On (white) progressive fragility


Black folk have been targets of violence in the United States since the inception of our nation. There have been times were the bursts of violence are significant enough for national attention, mass killings, lynchings, church burnings, police violence and more have exploded in ways that interrupt the national (white) consciousness only to fade as we move on to the next (less disruptive to our lives as privileged folk) moment of national attention. But the black community never gets to stop thinking about it. The black community never gets to stop being afraid, never gets to let fear entirely leave their consciousness. The white community’s ability to forget, to not mention, to not think about racism is our privilege. It is our reward for simply being born with lighter skin.

I cannot imagine what it would be like if I knew that there were groups or individuals focused entirely on killing, say, white women named Elizabeth, or Lutheran pastors, or any other group of which I am a part. While, as a woman, I experience a low-grade fear when walking alone, it is nothing compared to what my brothers and sisters of color face every day. While I know what it is like to be talked down to because I am a woman and because I am young (at least in my career field), I don’t know what it is like to know that much of the society in which I live and the culture in which I work values me less because of the color of my skin.

These past few months have once again brought violence against people of color, primarily black Americans to the forefront. We have  been having some necessary conversations about race and privilege in our world and in our church. Yet even with the media attention focusing on killing of African-Americans, even with my church body being intimately touched by the killings at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, we have the privilege to forget. That is privilege. And when that privilege allows a gathering of people for religious purposes to remain silent during a worship service of theoretically progressive allies, that is structural racism.

We can make excuses for our silence. We can say that it wasn’t the right time, or it wasn’t the purpose of our gathering, but if when we gather as a group to worship we reamain silent (as happened this past week at a gathering of my colleagues), we are perpetuating structural racism. Here is how one black woman described her experience of the event. 

This is hard to face. As progressive religious professionals, we want to believe we are good allies. When presented with the pain and anger of members of a community reeling in grief and anger, when confronted about our willful blindness to the pain in our midst, we get uncomfortable. We want it to not be about us, about our behavior, about our privilege. But it is.

When we, as allies, are called out for forgetting, we are called to pause. To think. To consider what it might be like in the shoes of those who are in pain, who are being terrorized, who are straight up pissed off about something that looks and feels like being ignored. Again.

As I write this, I am nervous because I want the approval of my colleagues. I want everyone to like me. I don’t want to hurt anyone by putting this out there. But I also have to say it. Because I was disturbed by our silence. I was disturbed my some of the conversations I was a part of. The longer I think of it, the more it bothers me, & the more my heart hurts. And to not say anything because I want people to like me and because none of this directly affects me is just another way I engage in white privilege.

As privileged people, we have the power. Because of our power, we are called to slow down instead of react. We are called to love, to listen, to put our pride and our own concerns aside to hear the grief and pain in the voices and lives of those who are suffering.

We shouldn’t wait to be confronted to act. We need to always be remembering the marginalized in our world and constantly asking ourselves if we are working to perpetuate or dismantle the system. If a member of our community comes to us and says dudes, you missed that, we have not done our job. 

We should never ask that someone aplogise for expressing that they are angry or hurt at being ignored or having something close to their hearts met with silence instead of prayer, lament and action. 

When we ask those suffering to calm down, to wait, to find a more appropriate time or medium to express their feelings, we diminish their grief. We tell them that they are not important enough to be heard, that their pain is not important enough for us to listen to this minute, that they must wait. That’s the pastoral equivalent of having a student show up in our office reeling in pain and fear and telling them to hold on a sec, we have a bulletin to finish editing first.
Now is the time. Now is the time to listen. Now is the time to be intentional about observing the grief and pain and fear of the marginalized. Now is always the time.

Now is the time to measure our words carefully, to examine our systems and structures and ask who we are leaving out. Not later, not when it is convenient or appropriate. Now.

When talking to a colleague about events this past week, events in my church body at a conference I attended, I used the phrase progressive fragility. I don’t know if that is a phrase, but it definitely is a thing. Those of us who consider ourselves progressive and who want to believe that we are allies and/or accomplices get really, really hurt when called out on our -isms. More often than not, we react to these moments defensively, either attacking or deflecting so that we don’t have to look at the fact that we might have just been not-so-progressive. We don’t want to admit we have failed in our ally-ship. When we react, we diminish and silence. When we react we use our implicit power to perpetuate the system. I have seen this when I have called out men who claim the title feminist yet mansplain things to me, or when people expect me to be less competent because of my age and/or gender. I have felt my face burn when a friend has pointed out to me that I just asked all the guys in the room to lift the heavy thing and when my brain points out to me that I’m being racist. But for true structural change to occur, we have to put down the defenses and listen. Really, truly, deeply listen.

When confronted with the hurt of a (marginalized) member of the community, especially a hurt that was either directly or indirectly caused by you or your organization ask yourself:

1)  Did you stop.

2) Did you breathe.

3) Are you listening?

4) Are you practicing grace, love, empathy and understanding. Be the Good Samaritan. Be Jesus encountering the woman at the well. Be the mother hen gathering in her children.

