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. Yep. And the young adults and teens we need to connect with most are NOT the ones who are in our church. We ought to be hanging out at schools, after school programs, and sports events. Volunteering to tutor or coach in our neighborhood school can be as valid a ministry as working with a church youth group. (By the way, I am now working as a substitute teacher.) Kids need caring adults in their lives.

  2. seems to me I remember reading that someone once declared ………a long time ago …….


    Again, on my KEEP IT SIMPLE “platform”
    one of the genius’ of the Wesleyan Way …….

    Blessings for A Holy Lent

  3. If “the emerging missional way” were only about the books– and mostly those connected with Emergent Village– then yes, that played out a long time ago while you were still at GBOD and I was just arriving there.

    If “missional church” is defined as anything like what mainline denominational “leaders” mean when they use the term– well, that’s been playing like a scratched phonograph record for some time, too.

    But where both of these “movements” still have some genuine vitality I think, something more challenging to offer, is where they each push us toward actual discipling and living as disciples of Jesus rather than simply trying to find some new way to be “relevant” and “attractive” so folks will want to come and get their religious goods and services from us in some way. I see the call to discipleship in each of these movements quite alive– and across multiple generations.

    I couldn’t agree more that we can’t lead from bureaucratic offices. But those offices aren’t there for leading all that much anyway, are they, but rather for supplying resources and guidance for others who lead at other levels– laity and pastors in congregations, leaders (paid and volunteer) in districts and conferences, and even the bishops from time to time, perhaps.

    I also couldn’t agree more that telling one group of people (Group A) what a whole other group of people (Group B) is like and what Group A needs to do to get more of Group B into their congregations is rather unlikely to be all that helpful to Group B or even at all representative of Group B (if Group B even qualifies as any sort of a coherent group!).

    So, like you, I try actively to stay in touch with people across the age and cultural spectrum. I do that from an office, and via Facebook and Twitter and Skype and blogs and face to face conversations when I get the chance. It doesn’t lead to generalizations that I can put into books to market “the next big thing to do to get these people into your congregation.” Instead, it reminds me more and more of the aptness and brilliant subtlety of the phrase, “body of Christ.”

    Keep the conversations going, Dan!

    From your former, “white,” 40-something colleague…

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

  4. DAN, come visit the FSU Wesley Foundation sometime. I would love for you to have that same conversation with my students! Most of them wouldn’t have a clue about the “movements” being discussed here. But, they know that the institution is in trouble, and they love Jesus.

    • I hear you, and I would love to talk to your students. I am endlessly amazed at how fully they challenge all my assumptions and get me thinking about the parts of our world in which I am a stranger…

  5. Too many of “the next big thing!” seems to either be dependent on “the indispensable leader” or won’t work in a group beyond 12-20. Everything I’ve seen about “emerging chuches” seems to need both. I continue to be amazed at how my apportionment dollars get spent developing paradigms that don’t work with a denomination and in fact treat the idea of being in a denomination with contempt.

    I realize that young people aren’t the future, but are the church today. But, now being on the other side of 45, I continue to get more and more convinced that trying to remake the denomination to please each new crop of young people will wind up with the same result as the fable about the old man, his son and the donkey. Trying to please everyone will result in you pleasing no one. We are talking about a group that doesn’t know what it wants. We need to provide opportunities for younger people to run ministries for themselves but it would be foolish to give anyone a blank check just because they are our new sacred cows.

    Some time ago, one of our older leaders offered his support to a group of younger people to take over one of our weaker churches and let them run it. They never took him up on it. People who are trying to get through school, get started in the workplace and find a mate and start a family wouldn’t be the people that one would expect to run their own organization, whether a church or anything else.

  6. First, well said… I’ve sat in many UMC think tank meetings wishing whoever was asking me these kinds of questions was actually listening–at least you are? One thought about your responses–I think you’d get the same response from asking a middle aged or 50+ person who isn’t churched. This is exactly what so many people (I’d say 20-50) who roll their eyes at church are craving, not just young people. We just study the young people at church because we look inside of our walls for our next congregation, and we’ve noticed that it is leaving.

    And one honest response to what you asked in your meeting: I wouldn’t say the answer is to throw out the emergent church/missional church altogether, I’d say the real truth you spoke was getting out from behind your desk. So often, I want to say: “Get your head out of the book and just do the ministry you read about.” It isn’t so much about model. For young people in the UMC, a large portion of leadership is seen as “talking heads looking for the answer while doing nothing and just getting further from understanding local ministry.”

    Thanks for posting this. I really appreciate that you picked up on what was being shared with you.

  7. I’m 50+ and I very much relate to those comments–especially after reading “Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream” and “Radical Together”. David Platt and Brook Hills Church in Birmingham are proving there is a spot for gut wrenching, life on the line, scriptural disciple- ship in America; even if it is out of a multi-million dollar building. The key is what is the prevailing attitude/focus of the people occupying that multi-million dollar building. Being a life long Methodist, a very much disillusioned one at the moment, I try to visualize how that attitude could play out within our Wesleyan context. Platt used Wesley as an example on managing material wealth, and several of Platt’s other thoughts came across as Wesleyan, including his absolute faith that the Bible, in its entirety, has everything we need to become more like Jesus; although I think Wesley used slightly different verbage.

    I’ve had a vision and it is about we have to get out in the world with disciples that understand and can verbalize their faith in a rational, normal, “non-Chritianese” fashion. And that vision has been confirmed through reading. Problem is there just is not many within the Methodist Church that can do that–me included–although I am working on that. At my age, I finally met somebody that made it real and doable for me three years ago. He is a UMC pastor.

    I stood in the parking lot after Ash Wednesday Worship and point blank asked a couple who were long time members if they could articulate their faith–the answer was no and the husband said the church should be teaching that. I was spurred to ask the question of them because once again we were instructed to go out and tell people what Jesus has “done for me”–and I know I sit there wondering what I am supposed to say. After much reading and pursuing on my own, I am beginning to formulate some thoughts–but it is because I went looking. The great irony is our mission statement is “Share the Joy of Knowing Christ: Reach, Teach, Serve”. There has never ben any intentional equipping of people to “Share the Joy”.

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