Ministering to millennials

Pasadena, Calif. (Special to PNS) While spending time with friends and co-workers outside the walls of the traditional church, seminarian Jonathan Baker often thought of the word “crushed.”

The term, as used by Barker, is a reference to Psalm 34: 18 – “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

Barker, a student at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, has found himself ministering to brokenhearted and crushed people.

To support himself while in school, Barker took a job at a 24-hour gym.

“I worked the graveyard shift at the gym, meeting people who had had hard things happen to them at church,” Barker said.

One co-worker began to share her experiences with Barker. “After about six days of this, she finally caught her breath and asked me, ‘What do you do?’” Barker said. Upon hearing that he was studying to be a pastor, she said he would make a terrible pastor because he hadn’t shamed her for all the “sins” she had told him about.

“These conversations – I had many of them with co-workers – started to break my heart, to realize how much people had experienced the church in a negative way,” Barker said.

The question confronted him: What would it look like to minister among these people?

“For this generation who have had all these tough experiences, for my co-workers who have been crushed by religion along with a lot of other things, we wondered, could we create a space where the Lord can be near them and rescue them?” Barker said.

That questioning has led to the launch of Crushed, a faith community that began meeting weekly in September. This experiment has been supported by the San Fernando Presbytery and a new church development within the presbytery, and by Bridges, an organization seeking to incubate and cultivate such initiatives.

Crushed might not be a common name for a church gathering, but this group of mostly millennials – often defined as those born between 1980 and1999 – is anything but typical.

The “service” has three parts.

“For the first part, our gathering, I encourage everybody to bring their iPod and have people share a song or two,” Barker said. Because the group meets on Saturday nights, Barker’s goal is to create something casual to “keep it safe, lighten it up and make it feel like an actual Saturday night activity.”

After this gathering time, Barker gives a short sermon directed at some aspect of being crushed. “How can we go from being this group who has been crushed and navigate that on this journey together?” he said.

The sermon is followed by a time of silence and then a time of group sharing. “The whole idea of that time is to allow people to be listened to,” Barker said.

The first week the group met those stories mainly centered on how long it had been since those gathered had been in church.

“The stories kept going on and on about why people had left,” Barker said. “It was such a powerful time of people sharing and bringing their real life to this conversation and listening to each other.”

Recently Crushed has begun attracting people who have never been part of a church at all.

“We went from being de-churched to having about half of those who are coming who are un-churched,” Barker said. “They don’t necessarily have the same baggage coming in, but all of a sudden they are in this community that is vibrant and a safe space.

“What we are trying to figure out now is how to expand outside the bounds of the people who are already coming – how can we seek to be merciful to the different people we all interact with and share and walk among them?” Barker said.

Many of those who have joined Crushed work in retail.

“Because we have such a big network of other people not already connected to congregations, we really have an almost infinite opportunity for new friends to come in,” said Barker. “Most of our friends are not Christians.”

As for where it all will lead, Barker is willing to trust that the ministry will continue to unfold. With two quarters left of coursework for his Master of Divinity degree, Barker looks forward to being able to devote more time and energy to Crushed.

But he also plans to keep his job at the gym.

“In my context of trying to leave church buildings and trying to go out and start something for people who have left churches, it is essential for me to be bi-vocational,” Barker said. “You have to be deliberate to engage the world – not an artificial going out and doing evangelism, but actually being a full member of that secular group.”

Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico, when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.

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