5) Instead of thinking about what the person telling you of their hurt could have done differently, can think about what you could have done differently?

6) Have you thought about how you might be able to act differently in the future, how you can use your voice to disrupt the system, and how you can tear down the structures that perpetuate racism.

7) will you continue engaging in conversation.

I love my church. This past week I engaged in and overheard some great learning and important conversations about structural evil. I know the people with whom I was gathered want to do better, want to be allies, want to fight racism. I also participated in some really disheartening conversations and observed structural evil at work. I know many people were hurt by conversations, by social media, by snide comments and by silence. We can do better, my friends. We have to. It is our call as ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as Christians, and as humans moving in this world.

Everything is sacred.

A new kind of attractional ministry (or: the church has done this to itself)

If You Build it They Will Come... Just Kidding...

A while back, I was listening to an episode of On Being with the amazing Joanna Macy. Macy is a buddhist and environmentalist, and if you don’t know who she is, go and read The Great Turning then come back. I’ll wait.

The host, Krista Tippet, asked Macy about her journey from Christianity to Buddhism. Macy was raised Christian, but her life changed when she went to volunteer with refugees from Tibet. As she tells it, she saw that these refugees who had nothing and were living in incredibly difficult circumstances had this light inside of them. They seemed to radiate joy and peace inspire of their circumstances. Macy says she thought to herself, “That. I want that.” From that point she began to study Buddhism and has become an amazing teacher and activist for peace and environmental justice.

As I listened to her story, something clicked. That. That is what we in the Christian church are missing. We have busied ourselves for years with changing our congregations so that we have the “right” programs, the “right” worship service, the “right” small groups. This is called attractional ministry, or the Field of Dreams way of doing ministry. If we build it, they will come.

But this hasn’t happened. We have built it and they are walking away. We have tried to alter our way of doing things in order to attract people to our ministry instead of altering our way of being so that we might attract people to Christ.

Many of my friends who don’t do church have this listed in their reasons for staying away. Church appears to be a group of people who gather each week as one would at a social club, nothing really challenging is said, no one really emerges as changed, they just sit for an hour listening to a bunch of words and then go home the same person they were when they woke up in the morning. What’s the point?

A colleague of mine recently told me of a conversation with an older colleague who explained that, in his day, it wasn’t thought of as the pastor’s call to change people; the purpose of church was to make people comfortable. And comfortable we are, but changed we are not.

Now, let me be clear, the change I am talking about isn’t people coming to church and instantly changing their outward behaviors to become more socially acceptable people (or, worse yet, changing who they are to fit into some narrow idea of what Christian looks like). It isn’t becoming less obviously sinful or bad or whatever, changing the outward behavior in hopes of becoming more holy or something (though one hopes that through regular encounters with God’s word, change will come). We will always mess up, we will always fall short of the goal, and changing acts means little without a change of heart. The change I am talking about is the re-orientation of life that comes from communion with the holy spirit, from hearing the radical love of Jesus Christ proclaimed from the pulpit every week, from deep involvement in a community rooted in Christ, and from a discipleship journey that includes regular engagement in spiritual practices. This kind of change comes from being both mentored and challenged in faith.

Too often leaders are afraid of challenging their people. Afraid of rocking the boat, afraid of having congregants get mad because they were made to feel uncomfortable. But, the thing is, faith is uncomfortable. The gospel is incredibly disruptive. It tells us that all of the messages society gives us about what matters in life (material possessions, worldly power, etc) are wrong. The gospel tells us that every single person is loved and worthy of love — this includes people we hate, people we don’t understand, people who have hurt us AND ourselves when we are at our worst. Jesus came to proclaim good news to the poor and to flip the narrative regarding whose side God was on.  This is incredibly challenging stuff. It will make people uncomfortable, but this is the message we are called to proclaim. Every week.

Repeatedly hearing of God’s radical love for all of creation, or God’s unapologetic inclusiveness and the Biblical call to serve the oppressed will change people. Giving people spiritual practices they can use to engage with will lead to transformation.

This will lead to communities in which “All are welcome” is more than a slogan, it is a way of life. It will lead to Christians doing work in the world towards justice for all people. It will lead to people who overflow with God’s love, pouring it out into the world, leading people to look at Christians and think, “I want that.”

This is not a simplistic faith. It is not a faith defined by doctrine and dogma, but a faith that is deeply connected to God and to the world. A faith that recognizes that bad things happen, but God is with us, and we are God’s people called to walk with others who are struggling. This is a faith that cultivates a deep resounding joy that is different from fleeting happiness, a joy that helps us get through difficult times because no matter how hard things get, we know the love of God. It is a faith that recognized the broken in the world and in ourselves and boldly proclaims that love is still alive, that love wins, defeating hate and violence and death.

When we are able to love others and ourselves despite our sinful nature, when we are able to love others and ourselves as we are, we are able to create radically honest communities that love loudly and boldly beyond all of the superficial smiles so many congregations seem to feel they are required to wear on Sunday mornings. When we create spaces into which people can enter when they are not okay, we create spaces into which anyone can enter at any time and know the love of God.

