the oldest members of my congregation remember buying their first refrigerators.  Those slightly younger remember their first televisions.  The middle aged remember that first microwave.  I remember my first computer while the teens and kids remember their first tablets and smart phones.

Of course technology is only one way to illustrate the change.  I could also talk about the changing family structures, the changing geopolitical borders and the changing of language itself.

In fact within a month of starting my pastorate I had a conversation with a Baby Boomer where he annoyed me by complaining about Bill Clinton who apparently made us more vulnerable to an attack by Russia.  I spent a lot of time wondering why he cared so much and why I was so annoyed about it.

In the end I realized that Russia was not the bad guy when I was growing up, except in James Bond movies and even James Bond spent more time befriending them than killing them.  However in the world of my older friend, the Russians were enemy number 1 and any show of weakness to them was enough to discount an entire 8 years of Clinton’s Presidency.  (Well that and the extra marital affairs)

That realization, that my world was incredibly different than my older parishioners, has led down many rabbit trails of small discoveries.   Another “aha” moment came when I realized none of my board members were getting my emails because they only check their emails once a month.  On the other end of the age spectrum, I also noticed the young adults and teens were ignoring my emails because email is for Spam.  Snapchat and Instagram are for meaningful connections and Facebook is as antiquated to them as VCR’s are to me.

All of these examples are illustrations of what sociologists call “the cohort theory.”  That theory simply claims that it is easier to categorize and understand someone based off of the year they were born over against where they were born and who they were born too.

It should go without saying that “The Cohort Theory” has its limitations.  For example, I have also discovered that a love of firearms extends across generational lines in my town but if you travel to the nearest city the hatred of such is multi-generational.  More than that, marks of adult maturity (budgeting, work ethic, control of addictions, emotional health, etc) seem to be easier to categorize by family, not by age or region.

Still, in a world that has changed remarkably over 100 years, there is great value in understanding people based off of their generation.  By comparing and contrasting the different age groups in my community I have found more practical applications than I anticipated.

So this post is the introduction to a week long series about learning to be old to save the old and young to save the young while also giving the middle aged their due.  Along the way I will recount my discoveries in attaining a local phone number so the elderly will believe I belong here, learning what this Instagram thing is all about, trying to understand Baby-boomer cynicism without becoming cynical and putting together Powerpoints that entice the young without letting the old know how addicted to technology I am.

Spoiler Alert: I have learned the cartoon-y the Powerpoint the better.  Also make fun of them some of the time but not ALL of the time.

See you all tomorrow where I will discuss becoming Silent to save the Silent Generation.