A sweet older member of my church was introducing me to her out-of-town friend. “This is our pastor,” she explained to her guest. The lady shook my hand and remarked, “You don’t look old enough to be a pastor.”
I have no illusions about my age. I’m forty-four. My hair is showing a lot of grey, and like that old Aerosmith song, every time I stare into the mirror, “I see the lines in my face getting clearer.”
But at forty-four, I am still a youngster by the standards of most congregations in what I refer to here as the “Institutional Church”, and as such have little or no authority in the eyes of its aging leadership.
At this point, I imagine that you might expect me to begin rattling off all of the ways that the aging leadership of the Institutional Church is failing to include emerging generations like my own in its current or future plans.
I prefer instead to offer an analogy.
Imagine the Institutional Church as a family business. At one point, the business was thriving with the patriarch of the family at the helm. Lately though, business has declined and the patriarch is refusing to do something constructive to address that all-too-evident problem.
The adult children of the patriarch see pretty clearly that doing business the same old way isn’t working. The fax machine in the hall is a relic and the phone system hasn’t been updated since 1983. Marketing strategies like newspaper ads and direct mail may have been worked once, but no one reads newspapers any more, and almost everyone sorts their mail by a trashcan to collect all of the direct mail ads.
The adult children all know that their family business has lost touch with its potential customers and is ill-equipped to undergo the change needed to regain it.
But every time the adult children of the patriarch try to innovate, they are met with a passive-aggressive resistance that is difficult to see coming until it has already landed on them. In one moment, the patriarch is telling all of his friends how awesome it is to have his children working with him, and the next he’s giving them a hundred reasons why their plan to build a new website and rebrand the company will never work.
This pattern of behavior by the patriarch elicits one of three possible responses from the adult children:
- They may quit the family business and embark on an entirely different career path.
- They stay put to wait out the patriarch, but watch in despair as their inheritance dwindles down to nothing.
- They leave to start a new business that directly competes with the family.
I realize this analogy has its flaws and probably doesn’t sit well with those who might decry my use of business imagery as somehow commensurate with the loftier ideas of the Church.
Here’s my point, though: Emerging leaders within the Institutional Church are discovering that the methods and frameworks for ministry they’ve been told are inviolate are simply not working to reach new generations of potential Jesus-followers.
Further, while they are being made to feel as though they are invaluable to the future of the Institutional Church, these very same emerging leaders are too often being told in a hundred different ways to “go stand over there” and “wait your turn.”
Only – these emerging leaders are growing tired of waiting. These leaders realize that the shift required to bring the Institutional Church into relevance is too great for it to bear and those that haven’t left out of frustration are dreaming of something new. They reject the notion that the only ways they can respond are by leaving, capitulating or competing.
I feel so strongly that there is a Spirit-led movement that is taking place in Christian culture – a general disquiet that is being felt by emerging church leaders with antennae tuned to feel the vibrations. The emerging leaders I speak to on a regular basis are imagining a Church free from theological and denominational differences, and loosed into the world to share the radical news of the expansive grace and love of God.
The journey into this next iteration of the Church is one that is full of uncertainty, but it’s one that emerging leaders must be willing to make if they take their commitment to follow Jesus seriously.
Further, emerging leaders must leave behind any notion that this Spirit-led movement should be seen as a way to save the Institutional Church. To do so would render the movement shallow. Instead, this should be seen as it is: A movement that very well may lead us to discern how to truly serve God’s kingdom in a new century and share the timeless hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a rapidly changing culture.
Reverend Leon Bloder is a preacher, a poet, a would-be writer, a husband, a father, a son, a dreamer, a sinner, a pastor, a fellow-traveler and a failed artist. He is talentless, but well-connected. He stumbles after Jesus, but hopes beyond hope that he is stumbling in the right direction. Leon has been married to Merideth for 22 years, is the father of three awesome boys, and serves in ministry at the First Presbyterian Church of Eustis in Eustis, Florida. Visit his website.