iPhone 6 and why churches should stop trying to get more people to come.  

Last week, as throngs of people stood in line at the Apple store, Courtenay and I walked up to our cell phone provider’s mall kiosk just a little further down and asked if they had any iPhone 6s left. A short while later, we had traded our old iPhones for the shiny new ones of our choice.

applecrowdWhen we had tried the apple store earlier, it was so busy that we could hardly get close enough to a display model to see one. At the cellphone kiosk, we were given demo models to hold and play with. While you had to make appointments to receive service at Apple, walk-ins were welcome at the cellphone kiosk. Shipping problems meant pre-orders were delayed and backlogged at the Apple store. The cellphone kiosk? We were the first customers to buy the new iPhones from our sales associate, and it was the middle of the afternoon already. And my wife and I loved buying our phones from the friendly guy at the mall kiosk.

It was somewhat of a surreal experience to be quietly buying new phones just down the way from the clamour of the Apple store.

As we experienced the release day chaos first hand, it dawned on me that churches could learn something from all of this. We wish we could all be Apple stores, with the throngs of people, not unlike the mega-church, but most of us are more like the small cell phone kiosks. We offer the same thing as the mega-churches, but most people don’t know we have it.

As a pastor of mainline denomination in Canada, my 5 years of ministry experience has been serving in a denomination in decline. There are a zillion factors for this, of course: changing social norms, less and less societal evangelization on behalf of the church, new census categories that actually allowed people to choose “none” or “other” in the religion category, less immigration from countries with people that are mainline adherents, a failure to evangelize our own children over the past 5 decades, judgemental and condemning attitudes by church leaders towards pretty much everything new in the world and so on.

I often remind my people that while we are partly to blame for our own decline, a lot of it is simply out of our control. 

Yet, in the midst of this decline, many Christian mainliners are concerned about getting people back to church, about returning to a time of full pews and overflowing offering plates (I am not sure this ever existed).

People often point to the other choices that people seem to be making instead of church on Sunday mornings as the thing to blame for shrinking membership roles. Sports, dance, music, shopping. Mega-churches, Evangelicals, praise bands.

These are the things that people want, or so I am told.

We need to be flashier, more engaging, more interesting, less old, less traditional, less churchy.

And yet, my own anecdotal experience tells me that my current high church liturgical predilections are “attracting” or “not attracting” just as many people as the young adult praise and worship band that I played in for years. Lutherans are coming in fewer numbers to Lutheran churches. Other mainliners, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals and new converts are also coming in fewer numbers to Lutheran churches. Apparently fewer people are attending church across the board.

I am not the first to say these things, you have probably heard them before.

But back to iPhone 6 release day… with the pandemonium of people lined up for hours, days even, to get their new Apple products, I wondered why all these people are here for this stuff.

And it dawned on me.

They are buying something. Apple is selling something.

grandarcade_heroApple is great at selling things. My cell phone provider, while strong in most of Canada, has yet to get a foothold in this province. Mainline decline is a loss of a foothold. Whatever we were selling, people aren’t buying anymore.

More importantly, people are attracted by things to buy, consume, attain, acquire. They want something new, flashy, entertaining.

Lutherans, with other mainline Christians, are just not selling what the people want.

This is a good thing. 

As I realized that my church isn’t selling what people want, unlike Apple or sports or movie theatres or shopping malls, I also realized that we don’t want to sell something.

The churches that do sell what people want, are peddling things that I would never offer my people.


Years ago, when mainline churches were on the top of the heap they weren’t more holy or gospel filled places. What we did was sold the only show in town on Sunday mornings, we sold social networking the old-fashioned way, we sold black and white morality, we sold plenty of judgement and we sold cheap access to heaven (for only 1 hour of time a week on Sunday mornings).


Today, lots of churches are selling the same kind of stuff: A privileged place in God’s kingdom, the promise of wealth and success, black and white answers, us vs. them morality, security in a dangerous world, entertaining worship, vanilla lattes in the narthex, music like you hear on top 40 radio, and cheap access to heaven (for only a sincerely held, unquestioning faith).

Now, I am not saying that churches who achieve attendance and budgetary “success” aren’t preaching the gospel, creating disciples or doing good ministry. Yet, I do question attendance as a metric of good ministry, or as a way to determine if the gospel is preached. If numbers really do measure good ministry, than movie theatres and pro sports are doing the best ministry there is. Apple is an evangelistic super star.

Now I have to admit, in my weaker moments I do fret about numbers. I am secretly prideful when my church is packed at Christmas or Easter. I am inwardly disappointed when there is a sparse crowd on cold day in January or a lazy dog day of summer.

