Technology differences are no real barrier to building community among the generations, says this Generation X pastor. What matters most are the church's core values, which are ageless.
The Lutheran church has its Confessions, but here is mine — two years out of seminary, I do not own the Book of Concord. Though I have used it to teach confirmation and new member classes, referenced it in sermons, and took the requisite Lutheran Confessions courses, the book does not adorn my shelves. Instead of purchasing this most essential Lutheran text, I simply downloaded an edition and rely on computerized search tools to locate specific passages for study. For me, it's reliable, available wherever I go, and the most effective way for me to access and teach the Lutheran church's core values.
In what may seem like a stark contrast, the senior pastor at my church, 33 years out of seminary, has four copies of the Book of Concord, including a German language edition. Not only does he enjoy the book's contents, he also values the stories behind each copy — when it was purchased, the unique qualities of each, how editors chose to translate specific words or phrases. For him, the hard copy books are reliable, won't ever be lost in cyberspace, and are essential to accessing and teaching the Lutheran church's core values.
Bound and electronic books aren't our only ministerial differences. I constantly lose paper memos and prefer the reliability of my e-mail account and online calendar. My senior pastor wouldn't leave home without his trustworthy red spiral-bound appointment book containing every meeting from the past year. I send him e-mail links to theological articles; he prints e-mails and places them in my mailbox.
These contrasts sound like they would make for a conflicted and challenging ministry for both of us, but the ways we gather and distribute information are simply reflections of our different generations and not representations of any fundamental distinctions in our theological beliefs. We are committed to spreading the gospel, learning about our personal faith, and encouraging others in their walk with God. We acknowledge that there is not one right way to work and that paper memos or e-mails, books or electronic documents are simply tools used to help us in our ministry.
My senior pastor and I realize generational differences make us complementary rather than contrary. We put these principles into practice in our congregation as we attempt to integrate new twenty- and thirtysomethings into our well-established congregation where most leaders are in their 50s and 60s. The core values of our members are the same, no matter their age — people are looking for a faith community where they are valued, their ideas are respected, and they are encouraged to grow their faith in the company of fellow Christians.
We get caught up in the differences between generations and lose focus on our God, who binds us together.
Research done by Christian and Amy Piatt in MySpace to Sacred Space: God for a New Generation
(Chalice Press, 2007) bears this out: young people perceive God as loving and merciful and want to grow in relationship with God. These beliefs transcend generations and are shared by members of all ages. We get caught up in the differences between generations and lose focus on our God, who binds us together. Conflicts arise over surface differences as long-time members worry that implementing praise services will cause us to forget traditional worship practices, while young people become discouraged trying to take on leadership roles. Instead of seeing new leaders and worship styles as divisive, we need to focus on the fact people of all ages are looking to be unified as a Christian community in fellowship. Hearing Stories
Piatt and Piatt explain the importance of hearing people's stories: "If you don't know the stories, experiences and theology of the people sitting in the chairs every Sunday, what credibility do you have to go out and tell people you have something they need?" Giving people the opportunity to share their stories and to hear the stories of others is essential to helping individuals feel welcomed at a church. However, the way in which we go about hearing their stories may differ based on people's ages and experiences.
One of the most powerful encounters I've had with a young person occurred using an instant messaging tool on Facebook. The student was able to share his story in a way that was comfortable to him and supported what he valued. Communicating online gave him time to gather his thoughts, think carefully about his responses, and maintain control over what he wanted to share, which was especially important for this young person who was not used to discussing serious theological and ethical issues with a pastor. Not being face-to-face did not diminish this interaction and was the only way he felt he could share his story.Rethinking Outreach
Since young and senior members share the same Christian values, neither will be lured in by the latest fad in media and technology. While attempting to integrate new forms of communication that are meaningful to various age groups, pastors need to give parishioners opportunities to build relationships and tell their stories. Below are some considerations for rethinking outreach to twenty- and thirtysomethings.
- Recognize that, for young people, electronic communication is often just as real as face-to-face interaction. According to THE (Technological Horizons in Education) Journal, young people use technology to enhance socialization among peers, family members, and even authority figures. For young people, computers aren't a barrier to communication but a tool to connect deeply with others.
- Members of all ages benefit from understanding the meaning behind the symbols used in our worship service. Our long-standing members have had years to internalize our church traditions, but even they may not know the story behind the ritual. Take time to teach congregants about the significance of the liturgical calendar, changes in parament colors, festival days, and the order of service.
- Carefully choose the time and day of the week you offer social events. Talk with families and become aware of school and sports calendars. Events right after church may work better for busy families instead of an evening event during the week.
Tracy Paschke-Johannes is the associate pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Muncie, Indiana. Email her at TracyPaschkeJ@gmail.com.
This article appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 26, no. 2) and Lutheran Partners Online.