We often look to a growing church for guidance on how to fix our congregational problems. In the past few years, ELCA (and other) churches (as well as the institution) have been looking to House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver for the solution. What do they do there that has helped them grow? How to they attract so many young people? What is the magic pill and how do I get it?

I have been to HFASS, I have friends who have been involved in the community and I think I have an idea what it is. Here’s the magic: excellent, challenging preaching rooted in the gospel message of radical inclusion, bold proclamation of the fact that we are all both sinners and saints and we are all equally loved and valued by God, administration of the sacrament, and a radical inclusiveness that lets you feel welcome in church when you feel like crap, when you have screwed up, when you feel totally unworthy of love, when you have a past you would rather forget about, or any of the million reasons people stay away from church on a bad day (or every day). That’s it (as far as I see it, anyway).

HFASS is not the only community doing this, but it is lifted up so often by the ELCA (and torn down by others), it is an easy example of the gospel as the solution to our current wailing about church decline. It is an excellent example of a new kind of attractional ministry.

We, as Christians, are called to allow ourselves to be changed by the gospel. We are called in baptism to a new life in Christ, a lifetime of discipleship and practicing being Christian. As pastors, we are called to create disciples. Are disciples people who can recite church dogma, people who can quote scripture, or people who hear, smell, taste and see the gospel and “Go and do likewise?”

What’s more attractional?

What will make people like Joanna Macy look at us and say to themselves, “That. I want that?”

Ministry in Grand Central


This past week, a colleague gave me an analogy for campus ministry as ministry at a bus stop. It’s a pretty good analogy — everyone is coming an going, no one will be there for long. As I thought about it, I thought a more apt description might be ministry in Grand Central. Some people are rushing towards their destination, others are wandering. Some know where they are trying to go, some think they do but change their minds, and others are just lost. People are hungry, tired and burnt out. For many, this is their first time away from home and the station is overwhelming and bewildering — they are seeking direction. Some have friends with whom they travel, others are traveling on their own. Given the amount of time most of them will be in the station, they will be seeking out fellow travelers to hang out with, eat with and form community, many looking for those who are traveling to a similar destination or who have similar travel styles. All of them will leave at some point, some sooner than others.

This is our situation. And it is up to us to figure out how to provide for these people while they are in the station — to talk to them, figure out what they need, and to try to meet these needs the best we can, all in the name of Jesus Christ.

When I talk to students around the University of Washington, one thing comes up again and again — students are seeking connection and community. Even the kids are me who are in fraternities, which, in theory, should be providing that. As a called an ordained minister of word and sacrament, it is often thought that it is my job to provide those things in this place, but, all too often, the way word and sacrament is practiced are too narrow. There are so many students here who desire to be fed, but preaching and eucharist don’t meet the students where they are, at least not at first. There are students who have baggage around “church,” students to whom our rites are foreign and strange, and students who are drawn to check out a community grounded in the teachings of Jesus Christ but aren’t ready to worship yet. if all we offer is a traditional worship service, how do we meet the needs of everyone else at the station? How do we minister to those who are wandering, lost, looking for company, yet for one reason or another aren’t ready for or interested in what we often call traditional, liturgical worship? If I am called as a minister to the entire community of the University of Washington through the Lutheran Church, is it not my call to minister to the needs of the community, even (is not especially) to those who do not feel called to worship God in the ways we have traditionally worshiped? What if, instead of practicing word and sacrament with my tiny community, we learn to embody word and sacrament, to embody grace, and to create spaces where that grace can be experienced by others not yet ready to practice word and sacrament themselves?

Many of my colleagues, particularly those of us on the left coast, are facing these issues. A colleague of mine had students coming for dinner but leaving before worship. Other colleagues have seen growth in gathering around meal with liturgical elements (often called dinner church), while others have been using gardens, conversation, and a dozen other things to help students gather in Christian community — even if not all of the students are ready to call it that or are even aware that Christ is moving within and through the community as it gathers.

I regularly encounter students who are hungry for community, for love, for grace, for hope — for the gospel, really — but are suspicious of religion and its trappings. They fear being sold to, they don’t want to come to dinner and worship (our current pattern) because they don’t want the bait and switch. They don’t want to be invited to share a meal and then be told they are getting Jesused, whether they like it or not.

What would it look like for communities to gather in ways that are rooted in the gospel without constantly talking about the gospel? If we found ways to be Christian community without hitting people over the head with it, then invited those who were enjoying the community to learn about Christ’s presence within the community? To provide a gathering space that is Christian under the hood and then to leave space and opportunity for the students who realized they were hungry for more to come to more?

