The View From The Top: One Last Entry Of Thoughts On “Essential Church.”

I’m glad I usually don’t have to shop for a church home.

Tracy and I did that when we first moved to Dallas, and we learned early on that we’d have to decipher the buzzwords we’d hear when we’d ask a few questions of whoever was in charge of showing the visitors around. As much as we’d try to just show up and root around icognito, some assigned greeter from the welcome team would pounce and give us the scoop on all the great things going on there.

That’s where the buzzwords came in. Some new ones have arisen since that time, too.

“We’re definitely seeker-driven.”
“Here at Church X, we don’t buy into the seeker-driven model. We’re seeker-sensitive.”
“We’re more along the lines of a ‘traditional’ Bible church.”
“We subscribe to the purpose-driven way of doing church.”
“We’re a small-group focused church.”
“We’re emergent.”
“We’re not emergent, but you’ll see us use a lot of emergent practices.”
“We follow the Willow Creek model.”

It goes on. We’ve heard variations and mutations and subclasses and all that. Frankly, when we were searching for a church, we didn’t care much for that stuff. One major thing we looked for (yes, there are others in that recipe, but we only have a couple of biggies) was that were looking for a church that taught the Word faithfully, from a grace-based perspective (not only in salvation terms, but also in the daily walk terms–there’s a bigger gap between the two than you might think)…and you could usually deduce that from the main teacher in the Sunday morning worship service. We found that set the tone. I mean, if that person was doing things a certain way, you could count on the reality that the youth workers and adult C.E. teachers and small group leaders were all going to be heavily influenced by that.

Maybe that’s painting with too broad a brush, but, experientially, I’ve found it to be true.

And, the Rainer’s studies found that young people really put a lot of stock in that way of thinking:

“The leadership of the church, particularly the lead or senior pastor, is the linch-pin for this catalyst of cross-generational discipleship to occur…the teenage population is one that knows well the principle of unity in diversity–a principle that should be exercised heavily in our churches…

Teens are naturally skeptical. They are overmarketed, oversold, underestimated, and misunderstood generation. They know when you’re trying to sell something to them. They have noses that can smell insincerity a mile away. They are attracted to genuineness even if they don’t agree with whatever it is. For them the journey is more fun than the destination. They’re tired of the same old Baby Boomer drabble. They aren’t attracted to cookie-cutter formulas, and they value things that are different. ‘Frothy eloquence’ doesn’t satisfy them. And that’s just how they feel about the pastor of their church…

…To clarify, we are not advocating a neglect of more mature generations, whether it is the greatest generation, the baby-boomers, or GenXers. Older and grayer is not bad if those with a little more life experience in the church are using it to benefit those with a little less sagacity. Much can be gained if pastors use and train adults in the church to reach our to those younger generations.”

Oh, man. Where to start?

Basically with the idea that what made for desirable churches has changed over the years. I mean, I’ve used this example several times before, but I grew up in the church during the “Golden Age” of youth ministry: The 80’s.

See, that was the time that professional youth ministers were hitting their stride. They were being innovative and creative and drawing unprecedented numbers of students to their churches using all sorts of things like pizza feeds and viewing parties and lock-ins and scavenger hunts and all that jazz. It was grand and glorious and, well, it “worked.” So much of that stuff hadn’t been done before and it was new and fresh and cool and the whole bit.

Then, those of us who came through those student ministries began to graduate college/seminary and start leading our own ministries. So, we did those things WE thought were new and fresh and cool and the whole bit. And we got to add Christian music that actually sounded like the normal music we heard on the radio (unlike when my youth minister tried to convince me that Rez Band was a good replacement for AC/DC. I really don’t think even he believed that) that we could recommend to our kids and take them to concerts.

Two examples showed me that kids got wise to the years of methods: First, a local church held a youth group Super Bowl party. Free pizza and the game on the big screen and prizes and such. TONS of kids went. Then, at halftime, instead of whoever the big act was, they showed a specially filmed DVD of coaches/players giving their “testimony.” It was exactly the length of halftime. The next year, the kids devoured the pizza and then headed out with about 1 minute left in the 2nd quarter. The place was empty since kids went to area parties to see the big musical act. The next year the youth minister had sign ins and kids couldn’t leave without parent permission…etc. They don’t do a Super Bowl party anymore. In other words, the teens wanted honesty: If you’re going to show the Super Bowl, let us watch the Super Bowl. Everything doesn’t have to be a presentation of the Gospel or a Bible study.

