I need to start off this post by saying that I have spent the majority of my life in church. I have been in 5 different churches throughout the course of my life… and they ALL have been VERY different. Growing up, my family went to a VERY CONSERVATIVE, FUNDAMENTALIST, INDEPENDENT, KJV ONLY, BAPTIST CHURCH (even writing all of that is exhausting… I bet I broke a few rules in how I wrote that too 🙂 ) . I then served at an Evangelical Free Church for a year while I was in Bible College… I then became a youth pastor at a “less-conservative-than-before-but-more-conservative-than-I-am” Baptist church. I learned a lot from that 5 year stint. I learned some big leadership lessons and how to be a pastor. I also learned how deeply ingrained church politics can RUIN a healthy church. I then moved on to be the youth pastor at a highly energetic, VERY attractional-oriented church, where we often used pop music, engaging stage designs, flashy lights, and dense fog to help people have an authentic experience with God. I now work at a Non-Denominational church that values congregational singing and the teaching of God’s word as the centerpiece… there are lights and technology… but if you were to visit our church, you’d probably come away with the idea of, “They have this stuff… but it definitely is not the main thing here.” I say all of this not to poke fun at any of these churches or to say one is better than the other. I stated all of this to show that I have seen church at A LOT of different stages. I have seen inward focused church. I have seen outward focused church. I have seen seeker church. I have seen seeker sensitive church. I have seen believer focused church. I have also, for the past 15 years, worked with teenagers and young adults. I have seen HUGE PRODUCTION ministry and quiet home ministry. And a powerful trend I am seeing in the emerging church of the future is a STRONG DEPARTURE from the “come and observe our show” type of church. Millennials are walking away from this at an ALARMING rate. I am watching young (and not so young) people around me “deconstruct” their faith and then try to reconstruct it… and one of the things that happens in that process is they are walking away from the modern, entertainment focused, “cool” church and trading it for a church that offers liturgy and deeply spiritual experiences that are based in readings and traditions and history. This all actually started about a decade ago… and pastors on the coasts began showing us this trend. We saw the “Emergent” movement happen… and then it seemed to go away, or, at least become quieter than it was. But everything that they were highlighting and saying is now coming to the forefront… and churches are going to have to face this at some point, or become irrelevant to the next generation. So, as a leader and a pastor (especially over the next generation ministries) how do we begin to handle this? What should we begin to do to shape the future of the church?
Here are a few suggestions that I have been wrestling with… they are not the DEFINITIVE list… but just my thoughts on how I’ve been trying to process this for students and young adults:
1. Help them know what the Bible is.
This is a huge topic, “What is the Bible?” We need to begin to answer this question because people, over the years, have held the Bible up as their banner while they commit ATROCIOUS things… INHUMANE things… and it is no longer being swept under the rug or hidden away in the closet. People are asking the tough questions of “Does the Bible REALLY condone this? and if it does, is that what God is really all about? And if He is, can He be trusted? Or is this just another attempt of man to find out what the purpose of this life is and they’ve made all this up?” These are serious questions that WE, as the church, cannot ignore… and it starts with helping people understand what the Bible really is.
For years, I was taught that the Bible was many different things: A history book, a science book, a rule book, a guide, an instruction manual to the human existence, a sword to offend the culture, a defense of the christian faith, etc… What I am coming to discover (and probably have known for a while) is that the Bible is the narrative or story of God interacting with His creation. A lot of the Bible is God pulling his creation to a better understanding of who He is and what it truly means to be his creation. (That is why some things seem to be viewed differently as the Bible goes along and even how we tend to read it today (mutliple wives, plurality of gods in Canaan and Egypt, racism and slavery… just to mention a few) It is not that God has changed his mind… but that he has changed his creations’ mind about something and caused them to write something different.) It is God using human authors to reveal himself to his creation in the way that HE sees fit. It’s human authors struggling to see the divine in the mess. It is a book about how to know the God of the universe and how to know ourselves and why things are the way they are (mostly from a spiritual point of view). There is some history in the Bible… but it is not a history book. There is some science in the Bible… but it is not a science book. (Thank goodness on those last two things… or this might get a little bit messy) There are rules in the Bible… but it is not a rule book. There are instructions on how to live our lives… but it is not an instruction manual. The Bible is basically about the questions: “Who is God?” “What is the point of this life?” and “How can we know and trust Him?” And it follows the narrative of the lengths that God will go to BE WITH his creation… even when His creation doesn’t want to be with him. The Bible’s ultimate point is to direct us to Jesus and a life of trusting him fully.
We need to help them know what the Bible is.
2. Value HUMILITY over CERTAINTY.
When I graduated Bible College, I was on fire for God and wanted to take the world by storm… charge Hell with a squirt gun… PASSION. I had a huge flaw, however. My flaw was that I thought I had EVERYTHING figured out. I thought I had God figured out. I thought I had Jesus figured out. I thought I had the Bible and Church figured out . I thought I had people figured out. I WAS 100% CERTAIN that I was right about it!
Do you know what 15 years in ministry, becoming a parent (especially a parent of a kid with some special needs), & walking through people’s struggles and pain does? It makes you realize just how UNCERTAIN you are about things. And that is a beautiful place to be. Why? Because certainty leads to arrogance which leads to a lack of empathy which, ultimately, undermines my calling as a pastor.