One of the things I love about campus ministry is that those of us in this call are living out the struggles the church will be facing in the next 10-20 years (if they aren’t already). We are on the front lines of ministry in a changing world that often looks askance at people of faith and at the institution of the church. We are all, whether we know it or not, in the business of transit center ministry. Those of us who live in big cities and/or work with millennials know that our people are moving, moving, moving. They likely will not be in our congregation or our neighborhood for long — so how to we provide for them meaningful, deep, community rooted in the grace and love of Jesus Christ while they are around, and how do we do that in a way that is accessible to those at many points in their faith?

For some, entering into a church deeply rooted in tradition and liturgy will be a welcome trip home, even if they have never done so before. Some people just connect with the rites and rituals and are drawn in by the history, humanity and holiness of the creeds, the smells and bells, and the wonder and mystery of the eucharist. Others have deep wounds which these elements rip open. For many, these rites are unapproachable without a good deal of preparation and understanding — isn’t it kind of weird to demand people worship a God they are just getting to know?

We need many different types of churches and worship styles, but we also need places for people to gather that are rooted in Christian community but don’t shout it out loud, and ways for people to enter into the possibility of worshipping Christ and to explore what that means and what it looks like before they are ready for the full meal deal. We need to create opportunities for people to encounter the beauty of community rooted in Christ that *aren’t* worship, that aren’t liturgical, but allow exploration of those things along with exploration of the scriptures and experience of Word and Sacrament that are more akin to wading in than diving. If we are in the transit station, we are managing a host of different opportunities to experience the living God so that the people at the directions kiosk can direct people to the part of the station that is appropriate to the person. Some will want to stay at the precipice and not enter more deeply into the community or a relationship with Christ. And that is okay. Maybe at the next stop on their journey they will want more. Maybe they won’t. But they will have been fed and supported in the meanwhile, they will experience one form of God’s loving grace — community rooted in Christ’s love.

This may be a little all over the place, so — TL;DR — if we want to bring more people into Christian community, if we want more people to experience the beauty and mystery of liturgical worship and word and sacrament, it is up to us to provide entry points beyond worship services and one on ones, to experiment with what Christian community looks like, then to offer to walk with people on their journey through their stop at the transit station, however long it lasts.

Nonviolence and rape

Tonight I preached about Jesus taking on all of our violence on the cross and responding in love. I talked about how he was humiliated, abandoned, beaten and killed and, through it all, he responded with love, grace and forgiveness. The resurrection, I said, was God showing us that love wins. That responding to violence with love and forgiveness is God’s call to us, and love wins. I preached that our instinct to respond to violence with violence only harms the world and we are called to follow Christ’s example to respond to violence with love.

Then I ran into a problem.


How does one tell a woman to respond to rape with nonviolence, forgiveness and love?

As a person who has provided pastoral care to survivors of sexual violence and relationship violence and a survivor of both myself, how do I talk about nonviolence and rape?

I know too well the shame that comes with feeling like you didn’t fight back hard enough. I know the questions victims are asked. “Did you scream?” “Did you fight?” “How did you let that happen to you?” I know that the level of resistance a person puts forward somehow, both to others and ourselves, speaks to whether we “wanted” it to happen or not. That when a person stays in a relationship with someone who hurts them, that person is branded as weak, as someone who is asking for it or even likes it. We live in a world where government officials refer to differences in rape and have coined the phrase, “legitimate rape,” as though some rapes count more than others. Not fighting back can make it impossible not only to protect yourself, but to convince others that your rape was real.

The Bible doesn’t speak to sexual violence, at least not in a way that helps me figure this out. The Bible has many instances of sexual violence, and, all too often, it seems condoned (or at least passed over) by the writers of scripture. David rapes Bathsheba and becomes king. Lot offers his daughters to the men beating down his door as a way to get the men to not harm his visitors. In the prophets, God is written as committing sexual violence against Jerusalem.

I know that nonviolence is not passively accepting what is happening to you. Nonviolence is a form of action, it is withholding, freezing, keeping violence from being done by standing strong. But how does that apply in cases of sexual violence?

I would never, ever tell someone to accept rape. I don’t know how to tell someone to actively resist rape in a nonviolent way. I would fight with my last breath to keep myself or someone I love from being raped. I would accept beating, I would accept many things being done to me in the name of nonviolence. But not rape.

How do we rectify this? How do we speak of nonviolence in cases of sexual violence? Is there a nonviolent option? Or do we accept violence as a necessary response in this world? Is nonviolence always the answer?


A nation of Sodomites

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis is often cited as a story about how wrong homosexuality is, and God’s desired punishment for such “crimes.” The story has angels coming to Sodom, whom Lot welcomes into his home as honored guests. When the men in the village find out that Lot has visitors, they come to his house and demand that he send the visitors out so that the men of the village may “know” them (aka, have sex with or, in this case, rape). Lot refuses, the visitors pull him inside the house before Lot gets hurt and tell him to gather his family, for the Lord is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah “because the outcry against its people has become so great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.” The common cultural understanding of this story is God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of gay sex. It is such a common understanding that laws outlawing sex between gay men (and sometimes just anal sex in general) are referred to as anti-Sodomy laws and one of the epithets hurled at gay men is “Sodomite.”

