Not long ago in USA TODAY, columnist Tom Kraftenmaker reported on Filmmaker Dan Marchant’s visit to Lewis & Clark College to show his new film Lord Save Us From Your Followers. Apparently Lewis & Clark was listed by the Princeton Review as one of the “least religious” colleges in the USA. The columnist reports that the hall was packed to see the new film which was known to present a Christian view, and afterwards students were eager to talk to the producer. Kraftenmaker then asserts that religion “is experiencing something of a renaissance” on the campuses of colleges and universities, “although not necessarily in the shapes and forms older generations are used to seeing.”
It is counter to what we have been told by some, that a spiritual renaissance may be shaping up among the next wave of youth. But what will it look like when it comes to the church? This is what we must consider. Thus, as part of my series of Pastoral Letters on the church, I decided to interview a number of key Alliance official workers who are considered to be young and thoughtful, and considered to be leaders among us. My premise is that what these leaders are thinking and saying may give us some indication as to what changes are already in process among us. While this survey is unscientific, I did discover some key themes that occurred again and again. I believe they are worth paying attention to, so that we may be discerning and open the door to fresh winds.
I asked three questions. I will list each, with a summary of key responses.
Question 1: What will effective churches look like in ten years?
Overwhelmingly, young leaders pointed to community involvement. Parish, or other language, reflects the fact that this is not an option, but a necessity. “If the neighbours can’t answer the question, “What does this church do for the community?”, you are wasting your time.” “There will be greater enthusiasm on how we give away our money than how we spend it on ourselves.” And the church building? It must be seen as a resource for the community, or why have it? Social justice, not just compassion, must be addressed. Family health must be addressed. People will want to be actively involved in the Trinity of Mission: “Love God, Love Others, Live the Mission.” And, “Ear, Hand and Foot in the community – listening, touching, presence.”
Teaching will still be a priority in the effective church of the next decade. The transmission of the Gospel is still seen as a priority. However, some teaching will not be as black and white as it is now. Rather, both sides of some issues will be presented.
“Inclusive” was a big word in these discussions. I expected inclusive in regards to the growing ethnic mosaic of Canada, and that was there. “Ethnicity, gender and race must be included in the power structure and in platform presence.” We must celebrate ethnic diversity in the church.
I was surprised at the emphasis I heard on inter-generational inclusivity. Our young leaders speak strongly against the generational division of the current church. They want children and adults to interact together with the teaching of the Word. A bit more on this point under question #2 below.
Smaller churches are envisioned by these leaders. Not because “small is beautiful” but because they see our large churches as failing to create authentic community. This is more than the community created by small groups. It is community where there is real accountability, an opportunity for spiritual gifts to be nurtured and exercised, and where families are enhanced. “We won’t see the glittery production values.” And, they see the seeker model as failing to confront the seeker. “Some wait too long to bring the message of hope.” And, “I hope we have seen the last of sermons on ‘Five Things to Help You Through Your Work Week.” People are busy. They can go on-line and get simple information. They need a place where they can be involved with their families and where they can integrate the truth with life. “We have to re-do what success looks like.”
Question 2: What will effective youth ministry look like in ten years?
The contrast between today’s youth group and today’s church was pointed out again and again. One youth pastor put it this way. The youth group of today is involved. The kids are taken to the food bank and put into action. Then they leave grade 12 and hit the Big Church, and what is there? An hour and fifteen minute service and an offer of a small group. Add to that the interchange between the university and the church they are attending, and everything is suddenly up for grabs.
So youth ministry tomorrow must integrate with the adult church. This is imperative. The adult church must change, and there must be significant intergenerational connection. More than one spoke of the need to develop a mentoring program where adults, one on one, intentionally mentor youth. This could also be a mentoring program of older youth to younger youth.
The youth ministry of tomorrow must help youth to make faith their own. One pastor points out that we fail to give our youth sound teaching. He calls for something like a catechism where foundational truth will be known and understood before they leave high school. On the other hand, a pastor warns that the personal relationship with Christ is critical. “If they go to university thinking they can out-debate unbelievers, they will be crushed.”
The next youth group will require an atmosphere where there is permission to be vulnerable, even in theology.
And again, there was an emphasis that the youth group of tomorrow will be even more involved in being the presence of Christ in the community. Youth will need a bigger picture of the Kingdom of God, something other than – “come to us, have a fun time, meet Jesus, go home.” Activity based youth group programming has created its own market culture that isn’t going to last. The focus will have to answer the question “What does the activity we are doing have to do with the Kingdom of God?”
How will they worship in ten years? Our leaders say worship will become more interactive, a place where people can express gifts as a form of worship. Current music (the worship team) is independent rather than communal. Even music must change in some way.
We need to give them resources so that they are not the leaders of tomorrow, but can be leaders today.
Question Three: If the youth of today become the elders board of tomorrow (way past ten years from now) how will they change the church?
They will intentionally move church into something more humble, more grassroots, more messy. A young adult astonished one of our leaders when he said: “I see that the church is not a corporation – it’s a family.”
This means that success will be redefined. The reality of growth by transfer that has driven Alliance churches over the past decade will be confronted and the church will be redefined. This redefinition will have to do with the church becoming an alternative society as opposed to the church being relevant. For the very concept of “being relevant” seems to have come to mean that the church is actually very much like the world. Our calling is to be the people who are different, holy and righteous, without alignment with the world.
Worship will look different everywhere. Youth today are not so intimidated by things that are somewhat uncontrolled. So singing, painting on the wall, prophetic words on a story board, all and more may be happening in the churches where today’s youth are the elders board. There will also be a continuation of the trend to look at the (lower case o) orthodox Christian traditions of the first 500 years of church history and attempt to learn and bring more of that into our worship spaces.
Music will continue to be important. One leader said that gyms will not be as important for the next church as recording studios.
As far as preaching goes, we must preach biblical sermons but also create ways for people to access the Word of God that are different from the didactic sermon. Preaching will also be a voice for justice.
The issue of women in the church will be addressed. Again and again, our young leaders spoke to this issue. “They will challenge our practice of women in ministry.” Youth today, our leaders say, cannot envision a future where women are not given a full place for ministry in the church. “If change isn’t made, then a lot of people who could make a difference won’t be around.”
Giving will be motivated by what can happen beyond the walls of the church building. And again, it was stressed that church buildings will have to serve the community.
How about missions? Missions must be relational, that is a relation with the international workers and a relation with the people themselves.
And finally, they addressed how to make sure that the youth of today stay and become the leaders of tomorrow. We need to give them value now. Take risks with some of them and teach them that they can change things.
In conclusion, please let me thank those leaders who allowed me to interrupt their schedules to learn their hearts. Certainly, I am listening to them. So much of what they think about tomorrow is actually very relevant today. One young adult said to me with a tone of frustration that the evangelical church needed to change. And I replied that it certainly does. But I also added that change is part of the church, for it is called reformation. The Reformers called for the continual reformation of the church, which meant, not changing the church to be “relevant” to the world, but changing the church as the world, the flesh and the devil challenges her, so that she may not merely challenge, but threaten evil with the entrance of the Kingdom of God. I would ask you, dear reader, to consider your current ministry in light of the call for reformation.