Pastoring Millennials Through a Crisis

Apr 28 2020

Andy Hopper, Team Leader for the Hillsong Leadership Network recently discussed with Benjamin Windle how we as church leaders can specifically pastor Millennials in this unique pandemic season.

Benjamin is the pastor of Lifeplace Church in Brisbane, Australia – a thriving multi-campus church and a part of the Hillsong Leadership Network. His extensive study and insights on Millennials’ faith comes from his desire to help church create generationally intelligent communities and are the subject of a White Paper 8 Innovations to Leading Millennials.’ 

[ANDY] How do you think Millennials will react differently to this pandemic than previous generations?

[BEN] My great grandfather was British. He started a local burger shop when he immigrated to Australia. He worked long hours – he put in the grind to forge a new life.

Over decades, he did well financially. He had money and property – and he had a new couch in his living room. It is vivid in my mind. The couch was covered with a clear plastic. My brothers and I would make fun of the situation – “grandad when are you going to take the plastic off”. It was still on when he passed away. Even as kids we knew he had enough money to buy a new couch if this one got damaged. I think I’m seeing the couch covered in clear plastic a little differently right now.

Culturally disruptive moments have hit previous generations: wars, financial collapses, pandemics, such as the Spanish Flu, natural disasters, famines, genocide, and political turmoil. My great grandfather knew what it was to be poor and hungry.

Why didn’t he ever remove the clear plastic wrapper off their couch? When you live through a culturally disruptive moment, it marks you forever. He always remembered what his earlier poverty had taught him – frugality.

For Millennials and Gen Z, this is the first culturally disruptive moment they have lived through. A culturally disruptive moment is where everything we take for granted about our everyday life is significantly changed.

If we as Millennials or Gen Z react differently, it is only because we are experiencing a crisis of this magnitude for the first time. It has hit suddenly, and deeply. One of the best things we can do if we are a part of these new generations is to look back to our grandparents and great grandparents era and apply old lessons to this new problem.

[ANDY] Has the Church contributed to Millennial’s lack of resilience?

[BEN] I’m not sure the potential lack of resilience is a church issue – it is a generational issue. As churches, we operate within a broader cultural context.

Ironically, our weakness as a generation (I myself am a Millennial) has been brought on by a few decades of unprecedented prosperity, human progress, and technological breakthroughs.

When considered in the arc of history, we have lived in somewhat of a utopian era. New generations in the West have not lived through world wars, or plagues, or poverty caused by recessions like what was seen in the 1930’s.

For years we have often laughed at the stories our parents and grandparents told us of walking to school for five miles, and only owning one toy as a child. And we found humour in their exaggeration. But not all of it is exaggeration – a lot of it is real.

Life before the technology revolution was harder. As a result, it built a grit and a toughness within those generations. This is now our moment to develop some of that same very special resilience that will serve us well the rest of our lives.

That’s why I wrote my new mini book The Promise of Pain, because I believe this thesis that we have to be able to hold both pain and promise (hope) at the same time.

[ANDY] Why is it important to see this pandemic as a grieving process rather than a tragic event?

[BEN] An event is an afternoon storm that comes and goes in a moment. A process is an ocean to wade into. We are in an ocean right now.

One of my framework assumptions is that we shouldn’t see this pandemic as a problem to solve, but rather a grief process to enter.

Some of the early panic buying and hysteria was simply a first stage in a grief process (denial). We are grieving the loss of our normal lives, and we are grieving the people that have been personally affected by this virus.

By seeing this pandemic through the lens of a grieving process, rather than a tragic event, it will better position us to understand the stages people are going through. And the person I understand is the person I can minister to.

[ANDY] Leaders have been traditionally trained to only show their strength and not their weakness – why doesn’t this work for millennials?

[BEN] I think there are new generations that don’t see a show of weakness as a weakness. They read it differently. They see a show of weakness as reality, as empathy, and as a version of human equity that transfers kindness.

I know I feel that way when I see a leader be real and connect with my humanity before trying to lead me to a solution.

As pastors, we often don’t have a vocabulary of pain. Our instinct is to bring words of hope, faith, and victory. It’s a good instinct, but it needs to be nuanced in the midst of a crises. I’ve personally struggled to pivot as a Pastor, I’ve been wondering if the world is showing more empathy and sensitivity than the church.

I think it serves us well to become fluent in the vocabulary of pain, anxiety, and fear. It’s when we meet people at their point of pain, that we can then lead them to a place of promise.

Yes, I want to “overcome fear,” “defeat anxiety,” and have “victory over worry.” But, before I overcome, defeat, and conquer, I need to understand, come to terms with, and accept my emotions as normal (not as lack of faith).

If we come at these generations too quickly with perfectly versed, rhyming statements of faith, they may be heard as empty platitudes.

[ANDY] Paul was able to balance a theology of pain and faith – why is this important for millennials to understand?

[BEN] Paul was a remarkably transparent writer. He seemed to see no incongruence between being totally honest about his suffering, and simultaneously holding on to a resilient faith. Paul writes extensively on human suffering and God’s providence within it.

As a brief footnote, Acts ends with the great apostle in obscurity and under two years of house arrest in Rome. Sounds like lockdown. Yet he still thrived in serving God.

One of the most quoted of Paul’s writings is Romans 8: “all things work together for good to those who love God…” I think the context is really interesting right now. The ‘all things’ were problems. And really bad problems – like shipwrecks and pain and death threats.

Paul goes as far as positioning martyrdom as one of the ‘all things’ that, even in death, God can use it for His purposes. All good – unless you are one of the martyrs!

His journey taught him that God can take the bad and orchestrate it into something good. However, it doesn’t mean the bad doesn’t exist.

I have learnt from Paul (also my middle name) that if I view my pain from a materialistic, comfort viewpoint, it will appear disastrous. But, when I see it through an eternal filter, it gives me a wide enough terrain to include the multiple layers of human experience.

[ANDY] Finally, what does it look like to be a Pastor with credibility and authenticity during this season?

[BEN] To a generation that has never experienced anything to the level of what we are experiencing right now, they need to know that the presence of pain, troubles, and disruption in our world does not mean that God is not with us, or that God is not by our side.

We need to remember that, in the midst of this, God will reveal himself in amazing ways, and we can mature and grow; our faith can develop resilience. We won’t get an immunity pass from pain because we follow Jesus, but we will get a friend that sticks closer than a brother. We will get a Good Shepherd who will never leave us.

This is more than a tragic event. It is a grief process. The combination of both pain and promise in our pastoring and leading is a dynamic duo. Our pastoral world view needs to stretch into the shadows to include pain, suffering, and hardship.

We are carriers of the most potent promise, and it has never died. Wars have come and gone. Natural disasters have devastated nations. Tsunamis have taken out entire towns. Plagues. Famines. Catastrophes of every shape and size. And yet the promise of God’s hope has never been diluted. It has never been buried. It has never been dulled.

The promise means no matter how dark our human suffering is, God is still on the throne. We win in the end with eternity in mind.

You can read more about this topic by downloading Ben’s latest free mini-book called ‘Pain & Promise – 7 Best Practises for Pastoring Millennials & Gen Z Through the Pandemic.’