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.