Never would I have admitted it, but in my first year as a local church pastor, I was deeply insecure and at least a little bit embarrassed by the word “pastor.”
I am not alone in this insecurity, especially as a young adult who is neatly categorized and narrowly classified as a “millennial.” So I hope it’s okay for me to be earnest about how this religious embarrassment impacted both my pastoral and church planting narrative.
First, I wanted to rebel against every stereotypical notion of how pastors were perceived, and in the vacancy of these stereotypes, I wanted to be seen as relevant, hip, and with-it. Hopefully you'll honor the frankness of my confession with forgiveness: I wanted to be a hipster pastor.
Second, I wanted to calibrate all the nuts and bolts of the church I was about to plant towards rapid, catalytic movement. Perhaps if our church moved fast enough, the whirling blur of our church’s speed would distinguish us from the plodding, archaic churches in decline. I cringe now as I type this, so I beg of you, go easy on me: I wanted to plant a hipster church.
Luckily for me then, the church planting world offered me buzz-words and pop-phrases to baptize my insecurity. I could say something like, “We want to reach millennials” and voila! - my conscious was eased. Or I could say, “We want to be relevant” and poof! - my idolatry to be novel hid in self-justification.
To want to reach young adults, to matter in the public sphere, to make a difference in the life of millennials, these are very good ambitions, and I say this because I fear being misunderstood. I am confessing that my desire to be a hipster pastor who planted a hipster church had more to do with vanity than it had to do with gospel influence. And that’s why it was a problem. For me.
The Lord had to do a lot to change me. I received well-deserved hard feedback from loving church planting assessors, the church the Lord planted in reality turned out to be far different from the church I planted in my imagination, and God sovereignly put good, godly books (think of authors like Wendell Berry and Eugene Peterson) in front of me as a corrective, sanctifying force.
And, stubbornly, I still believe that God wants to use our local church and his local churches around the world to reach the next generation. But I don’t think that God wants to reach millennials by planting churches that prioritize millennials. I don’t know if you truly reach anybody (you may attract them, allure them, and charm them) by prioritizing them. Jesus reaches us not by catering to us, but by prioritizing his Father’s glory.
How is that for a ministry model?
So maybe the best way to reach young adults, and by reach I really mean attract, transform, and equip, is to plant and lead un-millennial churches.
Our church plant is slowly maturing, laden with struggles, and shouldn’t serve as a best practice or heroic example to anybody. We’re slowly and unimpressively discovering our identity with Jesus in the narrative of his gospel. But maybe, just maybe, these three decisions made by a church plant in Des Moines, Iowa can be a small, helpful voice in a sea of articles drowning you with loud, caustic, impossibly cool tips and criticisms on how to reach millennials.
1. Hip to Heritage. The most surprising feature of our church plant is our decision to integrate confessional liturgy into our Sunday gatherings. Our church is only around one year old, our dominant demographic is young adults, and we meet in a hip music venue. So you can imagine the surprise of most visitors when a liturgist ambles to the stage between worship songs to lead us in responsive readings.
Conventional and pragmatic wisdom says remove historical practices to reach younger generations. But what if one of the deepest needs of the younger generation is to be immersed in practices that constantly remind them that they’re not the first generation to ever worship Jesus? What if one of the most pressing needs of the younger generation is to be submerged in communal practices that gently remind them that the local church is not only about their immediate, emotional experience but also their corporate, unified experience with the body?
Because of confessional liturgy, rarely does a week go by without questions on why, our numbers might even be slightly lower, and our church feels a little more un-millennial. But for those we are reaching with this practice, I really think we are reaching.
2. Fast to Slow. When God called me into church planting, he called me out of public school teaching and wrestling coaching. That adjustment felt tectonic, I floundered with transitioning from the industrial standards of teaching to the invisible realities of soul care, and some wise spiritual fathers and mothers in the faith came alongside me and assessed my impulses this way: I had “an unhealthy focus of coaching over and above pastoral ministry.” They were right, and I was rocked by their diagnosis.
As I have sat under the weight of that assessment, God has helped grow my ability to value character over competence. This shift inevitably means that our church is much slower than I thought we would be to multiply small groups and install leaders. Some in our church, especially those of us enticed by the language of “moving up,” even find this frustrating. But as a result, we find ourselves less tempted to define our church with vague, industrial jargon, and more comfortable with referring to our church personally and warmly. Before, we felt an itch to call our church plant a movement, but now we are more content in calling our church plant a church. We are less tempted to call our church a catalyst, and more content in calling our church a family. We certainly welcome rapid growth at our church, but we haven’t experienced that. So we have come to appreciate being a slow church, so long as families have a healthy church to gather and worship with fifty years from now.
3. Present to Future. By "un-millennial church," I don’t mean to glory in historical practices for the sake of religious nostalgia. For the health of our young church plant, we have found it equally important to look both forwards and backwards. If it’s imperative to remember the historical church for the sake of mortifying our vanity, it’s also imperative to imagine the future church. So, as a family, we have developed three goals to guide us and one of those goals is: We want to plant our grandchildren’s church.
In other words, we’re very aggressive linguistically about communicating that this church is not about us. We are going to make decisions on the basis of endurance, not fad. We will relentlessly herald the gospel in the life of our church even if some find it redundant, because the gospel creates endurance. We will integrate slow practices like weekly communion, because if our novel idolatry isn’t sufficiently killed, we’ll always be looking for what’s next rather than what’s in front of us. And the impulses of Give me something new! and What’s next?! are slogans for fads and enemies of endurance.
Pastors and church planters, soak yourselves in your imputed, foreign identity granted by your crucified savior until you are cozy and snug identifying with being just a pastor who is part of just a church. After all, the church has always been in the world and never of the world and by definition, then, irrelevant. I think it would please God and intrigue the next generation if we would just own that.