Several weeks ago I wrote a post called The Adventist Church Needs You Now More Than Ever. It was a response to the cancellation of a film project the General Conference had commissioned which had garnered a lot of enthusiasm from the younger generation. In the post I encouraged people not to give up on their church, but to get involved. The response I received was tremendous. It definitely struck a chord with many who like myself are tired of watching the church lose more ground than it’s gaining. But mixed within the ra-ra cheerleading were heartfelt responses from individuals who appreciated the hopefulness, but still could not see a brighter future in front of them. Those sentiments echo with a lot more people than optimism does and I wanted to take some time to respond to them.
“I tried to make changes and finally gave up”
This sentiment was reinforced to me this past weekend as I took my youth leadership team to Willow Creek Church in Chicago, Illinois. After being blown away by what Willow Creek does, we sat down and I asked what we could do at our church to get us to that point. “Quit” was the first response. “We should just move to Chicago and transfer here”. Sadly, this is the reality for some of the most gifted people in our churches today. I know many gifted musicians who have left my church because their talents are not utilized. I’ve been tempted many times myself. Rather than seeing a new vision and finding ways to use such talent or even stepping aside to let it happen, church leaders try to plug them into programs that waste their talents. It’s as demoralizing to ask a contemporary worship leader to lead hymns with an organ in the same way it is to ask a classical pianist to play children’s songs for the nursery department. Not that these things are bad, but if this is the best and only use you have for their talent you’re wasting a gift. Within churches across the nation are designers, musicians, actors, artists, writers, and so many more people bursting to use their talents in service for their God and church. And sadly they fall away, feeling they are not wanted. They’re told God doesn’t use those kinds of talents. Anything new and creative is “of the world”.
For the people who have quit, I can only say “I’m sorry”. I understand. The church has been a poor steward of it’s talents. Your creativity and work have been placed in a category similar to science within the church walls. It’s Religion versus creativity. I hope you’ve been able to use your talents for God somewhere. But I also must say thank you. Because you planted a seed. In 2010 I went as the pastor for a group of students on a mission trip to Mexico. Once down there I found that the greatest hurdle wasn’t the sleeping conditions, food, heat, or work. It was the construction supervisor who believed that we were there to build a church only. He didn’t care about worship or spiritual growth. So we worked 10-12 hour days and skipped spiritual programs. The students were so tired they barely responded to the few worships I was able to fit in. I felt like a failure. Our final night in Mexico as we sat in a hotel before flying out the next day, I went for a walk with our site coordinator. I poured my heart out, feeling very disheartened that I didn’t see and experience great spiritual growth with the youth on this trip like other trips I had been on. She put her arm on my shoulder and said “you never know what seed you’ve planted”. As we returned to the hotel we found all of the students sitting in the hallway together signing each other’s bible’s like yearbooks. That night I sat up all night with them laughing and talking, all of us making up for what was lost time. A seed I thought had been carried away by the birds had actually fallen on fertile soil.
People get frustrating because they expect sweeping, dramatic change overnight. And it can’t happen that way. You can’t remodel a kitchen in an evening and you can’t expect an acorn to grow into an oak tree in a few weeks. But little seeds do grow. While many may not be here anymore to see the results, that seed has grown. The seeds planted by a generation fed up with the same old thing are beginning to come to fruition. If you don’t believe me, check out movements like Epic Church in Chicago or The 1 Project. I’m watching seeds I planted five or ten years ago just now happening in my own church. It’s an amazing sight.
“I don’t know what to do”
There are more than a few people sitting in pews each week who would love to see something different happen, but just don’t know what or how. They have talents and skills that they may not even be aware of. Others just don’t know where to start. They think they need to go through formal plans and board approval. For these people it’s not quite as frustrating, but almost more disheartening. They feel there’s nothing they can do to make things change. I was there ten years ago, wandering around the church foyer with no idea of how I could be part of the church. It was then that one of the pastors took a gamble and asked if I’d help with the high school students. Sometimes it’s not so much us knowing what we want or can do, but putting ourselves in a position to be noticed. Those of us with the ideas can’t do them alone and often don’t know where to look to find people to help us with the crazy plans bursting out of our head.
Beyond putting yourself in a place to be noticed is not overcomplicating what “ministry” really is. Ministry doesn’t happen during specific hours, on church property, led by a member of the pastoral staff. Think about what it is that you like to do and do that as a “ministry”. I often joke that the reason I stuck with youth ministry is because I wanted people who would paintball and play video games with me. Bible study and worship while important parts of what I do, actually take the least amount of time. The rest of the time is spent listening to how the week has gone while playing foosball or watching a movie. My wife is part of a group I call “parents without a home”. It’s a group of parents whose children don’t need them for supervision in Sabbath school anymore. They sit in the sanctuary and talk instead of blending into a lesson study somewhere. And more than anything this group is what gets my wife out of bed and to church anymore. As a Christian, every moment of every day is ministry. There are ministries just waiting to be started for people who play Ping Pong, for coffee snobs, yoga, campers, runners, gamers, movie buffs, book lovers, and even dried fruit connoisseurs. You don’t have to have grand plans or change existing ministries. Just find a few people and do something as people who love being together through your relationship with Jesus Christ.
Giving up on the church and quitting is like giving up on the government and moving to Canada.
What point does it serve? You’re only hurting yourself. Millenials in 2008 showed up in droves for one thing; HOPE! That was the idea that helped Barack Obama win the presidential election and eventually a Nobel Peace Prize. Sure there were other platform items, some good and others not so much. But what he showed is that if you care, you don’t walk away. You stand up and do something. There are those who have left the church because they gave up fighting because they felt nothing will ever change. They will read this and say “you’re wasting your time”. And on the surface I would agree. But they also haven’t caught glimpses of the future of the church the way I have. When students are not afraid to ask questions the previous generation wouldn’t even acknowledge I know something bigger is coming. So I would ask…
How much are you trying to change? The whole denomination? Or just your little piece of it, even if it’s you and three friends playing monopoly.
What are you trying to change? How? Why?
Are you looking for big, instantaneous results or sprouts from little seeds?
If you’re looking for bigger ideas to reimagine the entire church, stay tuned in the coming weeks for more ideas. In the mean time, start small and see where God takes you when you just put yourself out there.