Increasingly, however, I am asking more and more “what brings people to church anyways?” While I have been mostly unsure about the answer these days, my experience with the Apple store taught me something about what does draw the crowds.

As individuals, we may be some of the most pious seekers of Christ and spiritual enlightenment there are. But as people, as a mob… we are attracted by a good sales pitch.

And as a Lutheran pastor, I am not selling – not even offering for free – what people want at their basest levels. 

People want new, I offer old.

People want flashy, I have steadfast.

People want to be entertained, I point to the One who transforms.

People want easy answers, I have only more questions.

People want security, I can only tear walls down.

People want assurances, I talk about uncertainty/faith.

People want something immediate, I am interested in the eternal.

People want power and control over their world…

I can only talk about how we don’t have it…

And how God does.

And yes, I realize I am may sound like I am rationalizing decline. Maybe I am. But Jesus only had 12 followers, which makes me a ragging success comparatively. I still can’t help but notice that the churches that are drawing the crowds tend to look a lot like Apple product launches. They are selling something to the masses.

And Jesus, my friends, is not for sale. Maybe it is time we stop worrying about numbers, decline, fewer resources and smaller budgets. Maybe the spirit is telling us that God’s church is not for sale.

Maybe Jesus is a little less Steve Jobs, and a little more like that faithful stalwart whose butt imprint has been etched in the pew because church is not about getting something new…

…but about becoming someone new.

Many pastors and congregations just might feel like that small kiosk in the mall, that we all pass by because they look like they are selling cheap crap. We might look longingly at the mega-churches and Apple stores with their throngs.

But good ministry is not selling something. The Gospel is not a sales pitch.

Jesus didn’t command us to fill pews and offering plates. Jesus commanded us to baptize, to eat and drink, to forgive sins.

And those things don’t fill pews or offering plates…

… but they do transform us and the world.

So maybe it is time to stop trying to get more people to church, and just give the gospel to the people we have. 

Are we trying to sell God? Are “successful” churches really selling something? Share in the comments, on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor, or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Christians need to disagree with each other

I am always surprised by people who get uncomfortable or upset with disagreement. We have all seen those moments, we have all witnessed a disagreement change the dynamic of a conversation.

And no, I am not talking about conflict, but genuine disagreement. Imagine, three or four people having a conversation and a particular opinion or point of view is brought forward by one or two. Then someone says, “I disagree.” And the disagreement isn’t about conflict, but a difference of perspective. One opinion is put on the table, only to be followed by a contrary opinion. No fighting, no conflict, just two opposing opinions existing in the same space.

These disagreement moments make us uncomfortable. Often, we just don’t know how to move forward. Living in the tension of opposing opinions feels uncomfortable.

Many Christians suffer from being unable to live with disagreement. Many Christian groups go so far as to excommunicate those who disagree. Questions, differences of opinions, opposing views are not permitted. Towing the party line is expected.

And what this really means is a couple things. Different ideas are rejected with prejudice, or those who think or feel differently than the group are silenced.

The Lutheran body that I belong to has suffered with this inability to live with disagreement. As we considered allowing same-sex marriage in our congregations, many threatened to leave if an opinion different than their own was adopted. Individuals, pastors and congregations all threatened to sever relationships. Even though the new policies allowed for a difference of opinions by not forcing anyone to hold to views or perform marriages that they didn’t want to perform, many could not even remain in fellowship with those who disagreed with them.

The church that I grew up in, where my dad and grandparents were founding members, voted to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. They left not because they were being challenged to change their views, opinions, beliefs or practices, but because they couldn’t remain in fellowship with others who held different views, opinions, beliefs or practices.

The thing that bothers me about this refusal to abide disagreement, is that I find disagreement a beautiful thing. In fact, I cherish those who disagree with me. 

That might sound strange, so let me explain.

Throughout my childhood, one of my primary relationships was with someone who could not empathize or sympathize with others. This person was, and continues to be, unable to hear or identify the feelings, ideas, views or opinions of others. In a relationship like this, there is no room for disagreement because all thoughts, feelings, ideas or opinions are rejected if they do not match. There is no hearing of others, there is no consideration of another’s point of view, there is no attempt to take seriously that someone else might have a valid difference of opinion.

In my adult life, I have learned that this is abuse. Relationships where there is no room for the other, where there is no room for consideration of another perspective is hardly a relationship at all.

Christians often draw the line there. There is no room for disagreement, there is only agreement or rejection.

Christians are taught to either go along unthinkingly with the group or leader, to suppress questions, to stifle alternate points of views, to only allow room for one opinion/way of thinking/perspective.

And when ideas, feelings, thoughts or opinions different than the approved ones crop up, they are rejected with prejudice. Rejected before any consideration is given, rejected as dangerous, wrong or harmful.