I’m not 100% certain of a lot anymore. Would I like to be? ABSOLUTELY. (I’m a control person by nature) But here is what I have learned/am learning: Humility goes a lot further than certainty. Do I FEEL certain about things like “There is a God,” “The Bible is God’s revelation,” “Jesus is the Savior” etc… YES. But I must come at those with Humility. Faith is built on Humility. I used to define faith as “Being certain of what you can’t see.” But I think that faith and certainty are mutually exclusive. I think faith is trusting even when you aren’t certain. Certainty says, “I can’t see it… but this is how I can explain it… and I am 100% right no matter what you think.” I think faith built on humility is “I can’t explain it… but I can’t deny it either… so I will trust.” I think that is a better, and actually more Biblical, place to land… and i think it will become the way the next generation expresses themselves with faith.
3. Teach that DOUBT & DECONSTRUCTION are a natural part of authentic faith.
I don’t know how this point sits with you… but what I have seen lately is that when people begin to doubt, they feel guilty and alone and somehow embarrassed for going through this. This is our (the church’s) fault. This happens because we have championed certainty… and pushed answers and apologetics instead of faith and trust. We demonize doubt. We look at Thomas in the New Testament and characterize him because he doubted… and then sling rocks from afar with the judgmental attitude of “How could you?” But how did Jesus treat Thomas? Was he mad? Was he disappointed? Did he demonize his doubt? NOPE. If anything, he legitimized his concerns and doubt… and then met him in the middle of it. And also notice… Jesus didn’t sit Thomas down and teach him all the Old Testament prophecies about why this was true and the answers he needed to have for him to intellectually accept all of this. He simply said, “experience me… and trust.”
We need to teach people that Doubt and Deconstruction are a natural part of the faith journey. We can’t be afraid of it. We can’t “FIX” it for them. We can’t just give them more answers in hope that they just “get over it.” The best we can do is 1) help them have a chance to personally experience Jesus, & 2) help them understand how to TRUST him in the midst of their doubt. The people I have known/or know of who have gone through this and reconstructed their faith have actually come out STRONGER because of it. So did Thomas!
4. Emphasize PRACTICES over PRODUCTION.
One of the things that I have been seeing is that personal and corporate spiritual practices are HUGE to the next generation. Everything in life is over-produced. Our food is over-produced. Our music is over-produced. Our TV is over-produced
(even reality tv… oxymoron). Our Social Media is now becoming over-produced. And our churches are over-produced. And what happens when we over-produce things… we lose the authenticity of it. It becomes less “real” and more “manufactured.” It’s like we are “Truman Show”ing people the church. People don’t want a manufactured faith. They want a RAW faith. They want a REAL faith. They want REAL experiences… not manufactured ones. There was a Babylon Bee (satire about church) article back a couple of months about a church where the fog machine stopped working… and so did the Holy Spirit. It was being completely tongue-in-cheek… but with every “just kidding” there is a nugget of truth. The nugget of truth here is that we think the more we manufacture an environment… the more we can help someone experience God. But what if it isn’t God that they are experiencing? What if they are just coming to grips with their own emotions because of a feeling we created? And does this mean that people can’t experience God in a well lit room with no LED lights and fog? With ancient music, hymns, and liturgy instead of modern music and a band? For the past 3 decades we have traded Practices in the church for Production in the church. Now, here’s the deal… I LOVE PRODUCTION. I AM A FAN OF PRODUCTION. (just take a look at the banner picture of this blog) . BUT… PRODUCTION MUST NOT TRUMP PRACTICES. I think this is a HUGE shift we need to start making. Doing responsive readings, public reading of scripture together, celebrating communion together, singing old and new songs together, fasting, confession… these are all important practices (plus a lot more) that need to be emphasized MORE than a Sunday morning production. The question to ask is not how we can do away with productions… but how can we begin to emphasize Spiritual Practices both personally and corporately MORE than our productions?
5. Emphasize TRUST over FEEL.
I don’t know where we got this idea… but a lot of Christians equate their life in Christ to 1) what they know and 2) how they feel. That somehow, if they can just figure out how to have the RIGHT BELIEFS mixed with the RIGHT FEELINGS… that means they are in the club! But what happens (let me be facetious for a second) if all of what you constructed to believe turns out to be WRONG or mostly wrong? What if one Sunday you wake up, head to a morning service… and all the feels are gone? Has your faith left you?
It has if you defined it in those terms.
But the writers of the New Testament said in pretty clear terms that their faith was based on one thing and one thing only… the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. Paul said “We preach Christ crucified.” He also talked at length about the most important thing being the resurrection of Jesus. That without the resurrection, their faith means nothing. It was all about trust. It was trusting that what their eyes saw was true even though it didn’t make reasonable, logical sense. It was trusting that the over 600 witnesses to the risen Christ were accurate and truthful. That is faith. It is a TRUST thing. It is a “I can’t fully explain it… but Christ died for my sins, was buried, and on the third day rose again… according to the prophets of the Old Testament Scriptures… and my trust is in that for the forgiveness of my sins.” We need to emphasize that it’s about Trusting Jesus even when we don’t get the feels…
6. ELEVATE JESUS!
Jesus is the point of church. He is the point of life. He is the point of the Bible. It’s ALL ABOUT JESUS. We need to make sure our churches emphasize this. I think
Hebrews 1 shows us why we must ELEVATE JESUS:
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.
Creator, sustainer, the exact representation of the being of God, redeemer… he is all those things. And if we elevate Jesus, guess what? He said that he will draw people to himself. As we elevate Jesus… we build his church.
Times change. Trends change. Jesus remains.