This understanding is wrong.

God did not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of gay sex. That’s not what this story is about.

Lot welcomed the visitors into his home — welcome being a high cultural value of the people of God, iterated again and again throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This is Lot’s saving grace, his display of welcome. The men of the village destroyed that welcome. They were going to violate these visitors, running counter to culture, custom and the word of God. They were going to commit violence against the stranger, being about as unwelcoming as one can be.

The book of Ezekiel (16:49) makes the sins of Sodom plain, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

God did not destroy Sodom because of gay sex. God destroyed Sodom because they had everything they needed

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. I mean, cool, you want to criminalize not caring for the poor, be my guest!

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
I mean, cool, you want to criminalize not caring for the poor, be my guest!

and more and did not help those who were in need, because the people of Sodom did not welcome the stranger.

Sound familiar?

As I think of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, I think of the new law in Indiana that allows business to deny service to members of the LGBTQ community, I think we need to redefine the word Sodomite.

Those who would not show welcome to visitors, regardless of the differences they may have: those are the Sodomites.

As I read about continued efforts to kick people out of this country because they didn’t come here legally (even those who were brought here as children, those who did not have a choice), those who would not welcome the alien as the Bible commands (Ex 22:21, Deut 10:19, Lev 19:34, Rom 12:13, Matthew 25:40), those who exhibit the sin of the men of Sodom: those are the sodomites.

Those of us who would cut benefits to the poor provided by our government, who would tell those in need to fix themselves, who would deny help to those in need (particularly those of us who live in plenty): those are the Sodomites.

The God who revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ is a God of radical welcome. In the gospels, Jesus speaks of drawing all creation to him through his death on the cross. He tells his followers that that which you did to the least of your brothers and sisters, you did to me, to love your neighbor as yourself, to love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. Our God is a God of radical welcome and inclusion, who will turn away no one who knocks on God’s door — and God asks us to do the same. Over and over again, throughout the laws, the prophets, the gospels, and the letters. Not showing this radical welcome and love was the crime of Sodom and Gomorrah, for which the punishment was death.

It’s not about gays. People who engage in sex with those of the same gender are not sodomites.

But far too many of us are. Far too many of us are willing to kick out those who think differently, and act differently, as well as people who we feel don’t “deserve” to be here. Far too many of us ignore the plight of the poor and the marginalized to aid our own gains. Every day many of us are indifferent or even hateful as we walk past others on the street who are in great need. We keep what is ours for ourselves. We prop up structures that benefit the privileged while we ignore, shun, demean and oppress those who have little. This is Sodomy.

We are a nation of Sodomites. Our public policy is Sodomy.

If I didn’t believe in the God who will bring all people to God’s loving grace, I might wonder: what will be our fate? Will the fate of a nation that consistently refuses to welcome the stranger and care for the poor end up like Sodom and Gomorrah? If angels were to come to take those who show radical love and hospitality to safety, how many of us would be invited to go with?

What would the God of the prophets have to say to us, as we continue the ways of Sodom and Gomorrah?

Maybe something like this:

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.

Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble onself?

It is to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house, when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quicklt; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”  ~ Isaiah 58

How do I get (my) kids to go to church?!

This picture kind of scares me. But, hey, kids in church!

This picture kind of scares me. But, hey, kids in church! Why are they crying? Is it that bad?!?!

This past fall I received quite a few emails that went something like this, “I really want my child to be involved in campus ministry, but s/he just isn’t interested? What can I do?” Pastors, youth directors, church leaders and parents hear and ask this question a lot. How can we get kids and young adults to a) go to church b) not hate it and c) keep coming into adulthood? As the church frets about declining numbers, it is a reflex to try to do whatever we can to get young people in the pews. We start new programs, look to hire young pastors, change worship and do all kind of things to get children and young adults into the doors. Parents cajole, they bribe, engage in yelling matches, and I don’t know what all to get kids to church.

For generations, church was something people just did. There was immense social capital involved in going to church and not going to church made people wonder if there was something wrong with you. This is no longer the case. We cannot assume that young people will come to church or that once they leave they will come  back when they have kids. Some will, but, for many, when they leave the church as a teen, they will not come back to us. Because they don’t need to. They can have their community needs met elsewhere, they don’t need church for career connections and, for far too many, haven’t seen life in the church as being any different from life outside of the church. As a campus pastor, I think about this a lot. Getting college kids through the door is a really, really difficult thing to do. As I have conversations with youth workers, pastors, and other people of faith about the declining presence of young people (and, um, just people) in our congregations, I have a few thoughts. When I talk about young people, I mean babies to 30’s, ’cause that’s all young in church world.

1) Why do you want young people in your church?

Seriously, why? Is it because you are afraid the church is dying and, if we don’t get them in the door now, our centuries old way of doing things will die? If that’s it, find other reasons. Young people can sniff our desperation and they know that our desire to have them in church is far less related to who they are as human beings than it is to our need to play the numbers game and justify both our current existence and salvage our future. And they aren’t interested in propping up an institution at all, much less for the sake of just propping it up. What are some good reasons to want young people in church?

