I just got back from speaking at Exponential—the largest gathering of church planters or those thinking about starting new churches in North America. I was so encouraged by the exponential growth of interest in planting. Fourteen years ago, I got this calling from God to start a new church in Austin for people far from God.
I looked EVERYWHERE for ANYTHING that could help me know how to do this, and the only thing I could find was Bob Logan’s cassette tape series, Church Planter’s Bootcamp. So we started Emerging Leadership Initiative in 1997 to help raise up a new generation of leaders to start new churches because I could also see that it would take 1000’s of new churches to reverse the losing battle the church was fighting.
This year, I was inundated with materials from all the church-planting support organizations. I’m amazed at how God has turned the tide so that starting new churches is in vogue—I praise God for so many Kingdom-minded Entrepreneurs. But then I pulled out the original document I wrote up in 1997, and I wanted to share it with you to reflect on a question, “Are our new churches solving the problem?” They can, but will they? Here’s what I wrote 15 years ago….
Church for the Next Generation
“The righteous man is the one who lives for the next generation.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
A cultural shift is taking place, and its effect could be tragic for Christianity in America unless the Church acts now. Historically, the Church in America has reacted to cultural changes decades after the societal shift occurs. Rather than confronting and responding to cultural changes, we ignore them until they do damage to the cause of Christ. Consequently, we often find ourselves living in the past, rather than bringing the timeless truths of the Christian faith into the present.
Stanley Grenz of Regent College warns us that “We are…experiencing a cultural shift that rivals the innovations that marked the birth of modernity out of the decay of the Middle Ages: we are in the midst of a transition from the modern to the postmodern era.”[i] We must act now in order to get out ahead of a cultural shift that could render the church ineffective over the next several decades.
I first began to feel the effects of the cultural shift in America in 1990. I was the Director of Cru at The University of California Santa Barbara. I remember sitting across the table from a student for two hours giving him an air-tight apologetic argument for why he should believe in Jesus. I answered all of his questions to his satisfaction. I was sure he was going to be persuaded to accept Christ. Yet at the end of the time he concluded by saying, “I can see why that’s true for you, but it’s not true for me.” That blew my analytical mind. I slowly realized that in a culture where truth is relative, logical arguments don’t convince. This was my introduction to the philosophical shift toward postmodernism, which is sweeping across America.
At the same time, I was noticing that students were less willing to stand out in a crowd. Belonging became more important than standing up for the cause of Christ. Students were less interested in what was true than in what worked. They insisted on seeing the Christian faith “work” before embracing the truths about Christ. Though most students would agree that God existed, his identity varied from the cosmic force of Eastern thought to the animation of nature. Buddhism, Tai Chi, Islam, New Age, Christianity – they were all the same basic idea in the minds of postmodern students. And yet, spirituality was becoming vogue. The only absolute in the relativistic mind of a postmodern student was tolerance. To be intolerant of another person’s beliefs equated with fascist bigotry. This made old forms of evangelism extremely challenging.
The pain and the problems of students increased exponentially during my seven years in Santa Barbara. One out of every two students came from broken or blended families. The number of students dealing with date rape, eating disorders, premarital sex, drug abuse and pornography escalated. Dealing with the brokeness of the generation created new challenges. Finding leaders who were not trapped by their pain and bondage became increasingly difficult.
For years, I thought this was a West Coast phenomenon. In 1993, I moved to the Midwest and joined the staff of Willow Creek Community Church. I began to see that this change was sweeping across America. I became aware of the “Baby Buster” generation, also known as “Generation X,” people currently in their twenties and early thirties. They are the generation of students I encountered in the early 90’s. They are the first postmodern generation, a generation that thinks differently than the preceding generations. This shift to postmodern thought among broken, disenfranchised people creates unique challenges and exciting opportunities for the Church.
Grenz defines four assumptions of postmodernism: 1). Feelings and relationships supersede logic and reason. 2). Truth is relative. 3). Community is exalted over individualism. 4). Pessimism prevails. What does all this mean? It means there is a great opportunity for the Church to reach out to a lost and hurting generation, and it means the Church must again adapt its methods without changing its message if it is going to prevail. We must learn to communicate truth in a new language with new cultural forms if we want to be relevant and effective. We must demonstrate timeless Biblical values of authenticity and community rather than rugged individualism. We must model the caring, loving small communities of the early house church (Acts 2:42-47) and invite unchurched people into them to experience the transformational power of Christ.
This generation longs for God, but has not encountered Him through the local church. They are a wounded generation who need Christ’s healing touch, so that they can become wounded healers. God has given me a vision for reaching the postmodern generation one church at a time. The hope of the next generation is Christ working through His church. Fuller professor Peter Wagner says, “The single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven is planting new churches.”
The next 10 years are critical as our generation enters the season of changes: moving away from home, marriage, divorce, kids, and career. Historically, times of transition such as these have created a hunger for spiritual stability. The key to reaching this generation will be the planting of new churches targeted to reach a postmodern generation in culturally relevant ways.
Willow Creek, Saddleback and others pioneered the trail in discovering how to reach unchurched Boomers, but we are still discovering how to reach the next generation. Now is the time to raise up the next generation of leaders to plant innovative churches for their generation, so that we do not find ourselves drowning in the wake of change once again.
As I re-read this paper 15 years later, I am amazed by what God has done—He has raised up a new generation of leaders. My question is whether we are reaching the people He had in mind, or simply reshuffling the deck of the already convinced? Are we thinking about the people He wants us to reach, or are we thinking about proving ourselves to ourselves? Thoughts?
[i]Stanley Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 2.