Do you ever find yourself sucked into a movie or television show and don’t know how you got there? Then the trance is broken and reveals that you have been watching The Home Shopping Network for an hour (and, sadly, enjoying it). Not long ago, we did this with the entire movie Blast from the Past. If you haven’t seen it, this movie finds the Webber family in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis. When a malfunctioning jet crashes into their house and is interpreted to be a nuclear missile strike, they end up hiding in a fallout shelter designed by their genius father, Calvin (Christopher Walken). The family locks the doors and
seals everything off for 35 years.
As time passes, the supplies inevitably run low, and Calvin is forced to leave the shelter to inspect the supposedly devastated San Fernando Valley. After some freak run-ins with less-than-normal people, Calvin retreats back to the shelter convinced that the world has deteriorated into a subhuman race. Before he can go back out for another look, the father suffers a heart attack, and the son, Adam (Brendan Fraser), is sent to gather supplies.
Adam enters this world after having spent his entire life isolated from the culture in a mid-century bomb shelter. He is convinced that society has been destroyed and everyone around him is some kind of mutant. As he emerges, Adam discovers that a nuclear holocaust never occurred and that nearly the first half of his life was in vain. Sadly, his father is not convinced, and the movie ends with Calvin measuring out his new back yard for another bomb shelter. Isn’t it equally strange how many church leaders have reacted when faced with a similar cultural experience? For many of us, church is a lot different than it was when we were in seminary. The Church has different boundaries; she plays by different rules. Many of us are emerging out of our church “bomb shelters” to find a culture that is radically different than the one inside, and it scares us.
In many ways, the Church can become accustom made cocoon, woven with silks of tight-knit fraternity, institutionalized language and stubborn traditions. As church leaders break out of their homespun houses of God, some find it difficult to communicate with the culture at large. The result can be an awkward, transitional cross-breed with all the insecurities of adolescence. Maybe you’ve been to a church like this: Th e music begins, and rather than participation, you see performance. The songs always come in threes and tend to mirror the run list on the latest Passion CD, making you feel like you are being played to and even played with. The pastor is obviously trying really, really hard to look the part of a contemporary church communicator with his slicked-back hair and sleeves rolled up, but the acid-wash jeans tell a different story. He sits atop a stool, but his nervous hands jitter for a pulpit like a coffee addict deprived of his 10 a.m. latte. All of these nonverbals set off an electric impulse somewhere in the part of your brain conditioned to be individualistic and creative, and you find yourself uncomfortably longing for authenticity.
We must be clear that Christians should be grateful for any work of God that is pursuing relevance in ministry. Certainly, those churches that have changed their ways, even endured battles with stubborn members and deacons, deserve applause. At least these churches and leaders are willing to get in the game. But it is imperative to understand that sitting atop a stool and singing “Shout to the Lord” isn’t enough. It is far from enough, and it will not reach people by itself. Reality says that the Church of the 1990s is not going to work best in the 21st century. This generation craves definitive authenticity.
Perhaps you serve in a similar context. You are transitioning, you are morphing, you are “blended.” You know where you want to be, but you are unsure exactly how to get there. Certainly, you could change the externals—cool graphics, sleeker wardrobe, better worship mixes—but externals fall short with this deeply introspective generation. You need all the intangible fundamentals you never learned in seminary. You need authentic church, not Church, Inc. If this is you, here are a few pointers to shake off
the swamp thing and progress in your quest for ministry authenticity.
LOSE THE LECTURE
In the past century and even in more contemporary churches of the 1990s, the earmarks of Christian maturity were often characterized through expressions like Bible study, Sunday-school attendance, Tuesday-night visitation, joining the choir or praise team, etc. While these may be beneficial practices that may spur growth, the movement in this century is toward participating in the working out of the Gospel in our own lives. Rather than teach people about Christianity, we must show them how to live it out.
If you are one of the many pastors who took out a second mortgage to buy stock in the “purpose-driven” paradigm, consider this: Rick Warren points out that while the first Reformation centered on belief, the new Reformation will center on behavior. “[The new Reformation] will be about the Church—individually and congregationally—becoming more than just hearers of the Word: They will become doers of the Word,” he says. “We will begin to consistently and continually act upon what we believe.” In the last century, many young believers realized that there is a disconnect between knowing the right things and doing the right
things. Rather than teach people about Christianity, we must show them how to know and believe and live Christianly.
The swing from apathy to action explains the heightened interest in missions and social justice within the Church. A recent article by The Christian Post even stated, “This generation has the gift of discerning authenticity in the church … And this generation wants to do missions, not just study and give to missions.” Rising generations want a hands-on faith with more field trips, less bookwork, and instructions for doing their own homework.
But this doesn’t mean we have to change our message; it means we speak that message incarnationally rather than just propositionally. It means moving away from classroom learning and emphasizing the Christian life as the primary growth tool. Put simply, 21st-century Christian maturity will happen while doing the Gospel, not while studying the Gospel.