  • They ask amazing questions and challenge assumptions. This can be really hard, but also, if they are listened to, can bring about much needed change in church. Old things may die. New life will happen.
  • Young people bring a different kind of energy to church and are really excited about community and intergenerational life.
  • Young people are a part of a cultural shift that we as individuals and a church need to understand. We can’t understand “kids today” if we aren’t talking to them.
  • Because they are children of God and a part of our family and it is sad when part of our family isn’t around.

2) Why do you want your kids (or any kids) to go to church?

Like the former question, do you want them to go because they should just go? Because you always went? Do you even know why you want them to go? If you haven’t thought about it before, take some time and think about why you go to church. What does it give to you? How does it feed you? What is the importance of gathering weekly with a group of others seeking to praise God and to hear God’s word in our lives today? Once you have figured some of that out, tell your kids. Tell them why faith is important to your life and how the church community has fed your faith and your life. Tell them again and again. Tell stories of times when faith lived out in community has helped get you through something hard, has connected things for you in a new way, helped you celebrate… If you don’t know why you go to church, you won’t be able to pass it on. If the children in your life don’t hear stories about the importance of Christian faith lived in community, all they will see is a rote attendance out of obligation. Most young people just aren’t into that. They are seeking, and if they know that you are seeking, that church has helped you in your journey and you want to journey with them, that can go a long way to encouraging them to develop a faith life of their own.

3) Don’t remove the kids from worship

This is a huge thing for me. I grew up going to a church that I love dearly. I always felt cared for and supported. I also grew up in a church where I was shuffled out for Sunday School. I didn’t know this at the time, but I implicitly learned that church wasn’t for me. To this day I struggle to sit through a whole church service (if I am not leading). In high school, I tried to help out in the nursery, at coffee hour — whatever I could do to not be in church. I am not the only person who has had this experience. This is a story I hear again and again — I have even heard kids say that that is how leaving church makes them feel. If you are in or lead a church that takes the kids out of worship for Sunday school, YOU ARE TELLING THEM CHURCH IS NOT FOR THEM, implicitly teaching that church is for grown-ups and they are not needed or wanted in church. You are also (probably) creating a worship service that is strictly for adults, so if the kids came back in, they would have little to do/relate to and few role models for leading worship. There are a ton of ways one can make church work for kids — from setting expectations that they will sit through the service to creating play areas in the sanctuary to involving them in worship from a young age. I have seen very high liturgy churches do this as well as churches that are lower on the liturgigeek scale. There are ways to make young people feel included in worship that fit every church. Include a young person on your worship and music committee, find out what they would like to see in worship and how they like to praise God. Keep them in worship. Help them participate and see that they ARE a part of the church and worship IS for them too.

4) Don’t make it a battle

I know this is to every parent’s discretion and I don’t know your kids, but my experience with kids is that when you make them do something they don’t want to do repeatedly, they just come up with more reasons to hate it. Express to them why it is important they go. Maybe make it into a family outing once a month followed by an awesome brunch or something fun. But, at some point, if you feel like you are driving them further and further from church, maybe let it go. Have faith conversations. If your kid doesn’t believe in God, talk about why. Some people just don’t have the faith gene. However, their doubt could be a huge gift to your family and your church by asking questions that need to be asked and starting deeper conversations about faith. If your kid just hates worship, find out why. See if maybe they might be interested in trying other churches or if you can bring up your kids dislikes with the pastor (if they are reasonable). Faith exploration is a healthy thing, and maybe you can have some awesome new experiences too.

5) Make church time meaningful time

As I said above, young adults can get a lot of the things previously provided by the church, such as community and connections, in many other places. What they can’t get elsewhere is Jesus. What we need to do as a church body — pastors, leaders, parents, everyone in the congregation — is to communicate to young adults why Jesus makes a difference. Sermons need to be good: to challenge, to exhort, to praise, to make the readings applicable to what people face in their daily lives. Churches should help young people (all people) develop a life in the spirit that changes, moves and guides them through every stage of life. Church has to be more than a social club and to provide more than good music and sacraments. Are we teaching our children to pray beyond the Lord’s prayer? Are we teaching them the purpose of prayer? Are we helping them draw connections between worship, prayer and service in the world? If we are not doing these things, if we are not showing them why a life in Christ matters, we are just another extra-curricular activity that is way too early on Sunday mornings or conflicts with stuff that will help them get into college. If we are, they know God is working in them them in ways that they know will help them walk through life and shape them into people who will spread God’s love in the world. They know that they are in community with others seeking God, people they can share their story and life with. That is something to keep coming back for.

