Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Looking down

It hit me hard I must admit, though I think I kept my face from giving away the fact that my world slipped out of orbit more than I cared to let on. We had finished lunch, and our church staff were discussing church stuff. As often happens these days, the topic turned to the gnawing sense we have that a huge part of our community is becoming increasingly ambivalent to all things "church." We've looked around and seen that our growth among the almost retired set is faster than among the 25-35 year-old group. And so, after hearing some of my staff offer the same old critiques, I decided to hit it straight on.

"So" I demanded, "what would you do to make Northpoint (our church!) more attractive to younger folks?" One of my staff friends looked at me, trying hard to figure out if he really wanted to venture out on the limb that his answer demanded. Finally, after pleading with his eyes that I not retaliate, he offered this: "We'd need younger preachers."

There it was! A blast that rocked my world. Fortunately, another staff guy came to my rescue, scooped the puddle of my heart off the floor, and carefully poured it back into me when he said "I think the age of the preacher isn't the thing that matters, only the Gospel being well represented and authentically declared." Okay, I'm alright now, really.

The next day the first guy asked if he'd hurt my feelings. Of course I lied. "No, I really enjoyed hearing your ideas!" But the truth is that it really hurt even though he wasn't in anyway suggesting that I am too old to be effective as a preacher and herald of God's truth. What he was trying to say is just a new twist on the old adage that "congregations tend to end up looking like their preacher." And what really hurt the most was that I think - in part - he was right. But before I explain what I mean, let me take a rabbit trail that is worth remembering.

Rabbit Trail: It struck me after the lunch conversation that things have really changed. In 1 Timothy 4:12, the old Apostle Paul - at the height of his apostolic effectiveness! - has to encourage Timothy not to let his youthfulness stand in the way of his ministry to the people of Ephesus. "Don't let anyone look down on your youth! Rather, use your youth to your advantage and show the world that Christ can transform the follies of youth into exemplary, spiritual character"(Hegg paraphrase!). Crazy as it may seem, in that day, youthfulness (and Tim was probably a robust 35!) was seen as a detriment, an obstacle to effectiveness.

Today, Timothy would be doing the writing: "Paul, hey look ... I know you're getting into your late 40's - or is it 50's? - but, dude ... don't give up! I know you're being told to die your hair black, and grow that soul patch, and expand your collection of tee shirts, but man ... don't let anyone look down on your age-fullness! Rather, use your oldness to your advantage! Show the world that Christ can keep life worth living even through the 'age of colonoscopy', and the creaking bones, and the Metamucil! Be an example of what years of experience and spiritual maturity can bring to a church community!"

So, I hope you get the point: IT NEVER WAS ABOUT AGE! Not in Timothy's day, and not in ours. What it is about is the extent to which the life is overflowing with Christ. And here's why: Christ is eternally relevant; when a life leads with Christ ... when the character and compassion and wisdom of Christ ooze out of a person, he/she will be useable by the Spirit of God regardless of their chronological position.

So back now to the primary trail. My staff friend was on to something. I'm not sure that what I am about to suggest is what he was thinking, but his boldness turned on the motor of my mind, and I think I've come to some ministry-defining conclusions.

But first, we go backward, all the way back to the fundamental ideas of communicating the Gospel. And by communicating, I am talking here about the corporate activity of a gathered people who come together, under the leadership of a few appointed ministers, to celebrate God, appreciate one another authentically, and consecrate themselves to the service of the Gospel. The simple word for this is "worship." We gather to "worship." The challenge here is so much greater than the challenge of personal worship. Gathered worship demands that we use tools - we might call them elements - to keep a large group of hearts and minds focused on the same thing, moving in the same direction, intent on elevating Christ Jesus and His truth above our own desires. These "tools" include songs, and prayers, and sermons, and readings, and creeds, and all sorts of other things we normally don't include, like lights, and chairs, and air conditioning. All of these, to a lesser or greater extent, remove distractions and/or provide a type of "herding" force to keep a group of diverse people moving in the same direction, down the same path, to engage with God. The purpose of our singing, our praying, our everything is to bring unity to diversity, focus to chaos, and intentional engagement with God to those who have entered the room filled with myriad different feelings, opinions, hurts, needs, experiences, and so much more. As I write this I come even more to understand how difficult corporate worship really is! No wonder so few achieve lasting success!

And so, if we take this further, and combine my lunchtime findings, we come to see that different types of "tools" work better to direct and focus different kinds of people, even groups or categories of people. A young preacher, using the tool of his style may just be better at directing the attention of a young audience.