When members of Christian groups, particularly those on the margins or those without power (ie., women, minorities, those with different gender identities, etc…) bring up new ideas, different perspectives or alternate opinions they are accused of being divisive.

Again, this is abuse.

So often Christians reject and avoid disagreement at all costs.

And yet, there is also something beautiful and wonderful about disagreement. 

Disagreement, initially makes many of us uncomfortable because we are not good at living with tension. Once we can settle our discomfort with the tension though, there is something about disagreement that we need as Christians, as human beings, to recognize.

In order to have someone disagree with you they must first hear you. Another must first take seriously your point of view. He or she must consider your opinion as possible and legitimate. As human beings we crave being heard by another. We need to know that we are not alone, and when someone truly hears us, we are not alone.

And it goes deeper than that.

When someone hears us, considers our ideas, thoughts, emotions, perspectives and opinions AND THEN takes them so seriously that they are willing to disagree… well that is someone who thinks we are incredibly important.

In fact, I think disagreement is at the heart of our relationship with God.

God is constantly disagreeing with human beings.

While we choose sinfulness, selfishness, violence, suffering and death, God disagrees and chooses life for us.

God takes us seriously enough to consider us, to hear us out, and then to disagree. God went so far as to become one of us in the incarnation, in Christ. God is serious about hearing us from our perspective.

And still, God does not agree with our choices, and nor does God reject us and cast us into the outer darkness.

God disagrees with our condition, with our predilections for death.

God disagrees with us and chooses life for us and for all creation.

This is why disagreement is beautiful. This is why Christians need to practice disagreeing with each other. Because we are transformed by our disagreement with God, and we will be transformed for the better through honest disagreement each other.

This is why Christians need to acknowledge the tension with live in. That we are justified sinners, we are the dead made alive in Christ, we are in relationship with God who disagrees.

Because when Christians demand agreement, when we threaten rejection, we are missing an inherent feature of God’s relationship with us – Living in the beautiful tension of disagreement.  

So let’s start honestly disagreeing with each other, because it will change us for the better. 

How does disagreement affect you? Will disagreement help us be better Christians? Share in the comments, on Facebook: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

PS Sorry it has been a while since my lost post, I had surgery last week and I have been on the mend for the last 10 days.

Why Pastors Suck at Self-Care

Shoddy self-care seems to be an epidemic among pastors these days.

Almost as often as I meet with professional ministry colleagues, I have conversations about how difficult it is to take time off and to regularly practice self-care. Pastors bemoan the fact that we cannot seem to find time away from the parish. Working on days off is the norm instead of the exception. Forty hour work weeks are fanciful ideas, whereas 50 hours is considered a slow week. Families that never see a pastor spouse /parent is the common narrative among pastors’ families.

Somewhere along the way in Christianity – mainline, conservative, evangelical, liberal, orthodox – it has become acceptable to expect that pastors will drop everything, including sleeping or eating, to be at the beck and call of their congregations God.

I have been asked what seminaries teach now about self-care, having only graduated 5 years ago. Self-care was one of most common mantras of my seminary education, and it seems obvious to me that you can’t really care for others, or fulfill your vocation with integrity, if you are a burned out wreck… yet so many pastors obviously feel the opposite.

For so many professional ministers, a well rested, healthy pastor is a pastor failing at ministry. The Duke Clergy Health Initiative study on self-care among pastors, suggests that many ministers think self-care is selfish. My colleagues have told me that there was a day in seminary education when the message to students was that being a pastor meant giving your life to Jesus (or in other words, to your congregation 24/7). There is no room for self-care in ministry.

I have three things to say to that idea.

  1. What??!?
  2. Wait… what??!!?
  3. Bullshit.

Given our propensity for being bad at self-care, I think it behooves pastors to reflect on just why so many of us think that well-rested, healthy pastors are failing at ministry.

Of course, I have a few ideas about this:

Being crazy busy is the social norm.

The clergy is by no means the only profession where people are expected to over-work and over-function. Being crazy busy is a badge of honour in our culture. Bragging about the lack of sleep, lack of time, lack of leisure is just part of everyday conversation. Busy is normal, burnout nearly expected.

Working for Jesus lets us put our families and ourselves second.

While being busy is a cultural norm, there is the counter-narrative out there that putting family and a personal life ahead of work is important. But working for God is a holy calling, and so if the property committee schedules a meeting at 7am on our day off, Jesus will be mad if we don’t show up. Right?

