Holy Discontent About Church-As-It-Is
In January of this year Outreach Magazine ran a listicle, “Ten Reasons Churches Don’t Reach Millennials.” Reason number one? “There is a strong resistance to change.”
Mike Frost, the Australian missiologist, lecturer, and Vice President of Morling College in Sydney, recently asked if the seminary could produce visionary leaders, pioneers who are capable of affecting change. Frost noted that those in the seminary environment are the success stories of the present church systems. They are the ones who like the church “the way it is.” Those leaving the church do so because they say the church is resistant to change. Something has to give.
Frost notes that many of our candidates for ministry preach monological sermons because they have enjoyed monological sermons, and they maintain present institutional forms because they have benefited from those institutional forms. When these young people are ordained they become part of “the hegemony of the presbyterate.”
If this is true, those entering the ministry do not do so in order to change it, but to preserve what they have found. Furthermore, the structure itself places internal pressure upon ordinands to maintain the status quo. Meanwhile, those who believe the church is in need of change abandon the project, leaving the church altogether.
But there is hope. Frost writes, “I’ve had enough students come through my classrooms over the years who are true visionaries, capable of exerting meaningful God-honoring change in our churches. Not a flood, mind you. A trickle. But a trickle might be enough.”
What kind of leaders does the church need? Frost writes:
We need to find those leaders who are daring and imaginative, who can return to the source and imagine future possibilities for being God’s people in our current age.
We need brave leaders who can see the big picture, not just the next small step.
We need leaders who enjoy the process of change, and who are patient and steadfast in effecting it.
We need emerging leaders to be focused and present, who empower others, who create non-anxious environments for innovation and experimentation.
We need open-minded leaders who aren’t fearful of new ideas, who don’t agree with everything they hear, but can entertain the possibilities while sifting ideas to find what God wants for us.
We need leaders who aren’t terrified of failure.
Frost teaches in a seminary environment, and he can do his best to instill these virtues in his students. But these lessons can be taught long before candidates for ministry experience a call and then choose to pursue further education. These lessons can be taught in the church.
When pastoral leaders in the church hear Millennials say that the church needs to change, ask them how and why. Ask them what would be a better way forward. Rather than resisting change wholesale, create a space for conversation, and then challenge that person to help the church be better rather than criticize the church from a distance.
Then, in broader ecclesial settings, create space for voices calling for change to be heard rather than suppressed. Help “the hegemony of the presbyterate” see that it may be the Holy Spirit who is speaking through a new generation, and that Christ himself may be leading the church to explore new vehicles to reach new people for the kingdom in a new generation.
Change for the sake of change is foolhardy, and the church should avoid faddishness or panic. The church has tradition, moral knowledge, practical wisdom, and theological truth which should be preserved and passed on. But the church must carefully discern the leading of the Spirit and exhibit trust in God, not in human customs. Millennial voices may be the ones to provide visionary leadership, not because they are especially clever or innovative, but rather because they bring to us a fresh word from God.