In the New Testament, there is a clear connection between doing the Gospel and studying the Gospel. For example, Paul encourages his ministry apprentice, Timothy, to make sure his beliefs are reflected in his actions—literally, that Timothy’s orthodoxy (right belief) works itself out in his orthopraxy (right action). Christianity must be willing to make a connection between their talk and their walk.
FELT NEEDS FIRST
Felt-needs preaching is becoming increasing popular in the 21st-century Church. Though it is supposed to speak to major life issues (divorce, finances, relationships, etc.), we often fail to interact with those whose needs we are addressing. If we are not careful, we can be dangerously drawn into a subculture where we serve in a Christian church, do business mostly with Christian businesspersons, read only Christian books, only spend time with Christian friends, get our hair cut by a Christian stylist, hang out at Christian coffeehouses and attend Christian conferences and concerts. By hunkering in our bomb shelters, we isolate ourselves from relationships with the very demographic we are trying to reach.
Dan Kimball, founder of Vintage Faith, was once embedded in the “comfortably numbing” Christian subculture. Kimball decided to research other Christians and realized that most Christ followers rarely interact with the unchurched on a personal level. This opened his eyes to his own shameful isolation from the unchurched due to his ministry schedule. In his book They like Jesus but Not the Church, he says, “I wonder if many of us have been so busy inside our churches that we haven’t really stopped to
observe and listen to those outside our churches.”
Kimball, convinced that we must interact relationally with the lost in order to develop an effective ministry model, began making time for cultural contact in his own schedule. “I started studying in a coffeehouse and got to know the people working there,” he says. “Monday and Tuesday I am in the office, but Wednesday and Thursday and I am out among the unchurched … it has become a part of my lifestyle.”
It is a staggering question: How can we speak to the needs of unchurched people we know nothing about unless we encounter the culture relationally? The tough answer is we can’t. “Even when I was in the bubble, I thought I was connecting … [but] I wasn’t understanding how culture is teaching and shaping the minds of those who don’t have a spiritual lens,” he says. “That comes from understanding and knowing those people’s perspectives. Then we see what their real questions are.” Kimball says the answer is to do what Jesus did and experience life with the unchurched. When we understand people on a personal level, we will understand their likes, fears, desires and needs. “It is really not hard. Everybody has different interests,” he says. “I’m into music. It is my natural bridge to people. If there is a concert that this other guy may like, I will ask him to go, and not my Christian friends … focus your change on what your natural interests are.”
Th e point cannot be stressed enough: Rising generations demand authenticity. As the unchurched walk through your doors, you must equip them with application-infused principles from God’s Word. If you simply slap their cheeks with life-lacking, arcane theological points, they will shed you like sun-scorched skin. But if you spend intimate time with those outside of the Church, you are able to truly empathize with and speak to their needs from the platform. More importantly, you will create an opportunity to move the conversation beyond a Sunday morning monologue to a place where life change can happen.
TRIM THE FAT
In a ravenous world that is pouncing to grab our attention, free time and wallets, the Church has become another example of the corporate-marketing complex. If we are not careful we can fail to realize that many people are torn between lackluster Sunday experiences in our chairs and pews, and other worthy investments of their time.
A recent study by Fortune magazine studied the rising work force and found that we share a common desire for purpose and tangible impact in the workplace. The attitude is not localized to the workplace, but is seen in the Church. The rising generation desires to be involved with meaningful life experiences that contribute to their impact in this world. If we continue to offer superfluous, low-impact programming, we should continue to expect to have difficulty communicating with the unchurched beyond one or two visits.
In the past, churches loaded up its members with so much programming that they would have little time for anything else. Th is worked because the Church was the center of most believers’ existences. Our new century brings busier schedules than the last one, and our programming should reflect good stewardship of our members’ time. Eric Geiger, executive pastor of Christ Fellowship in Miami and co-author of Simple Church, feels that too many of our programs are unnecessary. “The churches that make the biggest difference in their communities are not doing lots of programming,” he says. “People are involved in Little League games and the homeowner’s association … they just aren’t preoccupied with the Church.”
Geiger points out that the information that was once only available at church is now available through our many Internet and media outlets. Churches must help people process that information through practical disciple-making. He says that this type of a church has “a clear and simple process for discipleship. They say ‘no’ to everything outside of that.” By trimming the fat, your church can focus on excellence in the things that remain. This is a difficult decision for any church, but one which must be prayerfully considered.
Maybe you are just emerging from your bomb shelter, or maybe you have been out amongst the “mutants” for years now. Like Adam, we must have the courage to adjust to the light of a changing world. If you take the time to truly feel the pulse of people, make “Christianity” an action word and offer deliberate programming, we can move beyond the shelters of security and into a deeper, more meaningful community. Look past inauthentic externals and breathe in the fresh air of open ministry.