Many pastors think our vocational goal is to care for everyone.

credit: http://salesjournal.com/2014/06/06/the-tyranny-of-the-urgent/

I think a lot of pastors and congregations see the primary job of  pastors to be care givers. Like a nurse or counsellor, we often see ourselves as someone whose job it is to help people feel better or feel good. Most care-givers go home at the end of a shift and are no longer on call, but many pastors feel responsible for their communities 24/7.  Often we see this to mean jumping at the drop of a hat to address a parishioner’s need, whether truly urgent or not. Life and death is urgent. Gossip, scheduling issues, complaints or other mundane things are not. The care that we offer as pastors is not the end in itself, but rather a tool to help our people see God in their lives.

Trying to prove our worth to our congregations

A lot of what pastors do is hard to quantitatively measure. Sermons are not measured by their word count. Bible studies are not measured by verses studied. But pastoral presence can be measured and tracked. I think many of us know that our jobs are provided for based on the generosity of others. Being omni-present and available is a way to justify our worth. Working 60 hours a week makes us believe that the church can’t survive without us. And being omni-present in order to justify our worth means those hard to quantify duties suffer, like planning worship, preparing sermons (including down time for creativity to seep in) and teaching the bible with intention and purpose.

Congregations fall in to cycles of consuming faith

We consume everything in our society. Church and pastors are just another thing to consume. Worship has become entertainment. The Bible is information to bolster our already established world views. Pastoral care is just another service we receive. No wonder pastors burnout if they are being consumed by those they serve.

Being a quivering mass of availability precludes other transformational work

It is impossible to be available 24/7, yet many pastors try. When pastors try to be present for every meeting, every event, every person in need, every time the church door needs to be unlocked, we are over-functioning for the community we serve. But being-omni present also means that consideration about what it means to be a community that cares for each other is lost too. Taking on all the responsibility to care for each member of the community means that care for the community as a whole is missed. It also absolves people of sharing in the caring work. Caring for each member is draining work, but caring for a community as a whole and its behavioural systems is also hard work. It is nearly impossible to do the whole community work when a pastor is emotionally drained on caring for individuals.

Pastors have become something between a paid friend and counselling professional.

Sometime in the 1960s, as Clinical Pastoral Education and counselling began to enter into ministry, pastors moved from being community leaders, teachers, prophets, moral authorities, to travelling visitors and caregivers, who also provided free quasi-professional counselling. There is nothing that will suck your time away like having to add “being a friend / providing free on call counselling for anywhere from 100 to 1000 people” to your job description, not to mention keeping up with all the other duties of a pastor. As the role of pastor shifts and changes, like the moral authority aspect of the role that has been largely dropped, so to will the paid friend aspect have to go.

Pastors find their roles hard to define.

Another result from the Duke Clergy Health Initiative was that pastors often feel like congregational members don’t understand the breadth of clergy duties. Many feel like parishioners only see the one hour of work on Sundays. While this may be true of parishioners, I think that clergy are also guilty of not understanding the breadth of our own duties.

Poor self-care is ultimately a problem of priorities. I suspect that, with so much to do in most parishes, and all the reasons I stated above, pastors have a hard time prioritizing. And this is because priorities mean disappointing someone, because not all duties are equal and not all issues need the same attention. When everything becomes urgent, keeping everyone happy and cared for is the goal. Time off, family time and self-care are bumped to the bottom of the list.

But when pastors take the time to ask themselves, what are the most important things for me to do each week and what can be left undone, the tyranny of the urgent and the need to be busy, busy, busy melts away. All of sudden that property committee at 7AM on a day off is not more important than sleep. Those late night emails can wait until office hours. The time to care for those in crisis ceases to be immediate, and instead becomes when time allows. Writing and preaching half-decent sermons, instead of Saturday night specials becomes a weekly occurrence. Leading worship like you know what is happening before it happens becomes the norm.

And most importantly, care for the whole community instead of the collection of individuals becomes important.  Pastors can teach people how to care for each other, how to participate in community instead of consuming church, how to become disciples rather than passive observers of church.

Self-care is not just an issue of burning out pastors. Reducing the work load or adding more members to the pastoral team aren’t solutions. Prioritizing ministry is the only way to really practice self-care. This means taking a deep look at what ministry is all about. What is a pastor really called to do and be?

And in the end, practicing self-care means preparing yourself to disappoint those who expect your omni-presence. They might not like it to begin with, but they will eventually they will begin to appreciate it as we become better pastors by doing what is important instead of doing everything.

What obstacles stand in the way of your self-care? How can congregations and colleagues support over worked, burring out pastors? Share in the comments, on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

And thanks to my wife, Courtenay for her insights and editorial support. Look for a post from her about self-care, coming soon. Follow her on Twitter @ReedmanParker

Cover photo credit: http://um-insight.net/blogs/dan-r-dick/too-busy-to-learn/