I need to start off this article with a short disclaimer. I got started down this philosophical road by an article in Matt Crosslin’s blog, which he started as a response to a Relevant Magazine article, “Is There a Church Mutiny Afoot?” I started my part of the discussion several weeks ago, but was unsatisfied with what I’d written. I felt that my thoughts on the issue were too muddled, and in some ways I still feel that way. One of the reasons I write this blog is to put legs on ideas, and in so doing, bring a little clarity to them. That is the only reason I have put this up. It is important for any reader to understand that none of this is combative, although the issue of Christian ambition does strike a bit of a sore spot with me. Further, I have no animosity toward Matt or Relevant. In fact, I feel the opposite. Some great illumination has come to me through the reading of both. It is in the healthy debate that I feel the greatest good is served.
“I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid.” G.K. Chesterton
A recent article in Relevant Magazine equated ministry to young adults as a mutiny, particularly when it is “a young adult service” aimed at creating a new expression of worship in a gathering at the church. I must start this rebuttal by saying, I wholeheartedly agree. I think that young-adult ministries trying to create their own worship service with younger sounding music and younger-sounding preaching (whatever that is) is at its core born in rebellion. But in my mind, the real questions are “Why is rebellion always bad?” and “How can younger leaders take over the reins of Church leadership without it being seen as rebellion?”
So if this is rebellion, what is being rebelled against? Is it the adolescent rebellion that says, “Whatever you say, I’ll do the opposite”? I don’t think so. It is less a rebellion of theology, or a rejection of older people in the faith, but a rejection of structures that have been broken for a long time. Erwin McManus is one of those rebelling. He has said that his goal is to dismantle the Church, and rebuild it as Christ would want it. He isn’t rebelling for the sake of wanting to do his own thing. He is rebelling because he says a deep fundamental brokenness that needs to be fixed.
We also have to look at modern church history and realize that these people aren’t rebelling against Christ-instituted structures that have been in place for more than 2000 years. In fact, many younger people are more counter-rebelling against a rebellion that started in the late 60’s and flourished through the 80’s. During that time, much of what the defined the Church was thrown out, sometimes because it was not working, but other times because it was “old.” I recall hearing a successful Christian leader in the early 90’s say, “People are just interested in hearing about things like salvation anymore. They just want to know how to fix their marriage. We can’t talk about those old concepts any longer.” That was rebellion.
But we have to admit that things seem to be broken at the moment. Church influence in America is waning. Fewer Americans are claiming a Christian allegiance. Young Americans are leaving the Church in droves. The Relevant article points to this statistic as a sign of arrogance and in some sense, I must agree. This generation is an arrogant one, and this arrogance must be partly to blame. But all statistical analysis of this trend shows that the primary reasons for young people leaving the Church is that they just don’t find it essential to their lives (see The Essential Church). This is also not because the young have decided to go it alone, but because the Church has often made itself irrelevant by continuing to do things because “that’s just what we do.” Often times people walk away from these events thinking “That simply wasn’t valuable to me at all.”
Younger leaders in the Church see all of this happening and want to do something about it. After all, eternities hang in the balance. Matt Crosslin writes in his blog that
“People in the 20 somethings age bracket really do feel that older adults have nothing to offer them. I have heard them say it directly occasionally.”
He says that this disdain is often veiled in an explanation of how older adults advice on how they dealt with a problem 20 years ago is not helpful in dealing with similar circumstances today. I would agree with Matt that any person who thinks along those lines would be falling prey to the same fallacy that Chesterton’s quote in the beginning of this article mentioned. I would also agree that there are significant numbers of 20-somethings who would think this. But I don’t think that forms much of the basis for why wise leaders of this movement of young adults are doing what they are doing.
Why are wiser leaders leading this rebellion? The common cliché is that “leaders lead.” But I am sure that the truth of that quote goes far beyond stating what leaders do. The depth of the statement comes from its reflexive nature. Those leading are often leading because they are leaders. Leadership is in them. It is who they are, not just what they do. Young leaders are doing exactly that.
Steve Robbins, the director of Vineyard Leadership Institute, points out that one of the reasons that churches must church-plant is that young leaders will leave when not given the opportunity to lead. He point out that this isn’t because these young people are arrogant or rude, but that they feel they have a call from God to lead. They feel that they can do something to make a difference in the world around them.
But much of Christendom seems to think that any time that younger leaders want to lead that is inspired by some form of insipid disrespectful, ego lead, rebellious zeal that undermines the Church. For some reason, the Church is one of the few institutions where it is seen as somehow evil for young people to have ambition and a desire to lead.
Paul instructed Timothy to not allow others to look down on him because of his youth (1 Tim 4:12). He set up Timothy to lead, and took joy in him. He also taught him how to lead, and instructed that he learn from those more mature. Isn’t that what any good leader would do?
I think that we primarily bristle against the idea of young Christian leaders in general because it seems to smell a little like ambition. We all know that ambition is against God’s will…Um…oh wait…is it? The Bible guards against “selfish ambition” (Gal 5:20, Phil 1:17, Phil 2:3, Jas 3:14, et al.) and “vain conceit” (Phil 2:3). But the Bible doesn’t decry ambition on the whole. In fact, it was Paul’s ambition to take the gospel to Rome. It was King David’s ambition to build God’s temple. It was Hezekiah’s ambition to rebuild Jerusalem. Proverbs 25 somewhat cryptically says, “it is the glory of kings to search out a matter.” One must interpret this as a validation of ambitious pursuits. If ambition were an unbiblical quality, then those positive examples would be antithetical.
We can see this in Christian history as well. Was William Wilberrforce’s ambition to eradicate slavery in the British empire against God’s will? Was Martin Luther’s ambition to return the Church to Biblical truth ungodly rebellion? How about Mother Theresa’s dream of changing a nation, or Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a nation free of racism?
Leaders lead. Young leaders lead. Some of them lead out of selfish ambition. Others lead because God built them that way, and for them to exercise the gifts that God made them is glorifying to Him who made them. Sometimes they will make mistakes. But they will do what God made them for. To prevent that is the real rebellion.
I heard Leonard Sweet once say that God leaders in the post-modern Church must lead like a child on a swing set, leaning back into a rich Christian history and tradition, but kicking forward into the newness of God’s present and future calling. Good leaders will not forsake the wisdom of those who went before them. They will stand on those elders’ proverbial shoulders. They will see farther, Christ willing. They will stand taller. Some will think that all old ideas are bad, but I bet on the whole that they will embrace those ideas more than many in past generations, and seek to reach out across generations. The worst thing we could do is to throw out all of the good that this new leadership will do simply because of the ignorance and childishness of a few. -Ryan