6) Get intergenerational

In the 80’s and 90’s there was a huge move towards splitting everyone up for age appropriate programming. This makes sense — different ages have different needs, and not everything is developmentally appropriate (or possible) for kids. However, this move separated youth from adults and created a chasm in our congregations. Now, in may places, youth barely interact with their elders. Intergenerational relationships are deeply formative. Some of my best memories in church are Mr. McNerney, who sat in the pew in front of my mom and I, checking in on how I was doing. So many of the older members of my congregation were mentors for me, second grandparents. I cherish those relationships and knowing that those people cared about me deeply. Find ways to bring those relationships back to church if they don’t seem to be naturally occurring. Start a mentoring program. Invite older members to help out with youth events, create opportunities for relationships to be built across age groups. This will show younger members that the adults care, show older members that the youth are integral to the life of the church and have really good ideas, and help share stories and build relationships that will help guide and nurture faith for years to come.

7) Listen to the young people and those who work with them

I cannot tell you how many incredibly discouraging conversations I have with youth and youth workers about how their views are treated in church. I have talked to young people who have been laughed at and shouted down in council meetings, as well as young people who are constantly told they should be on the youth committee even if that isn’t where their gifts, skills or desires lie. Here’s what that says, “Your voice doesn’t matter. Your gifts don’t matter.” I have talked to youth workers whose announcements get pushed out of the bulletin or announcement time because of time/space. Here is what that says, “There is no room for young people here.” I know this is redundant, but if you want young people in your church you have to actually want them in your church as more than just a number. You have to want them as full human beings and allow them to participate fully in the life of the church. That means young people on council and in committees, it means lifting them up in prayer and in announcements, and having them serve in various ways in worship and service as soon as they are old enough to do so. If you have youth staff (paid or volunteer), show them that they matter. Work with them. Help them go to trainings. Too often, being a youth director means you are at the kids table. This helps no one. Invite your youth staff to the big table. Invite the kids too. After all, we all share the meal. Together, at the table, as the full body of Christ. Let’s set the table together.

Using social media while pastoring

all the devices

Pastoring using all of the devices. There is a super modern fax machine just off screen.

I first started using Facebook while I was a youth director. It was a wonderful way to keep up with what my students were up to. I could learn about the joys and sorrows of their lives and dispense advice like, “You probably shouldn’t post pictures of you chugging a handle of vodka where everyone can see it. Also, you probably shouldn’t be chugging a handle of vodka. Let’s talk.” I knew when break-ups happened, who had events coming up, and could organize and disseminate information in an easy to use platform. Then it became a great way to keep up with the friends I have all over the country, sharing our joys and sorrows and keeping up on one another’s lives. Now everyone seems to be on it, at least everyone my age and older (younger folk are moving away from it because everyone else is doing it). Over the past few years, I have watched as colleagues embrace social media, using it for support and important conversations, as well as to communicate with congregations, do education and even find ways to worship on-line. So many things that are happening on social media (and the internet) are enhancing how we care for and communicate with our congregations and the church at large.

There is, however, a dark side to the ways in which clergy use social media (as for all who use it). Where social media can join people together, it can also tear them apart. Where it can be a wonderful place for people to ask questions and hold meaningful conversations, there are too many incidents where conversations turn into attacks or one-upmanship. As much as social media can be used to care for people, it can also be used in ways that are wholly inappropriate. Some of this is a difference between being more of a social media native and someone who is still learning the technology, some of it is a result of people being lonely/frustrated/depressed, and some of it is bad manners getting worse over social media. I would like to offer some thoughts using social media as clergy (though I suspect most of this is applicable to everyone), based on what I have seen and what I have studied (I have done social media strategy for some non-profits and spent a fair amount of time studying it just because).

This may not all be correct, they are just my thoughts. But I hope these thoughts are useful and/or encourage more intentional use of social media platforms. It’s all ministry.

1) Don’t put anything on the internet you wouldn’t put on a billboard — or your church sign

This is advice I have given to my students for years. Even in “private” groups/pages, nothing is really private. Someone in the group can grab a screenshot of what you wrote and place it somewhere totally public, someone can get let in your group who isn’t your intended audience, etc. Social media is really, really helpful for us to figure out how to deal with situations in our congregations, for sure. But be careful. Be kind. Be loving. If what you want to ask about isn’t something you want put in the local newspaper, don’t put it on the internet. Ask friends and colleagues what you should do on the phone or in a clergy group. If you don’t have that kind of support locally, find some or find a way to create some. Create a group of other clergy who are way away from others — offline. I have seen conversations in clergy groups that are horribly insulting to congregants and to other clergy. If you really feel you will get the best advice on an online page, be as careful and as grace-filled as possible. Think about what would happen if someone from your congregation called you out on what you wrote — would you be able to talk about it? Would they be able to see that the post had grace in it?

2) Vent as little as possible

We all need to vent. Being a pastor is hard. We face really hard situations and decisions, it is our job to work with really broken people, situations and systems. Venting on social media feels good. We get support, validation, and sometimes helpful suggestions. However, venting on social media can actually be really harmful to our state of mind. Recently on an Invisibilia podcast, they talked to a researcher who said that initially, venting on social media can feel really good. But that leads us to vent more because we are receiving positive affirmation for our venting. Then we vent more and start looking for things about which we can vent. Venting on social media can actually increase our general anger and lead us to become angrier people. Again, vent to friends and family and if you don’t have that where you are, find ways to make that happen. Create a support network so you don’t fall into a trap of anger feeding more anger.