One from my own ministry: One year, we did a high energy big event. All weekend. Sleepovers. Laser Tag and Gameworks and Whirly Ball and speakers and bands and small group stuff. 72 hours. Well attended. Good time had by all. The next year we were going bigger and better and…only 5 kids signed up. So, I started asking the teens who raved about it why they weren’t coming. Sure, some had jobs and some had new extracurricular stuff, but one teen summed it up for most when they said, “Brent, that was cool and all, but I can play Laser Tag or go to Gameworks on my own with friends. I don’t need you for that stuff. I need you for mission trips and service projects and stuff that will teach me about Christ.” The next year, we did the exact opposite: Planned nothing. Just rented a retreat center and a bus or two or three, and had a true retreat. No agenda. It still goes on today into it’s 6th year.

But, eventually, that will run its course. There will likely be some other method we need to use. But, if I, as a youth pastor, hang on to the No Agenda retreat after it has run its course, well, our ministry will become irrelevant.

There was a time when people had a certain expectation of the pastor of a church. He was to be “perfect” and be a “passionate” teacher (side note: Much of what people mistake for passion in teaching is actually a style that is taught at their seminary. Try not to be fooled, kids). He was the one person that set the tone for the church and how it ran. The elders either went along with it or, in congregational churches, the members more or less were a rubber stamp.

And, the days of the Super Pastor who is brilliant with words and unknowable by the masses is done. The days of “just add water” to the lessons are done. The wave of megachurch “paint by numbers” is done…along with the ability to grow a church by following the way Saddleback or Willow Creek did it. The methods work, but you can do that and not be able to tell if the Holy Spirit is at work or if basic marketing & strategy are catalysts (thankfully, those churches have recently written about how ineffective they are at discipleship given the reality of their size & demographics–and have renewed vision for discipleship and a commitment to doing that, so kudos to them). Just letting you in on that little secret, kids.

Oh, and yes. I caught that my generation, Generation X, was listed in the category of “mature generations.” The Slackers have hit middle-age, folks. Of course, I didn’t need a book to tell me that. My knees and lower back do that just fine for me.

And, it’s high time we started focusing on the younger generations. At the pastoral level.

We can’t rely on methods and styles that worked for us. Or the generation before us. I’m just as guilty–ask my last staff members. I had to remove myself from meetings and let them work without my input. I was KILLING their enthusiasm and good ideas by offering what I thought was wisdom from my experience. It was really just a wet blanket. So, I got out of the planning meetings and let them meet and tell me what the plans were. We were all better for it, too.

And, you know what? When I say that we need to focus on the young to people, they like it. They agree in principle. They say things like, “We really do need to get the young folks in leadership and let them use their gifts and talents to help the body mature. Young folks are the future of this place. We need the young ones involved and we really want them here.” I think they mean those words, too.

So, what we have to do, for the future of The Church, is find that harmonious blend of allowing youthful energy and passion and vision listen to the history and wisdom and experience and savvy of the older generations. You’ve heard me talk about this stuff before…

I feel like the older generations are genuine in that they want young people in their churches to have the best chance to grow in Christ. I know it’s true at my church. We don’t want for meeting space or elder support or budget needs or parental encouragement. The older generations really do like the idea of our young people serving and growing.

And, I feel like the younger generations want to grow and learn from the lives of the previous generation. They want to know what makes them tick.

We just gotta find ways to get them to mix (and, there’s a GREAT ministry at our church called GirlTalk that our women’s ministry started in which they get together and spend time with each other–they made cookies yesterday for an outreach ministry of our church–and is getting emptynest moms together with our high school girls. Beautiful, man. Just beautiful).

And that’s gotta start with leadership. Being open and honest with our congregations in our teaching and what we’re learning and all that. We gotta mix among all generations ourselves.

We’re not marketing anything.
Or selling anything.
We don’t want to underestimate this generation by any stretch.
We should want to understand them.

We should serve them. And if that means our preferences in music/lighting/chair arrangement/service times/communion style/etc. has to fall by the wayside to serve…well, it ain’t about us anymore, folks.

We should love them. And if that means that we feel we should show them how our music/lighting/chair arrangement/service times/communion style/etc. has the ability to draw us closer to Him, well, that’s the most loving thing we can do for them.

And, frankly, this book is a call to all pastors/elders and everyone in church leadership to drop the cookie-cutter formulas and methods…

…to worry less about our sizzle and more about our steak.

…to value the unity found in our diversity. Either we’re all God’s masterpieces or we’re all just living a lie.

Failure to do this, I believe, and well, it won’t be long before our church buildings are tourist attractions…

…well, scratch that…most church buildings in America built in the last 30 years are hardly inspirational architecture…

Or it won’t be long before our church buildings are pubs or hosting art showings or having rock concerts like they are in Europe.

Or they could be academies of life as it was meant to be lived. (Dallas Willard’s words, not mine…I’m not that gifted)

It’s our choice.

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