I love young adults.  They slap me upside the head every time I meet with them.  They are the supreme reality check.  They burst my bubble every single time I talk to them.  I NEED twenty-somethings to help me see what I am missing.  Case in point.  I met with a group of about forty clergy and young adults — most of the laity in their early- to mid-twenties, clergy in their late-twenties/early thirties.  We were talking about the relevancy and significance of the church.  Now, a decade ago, when I met with this age group, the hot topic at the time was “emerging church.”  It was the rage.  Bell, McLaren, McManus, Tony Jones, Warren books were spread all over everywhere, and just about everyone was signed up for an emerging something somewhere.  Today, the emerging church was not even mentioned, so I thought I would ask about it.  The response I got surprised me at first, but then simply assaulted my own tiny worldview.  One of the group snorted derisively and said, “A bunch of 50-year-old white guys talking about postmodern Christianity and missional churches!”  I was stunned.  Whenever I talk to those 50+ white guys, we think we are so cutting edge and relevant.  I have written before about the usurpation of the emerging vision by mainline and evangelical institutional churches — which indeed undermined the relevancy years ago — but I didn’t realize that it had so completely left the radar screen of younger leaders across the country.

I will be interested to see if the pushback I get on this comes from younger leaders or middle-aged corporate employees who have a personal investment in being emerging experts.  I realize, it is the people who joined the emerging movement 15 years ago and the missional movement a decade ago who are still pitching it today.  And don’t get me wrong, there is great good that has come from both camps — I myself was an early adopter of missional church back in ’03 and have promoted it ever since — but it is critically important to realize that where we continue to lead, those we seek to reach are no longer following.  Oh, there are a few, but not many.  Once both movements became about institutional preservation and corporate structure and planning, they lost their allure to younger people.  Some of the responses and reactions I heard in my recent encounter:

We aren’t looking for acronyms that tell us how to live our lives — PEACE = Prayer, Engagement, Action, Compassion, Excitement — give me a break.  Are we five?  Are we stupid?

I have no patience with celebrity gurus telling me what the church really is.  If these people knew what they were talking about they wouldn’t be hosting conferences, they would be out serving God.

When the underground movement became the status quo, real meaningful service all turned to talk.

Just one more way that Christianity got turned into church.

A total sellout.

We want to be something not talk about being something.  I can’t watch another contrived, condescending video of some young, cool pastor “rapping with the audience,” looking so sincere and spouting drivel.  They really think we are morons.

I have mentors and guides.  I don’t need a church on the corner; I need relationships.  The church wants me to help them.  I’m looking for people who will help me help the world.

It all got so f****** stupid.  All the good is tied up in all this <junk > that has nothing to do with God.  I’m thinking the Bible has it right — a small group with no building going where the people are and living best they can to do what needs to be done.  Churches don’t get that.

There were lots of statements echoing similar sentiments, but not one defense of what ten years ago was the latest, greatest thing.  Times move fast, and if you close your eyes everything changes and you realize how far behind you are.  Surfing websites and reading the latest publications, it gives the impression that “missional” is the new hot thing.  But in this 4G world of ours, “missional” is so 17 seconds ago.

It reminds me again what I thought I learned doing research in Nashville, but have somehow forgotten: you cannot lead from an office, you cannot stay up to date sitting at a computer, you cannot sit inside the institution and see the institution as it really is.  You have to get out and walk around.  You have to talk to people.  You have to observe.  Don’t look for experts on young adults, or youth culture, or coming trends — go talk to young adults and youth and people living their lives in the world.  By the time it is written down, it is old news.  We need to stop thinking ABOUT people and relate TO people.  The church needs to stop trying to provide ministry FOR groups and individuals and be in ministry WITH people.  Middle class, privileged people have the luxury of meeting at conferences to talk about what they should be doing instead of doing it.  But we had better wake up to the fact that a highly motivated, energetic, and interested generation has absolutely no interest in joining us in our meeting rooms and at our conference tables.  The day of figuring out how to get them to come to us and to be like us is done.  We need to leave our comfy churches and our monuments to ego and go where the world is.  What was emerging is emerged, and what was missional is missed.  What is, is — and we had better learn to go where the need and desire is quickly.

20 replies

  1. I think it was Neuhaus that said “institution” is merely a word for endurance. As a young clergy person myself, I don’t see how we are going to to have any meaningful systemic change without some kind of structure or institution. We need the form and the power, don’t we? Just because young people think that all institutions are equally irrelevant does not make them correct. Every body has a skeleton, like it or not. The body is much more than the skeleton – but it isn’t much without it!

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Dan; I appreciate it. I’m not sure that emerging is as irrelevant as I read this to say, but if it is, it is so in name only.

    That mainline churches may have usurped emergent energies or vocabularies is particularly interesting to me because Diana Bulter Bass, in her The Practicing Congregation, suggests that the emerging church movement was (or is) basically a return of (some within) evangelicalism to the social-ness of the gospel. This makes it something of an intersection with the trajectory of some within mainline who have been, at the same time, re-aquainting ourselves with a higher view of scripture.

    We (mainlines) though, jumped aboard the emerging train, I suspect, because we have a strong desise to find the next big thing that might return us to the glory years (we think we had) behind us. We wanted that to be emergent because something about emergent struck us as related to the things we were already doing.

    Perhaps what we can hope each successive decade of 20-somethings gained an even clearer vision of is that today’s church – and tomorrow’s church – won’t look exactly right for our recollection of 1950s culture – or 1990s culture for that matter.

  3. Dan, I was in the under 35 crowd a dozen years ago. And I find it a bit annoying that now that I’ve been around another decade suddenly my ideas, experiences, and vision are being dismissed by the very age group I was pushing for recognition for when I was their age.

    Is it possible to lift up the needs and ideas of younger people without slamming those of us approaching 50? Because if we can’t we are saying that only one generation is relevant. And the very people who slapped you upside the head today will be considered meaningless out of touch old people in another ten years and they’ll get to watch someone a decade their junior laugh at and deride their commitments and vision for the church for another blogger (or whatever we do in ten years on the net to communicate.)

    I hope we can do better than encouraging one generation to dismiss another.

    • You know, it would be fantastic if we seemed to have a learning curve here. Some of the criticism of the early emerging movement was how hostile and angry it sounded in denouncing “organized” religion. I am afraid we might be caught in a Gordian knot — when movement becomes institution, it becomes less rather than more. People begin to resist the institution, launch new movements, which over time become new institutions… and on and on. The underlying values of early Pentecostalism, parachurch campus ministries in the 50s, the Jesus People movement in the 60s, the New Age movement of the 70s/80s, emerging church in the 90s/00s, missional movement 00s, etc., are remarkably similar. But each movement was assimilated by the mainstream, organized and institutionalized, opening itself up to severe criticism from the next generation’s movement. It was ever thus, may ever will be, but it would be nice if we could break the cycle.

      • I’m not so sure that these movements have common underlying values or become institutions or get assimilated … it seems to me more that they have their time in the sun, their 15 minutes of fame as the “solution to everything” and then disappear from sight.

        The diffusion of innovations arose from the curiosity of 90% of innovations failing to be adopted. It seems to me that this is what innovators always do – propose new ideas that only rarely make it into the mainstream. (Yep – I also owned a Sony Betamax and a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer.)

        The evolving mainstream, however, will absorb concepts which increase effectiveness and leave the chaff behind.

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