Imagine the challenge: people aren't just different in terms of their ethnicities, and ages, but also in terms of the way they process information, the ways they respond emotionally, their preferences, their maturity, their sinfulness, their selfishness, and a whole bunch of other things! So, how in the world do we ever think that we can successfully herd a bunch of people to engage with God unless, by the tools we choose to use we self-limit the kinds of people who will come through the doors in the first place?

Let me explain further. I have come to lean toward perhaps suggesting cautiously (what boldness!) the idea that it is good to have different venues where the one message of the Gospel story (the Bible, and all of its commands, consequences, and delights) is preached, but that the set of tools selected in each venue are those that best herd a recognized group of people. I am not talking about just playing to the selfishness of every group, but of recognizing, from among the large number of godly, biblically-aligned tools available, which ones best "herd" which people, and then using them without the guilt of having to provide a service that benefits every type or group.

You may respond to my "herding" idea with less than full enthusiasm, so let me go further. All we can do is herd. We can't force anyone to worship. All we can do is lead them to the water of heaven, but drinking is up to them. We can put enticements before them, offer elements to move the heart and mind to engage with God, but ultimately, worship must be the action of an individual's will. He/She must abandon themselves to God. Just as all politics is local, all worship is essentially personal, even when we are in a crowd of worshipers.

Of course, like me, some of you are saying "but different venues threaten the unity of the Body!" And yes, we're right, but all that means is that we have to find ways to keep that from happening. And, if we stop and think about it for a minute, we'll realize that those "people" we are trying to reach are either 1) not gathering anywhere to engage with God, or 2) are more than likely gathering in a place where they have a kickin' band, and a pitiful Gospel. So, if the tools we use are God-honoring, and biblically-aligned, and the Gospel message is pure, where is the frown of God? And besides, if those in different venues are pulled together in service for the community, or taught to prize "team" wins (where venues applaud one another for using resources well to further the mission), then an authentic unity of the Body is not going to be any more elusive than it is in a single-venue congregation.

So, lunch was great, the conversation was hard, and the end-result is that I have a whole new set of dreams. Chuck Swindoll once said, in speaking to preachers, that when your memories are better than your dreams, you're through, and you ought to find someone to take your place. Well, my dreams actually have grown as a result of someone suggesting that others take my place ... and I couldn't be more excited about it!
There is more energy in putting mission first than in making sure "me" is getting taken care of. I think Jesus lived that way, and He's calling us all to follow Him .. closely. And O yeah, I'm not giving up preaching just yet!

Hope this helps; it sure helped me,



At 10:26 PM , Blogger Spansel Family said...

I'm in with kickin' band and colonoscipized preacher ... I'm in with chorale octavos and young guy preacher ... heck I'm in with chorale lala's AND the colonoscipized preacher ... because we don't have a pitiful Gospel, we have one mighty to save! Thanks for lunch.

At 12:36 PM , Blogger ps1395 said...

On the age thing:

I think the staff member thinks what he thinks because he is not old enough to know any better. Old is not age, but a state of mind.... I am shocked every morning when I look in the mirror and see my hair is not the same color as my eyes anymore! BTW, there is already a large portion of the congregation who are contemporaries of the current preacher. Don't neglect us. I am not sure it is our job to "make Northpoint more attractive" to anyone. Jesus is all the attractive we need to be.

In high school, I had a friend who could immitate the teachers perfectly. He, other friends and I often went to the Saturday night Calvary Chapel concerts and my friend could immitate Chuck Smith too. This amused us, but when we really wanted meat -- wisdom if you will -- we looked to Chuck Smith.

Somewhere in my memory, are moments when I am riding in a big car (no seatbelts, no carseat) when I could lie on the back seat and watch the lights go up and down, past the back of the front seats. , I knew we were going home and it would be my dad who was driving and who would get me home. If I slept, he would pick me up and put me in bed while my mom put my pajamas on and tucked me in. If there is ever a time in our lives when the older, stronger, wiser person is so delightedly in charge, it is then. Translating that into the worship setting, the leader is driving the car, and there are times when I sit and allow myself to be driven. I need the maturity of the driver.

Later, when I was in my teens and twenties, and knew so much more, the older seemed less wise, less in control. But as soon as I reached parenthood, suddenly, they knew so much more than I and I sought them out with abandon. Calling my mother in tears so many times regarding having the baby I was so not ready for, she merely said, "It's a good thing God gives us 9 months to get used to the idea." A thousand times over the next years, I would call her for advice, a shoulder, or just a to talk, there was no substitute for her wisdom and experience over mine. I surely miss that.