3) Check yourself before you wreck yourself (or someone else).

Ask yourself, “Am I being graceful? Is this loving?” or if you feel like you need to lay the truth smack down on someone, ask if that person is in the place to hear your words or if you have the social capital/ authority to be a messenger of truth.

Some people have a tendency to be their worst selves online. Something about the internet, even without anonymity, brings out the anger and frustration people hold inside that they can’t express to their congregations. There are places where clergy gather on the internet and, in those spaces, I have seen some amazing conversations and watched really cool theology happen. But the same page that birthed the #usemeinstead idea has also had some pretty awful toxicity. In that same space I have seen some of the least graceful, least loving, angry, shaming behavior ever (truth be told, I do not frequent my denominations main clergy page after getting so flamed a pastor in NJ I have never met messaged me to apologize for how I was being treated. There are far too many people with a similar story). There are, it would seem, trolls in clerical collars. There is much hubris, one-upmanship and mansplaining in the places where we, in theory, would like to go for support and advice. It is to the point where there are clergy groups that have broken off because the initial group people belonged to has become too toxic and feel unsafe. We need to support each other. Our jobs are hard. Let’s not make them harder by harshing on one another. Even critique can be done in a way that is kind and loving. Use that stuff you (theoretically) learned in pastoral care, chaplaincy, or through years of actively providing pastoral care. We can, in fact, use our social media pages to learn how to talk to people with whom we vehemently disagree. We can use these spaces to engage in conversations and ask genuine questions based out of a desire to understand the other person’s point of view. It can be an amazing exercise. But if what is happening is everyone trying to prove s/he is right, no one will learn anything and everyone will walk away annoyed.

4) Do not use social media for deep pastoral care.

Social media is a jumping off point to see that someone might need pastoral care. It is not the place to provide it. Yes, you can use messenger to check in on someone. Yes, you can make comments of support under someone’s status message. But don’t use someone’s Facebook page to schedule a pastoral care appointment (yes, I have seen this done) or to try to actually provide deep pastoral care. Give a call or a text/message (I work with young adults and they don’t do calls — I have adjusted to providing pastoral care via text or messenger on occasion).

5) Be intentional about how you use social media

Think before you post. All the time. If you are friends with parishioners on Facebook, if they follow you on Twitter, Instagram, etc, think about if you want them to know these things. Are you showing your wounds or your scars? How are you presenting things to people? It is a careful dance to be real with your congregants without allowing them to see everything about you. Are you struggling with your call? Call counsel to clergy, talk to colleagues, your bishop, don’t put it on the Facebooks. This leads me to the next

6) Who are you on social media?

I know a lot of clergy who have two social media accounts — one for their personal life and one for their professional life. I am not a huge fan of this approach (see #1). As pastors, we should be behaving that way no matter what online and off. If you don’t want to be friends with your congregants, create a policy about that and maintain your church FB page with updates you want people to know. It also seems like a lot of energy to me — curating two different Facebook accounts shaping them to two different aspects of who you are/what you want to show people. Social media platforms are excellent evangelism tools and whatever you do online can and should be you representing yourself as not only a Christian, but a Christian leader. By no means am I saying you must have a sparkly clean image on social media — the Lord knows I don’t. Show your brokenness and humanity, be real, be approachable, be YOU. Just remember to be intentional, and that whatever we do, wherever we are, we are public representatives of the church and of Christ. Whether is it under your Pastor Awesome Person profile or your regular Awesome Just me Person profile. You know that moment when you flip off a driver or lose your temper in public then realize you are wearing your collar and get all weird/embarrassed? That x 1000. Everyone online knows we are pastors. Remember that.

In light of some of the things I have seen clergy do/say on Facebook, I think that a lot of us are lonely, stressed out and depressed. If your primary interaction with people is online, this is a problem. If you are posting all the time, you might be lonely. I know this is really, really easy for me to say as a clergy person living in a rather large city, but it is imperative that we take care of ourselves offline, in real life. It is important we have people we can physically talk with about the stresses of ministry and life in general. I have never lived in rural anywhere, so I genuinely have no idea how to do this and admit that I have no idea how hard it is.

Some of these things might hit you as way off base. That’s fine. What I am hoping is that we will all think more about our words online and how we use social media to further Christ’s commission to us as Christians and leaders. Is our online behavior furthering Christ’s mission in the world? Is it loving? Is it kind? Are we remembering that we are not called to judge? Is there humility (she writes as she advises others on how to use social media)?

If you are interested in learning more about social media in churches, check out Keith Anderson & Elizabeth Drescher’s excellent book Click 2 Save, follow them on social media, and check out the work of the New Media Project at Christian Theological Seminary.

Did I get something wrong? Forget something? Do you have other words of wisdom? Share in the comments :-)


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