At 2:02 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just have to say that on the way out of church yesterday, our daughter, who is in her 20s, commented, "Wow! That was a really good sermon! Those ARE the questions people have out there in the world about Christianity, and he [David Hegg] knows how to explain everything so people can actually understand it."

She was out here visiting and so doesn't attend Northpoint, but we do, and I would be sad if you took away one of the very reasons we are there in the first place by replacing it with someone who caters to a younger crowd (we are late 40s/early 50s). That is actually largely why we left our last church.

At 4:09 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read this blog and don't think the problem is younger preachers. Your elder board is full of young men, with only a few that are middle aged. If that is the case, then why don't the younger leaders bring in the younger audience? I don't think that is the answer at all. Younger pastors don't necessarily mean good pastors for drawing the youth.

Maybe the church needs to rethink on how to reach the youth without changing it's diversity, age, gender, race etc. God is a god of diversity (every tongue and tribe). Without the older men and women in the church, there is no life wisdom or experience to guide the younger people. For instance, doesn't it say in the Bible that the older women should be teaching the younger women? But, we often segregate the ages and keep them apart. When I was going to a college group at my home church, there was a couple who were in their early 60's who were the mom and pop of the group and they were loved by all and many of us came to them for guidance, because we did not have it at home. I find that young pastors have a lot to learn from older believers, that seminary does not make one a pastor, it is God's calling and humility, humility, humility. That humility does not often come with youth, but with age.

I have attended your church for some time and find that the youth have difficulty with the youth groups, many opt to go to other youth groups. I know that you teach the Bible and in the youth groups they do that too. That is very important, but is it at a level that is applicable to what the kids are dealing with everyday. Is it teaching them how to deal with the struggles that are in their lives: broken homes, drugs/alcohol, sex, etc. Is it taught at a seminary level or a high school understanding level, this can be done without trivializing the message. Plus, many of the youth often have difficulty with the cliques that are tight within them; Yes there are cliques everywhere, but shouldn't the church be different from the outside world?

As a single man in your church, I attended the single /young married group and the cliques were so strong, I finally left the group. How can one join a church that does not let a person in and reach out to that person in love and unconditional acceptance? No, I don't think that it is the youth of the pastor, but the spiritual culture of the church.
They will know we are Christians By Our Love and on this they will come.

At 4:13 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I attended a church where being over 40 something, was too old to really contribute to anything important. The leadership was mainly young men in their late 20s and 30's, the pastor was in his early 50's. Though many older people have a lot to offer, it was not the case in this church. I like this church because it has all ages. It is a place that I feel as part of the body I can use my gifts, then put away to pasture. The church is made up of all kinds of people and it should reflect that.

At 11:31 AM , Blogger Robert Campbell said...

"I think the staff member thinks what he thinks because he is not old enough to know any better."

I find this an amazing statement to be made about a pastor. Unfortunate and dramatically disrespectful.

David, I appreciate your thinking and your pushing all of us to think about the greater glory of Jesus.

At 12:42 PM , Blogger ps1395 said...

Whoa, it was not meant as disrespect, but rather as humor, though poor as that may be. Furthermore, it was not clear from the original blog that the staff member was a "pastor" in that staff members can be all manor of positions, not just pastoral. Lastly, I stand by it. Even if it is a pastor, the statement was made by someone significantly younger than I, and my original comment, taken as a whole, was meant to explain how when I was younger, I thought differently than I do now. Lastly, there was a twinkle in my eye when I wrote it, and you, being on the other side of cyberspace, Pastor Robert, could not have possibly seen that twinkle. For that I apologize. However, I still stand by all I said. "Escuchame" sings Jaci Velasquez, "I have been where you are...."

Another point to consider is that Pastor Hegg made himself vulnerable by asking the question, and if my comment about the staff member being not old enought to know better is offensive, then perhaps the skin is a bit thin. It was not meant that way. As other comments have illustrated, Northpoint has some weaknesses, but the general health of this body is very good and appeals to a very wide age range. That was and is my point.

At 2:49 PM , Blogger Robert Campbell said...

"Northpoint has some weaknesses, but the general health of this body is very good and appeals to a very wide age range."

Well said and no offense taken...I wasn't the one whose comment started all this. :)

I am grateful for the conversation as David is leading it because it is acknowledging that there is a wide age range that already makes up our congregation.

I wouldn't want to dismiss youth anymore than to dismiss age. We are in this together.

David is pushing us to wrestle with how we are in this together and not just for one group or the other. That is good leadership.

At 12:11 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen. I agree with all that you said.

Laurie Troy


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home