The energy and enthusiasm around the recent ICOC 3.0 initiative are impressive, and I respect and appreciate all the work that is going into it. As a local church Board member, I was able to participate in the New England/New York meeting in Hartford CT and was encouraged by the focus, energy, and balance of younger and older ministry staff, elders, and administrators engaged in the process.
I have some additional thoughts, so I am taking this time to “put a pencil to paper.” For fun, I am calling this ICOC 3.00. The point: my thoughts are ancillary to ICOC 3.0, not a recommended revision or next version.
I believe that an international organization is going to help us with missions, specifically planting and maturing churches around the world. An observation from Acts 6, however, is that organization does not necessarily beget growth but it helps meet needs when there is growth. So, we need something more to bring about the level of healthy and sustained growth we desire.
My thoughts speak to two issues: 1. the spirituality and example of our most influential leaders, and 2. the role of the next generation, which I identify as age 25 up to age 40.
- The Spirituality and Example of Our Most Influential Leaders
“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8
In my opinion, the ills of ICOC 1.0 were not structural but spiritual, starting from the top, and not limited to just one person. There were sins of faithlessness, humanism, pride, and anger that manifested in many practical ways, such as hyper-control of people and outcomes, shame as a tool to motivate short-term behaviors, and a breakdown in discipling relationships. The breakdown in discipling relationships at the top of the organization further contributed to a whole host of other sins not appropriate to enumerate in this paper.
I do note, however, that structure can drive behavior, and therefore perhaps the structure itself made it easier for the above sins to grow unchecked and explains our consensual reticence to go back to a similar structure. ICOC 1.0 used known business and military models of success to organize and motivate us. Today’s business models of success are different (it has been 40 years!) and may, in fact, more closely resemble the structure of the early church when it experienced explosive growth. The early church and its leadership were agile and not hierarchal, which is the case with today’s most successful organizations.
At the end of the day, I believe that the most important qualities for those who exert the most influence (and will drive the current change process) are:
- God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble
- A learning spirit manifested in listening, learning, and openness to input
- I saw this to be the case in our regional discussion but this should also be a daily lifestyle thing
- When driving change (a few months into it) it is tempting to get impatient for outcomes and default to old behaviors and sins
- The willingness to learn from critics and those who think differently rather than discounting and marginalizing; for example, our current process may be an opportunity to include and even learn from some of the churches who were not comfortable with the cooperation agreement and the delegate system
A Consistent Example of Prayer and Evangelism
- So, being too busy traveling, organizing, administering, and making decisions should be unacceptable excuses for our top leaders and influencers
- Lasting godly influence is rooted in personal example and relationship, not position
In the upper management of larger churches, and in any kind of a parachurch organization, it is easy to be incredibly busy but to sacrifice the basics of being a disciple of Jesus. Then it is natural to build up defensive mechanisms, justifying the lack of meaningful personal Bible study (to change me!), evangelism, hospitality, confession of sin, and one-on-one relationships that go deeper than organizational problem-solving, planning and story-telling.
In sum, a global structure to better organize missions, training of missionaries, and other global initiatives will be powerful, but we should be careful not to create a layer of leaders who exert the most influence but become removed from the daily lifestyle of following Jesus. A better structure with leaders who are spiritual and exemplary in their personal lives will be powerful.
- The Next Generation
“Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity….Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.” – 2 Timothy 4:11-12, 5:1-2
This is what I think about the most. Being in my later 50’s, it is hard not to. I have four children between the ages of 27 and 32, three sons by birth and one daughter by adoption. When I get with my adult children I listen more than I talk – because that is my temperament but also because I want to understand what they are thinking and where they are coming from. I also spend time with some of their peers, ask questions, and listen.
I observe a generational gap that rivals or exceeds the one dramatized in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. And the gap is in the church, largely hidden. This is because we, as older leaders in the church, 1. Listen primarily to the young staff who are being paid to execute directions given by older leaders, and 2. Success is defined by doing well within a paradigm created by my generation. We therefore discount and marginalize younger disciples whom we don’t consider successful in ministry.
Let me provide some context. My generation broke away from the traditional church due to convictions but also in a broader social context of generational rebellion and innovation. We changed the way “church” was done, focusing on campus ministry and propagating soul-talks in the dorms and apartments to evangelize those who did not go to church. One-on-one relationships were transformative, growing into discipling relationships intended to implement the myriad of one-another passages. Church plantings replaced male only missionaries.
Churches were racially integrated, and radically so in places like Johannesburg, South Africa. The priority of serving the poor and needy was restored. Women went into the ministry. House churches were implemented and non-staff leaders were empowered to preach, teach, and raise up other leaders. Seriously following Jesus was an expectation for everyone in the church. Evangelism was contagious. Unity among churches replaced independence and division. We restored, innovated, created, and took ownership of the church – its growth, health, and future.
The next generation now belongs to their parents’ church; their parents run it and “own” it. My generation figured it all out, implemented it, and now explain it to the young.
So, what’s the problem? The next generation has its own mind and its own ideas for restoration, innovation, and creation, and a different sense of what church might look like if they “owned” it. But they also have limited influence and opportunity. Generally, they have some very different core generational values. For example,
- We value leadership. They value collaboration.
- We value control and uniformity. They value inclusion.
- We value confidentiality and circles of influence. They value transparency and communication.
- We are motivated by numbers of members, conversions, churches, and nations. They are inspired by authenticity and the Holy Spirit.
- We want to evangelize the world. They want to change the world (which includes evangelism but is not limited to it).
- The church is our community. The city/town/county is their community.
Our default will be to train the next generation to lead the church and “do” church the way we have, and because of our values of control and uniformity, we will stifle restoration, innovation, and creation. We will become what we once rebelled against.
I think the beginning of the solution is simple:
- Be humble. The last 17 years have not been glorious; maybe we have something to learn from those who are younger or those who have thought differently from us.
- Create a church culture that encourages restoration, innovation, and creation. Decide not to protect the status quo.
- Be open to both custom and flexible solutions to address challenges and opportunities.
- Be willing to try and fail.
- Reframe the mistakes of our youth. We did not have or respect elders; this generation does.
In sum, let the next generation lead, make mistakes, and take ownership of God’s church. Let me explain. As my generation reflects on our 40-50 year history, and as we restore the biblical role of elders, we focus on mistakes we and others made when we were young, and we are now guarded against their repetition. And as we get older, we raise the experience level required to lead. It is now easier and more attractive for many of the next generation to lead in their careers and in their community, rather than to lead in the church. We need to give the next generation the space to innovate, and the time to try, test, fail and then succeed.
Our most mature leaders (Gempels, Bairds, Shaws, Fergusons, and others) are retiring, slowing down (officially), and facing increasingly significant health challenges. Our other leaders (those in their 50s and 60s) have miraculously held our fellowship together but are not the engine of growth and innovation they once were. We stopped shrinking (overall) but have been going sideways.
We need youth, energy, continued restoration, innovation, and creativity. We need the next generation to take ownership of the church and how to reach their peers. What will be the next iteration of a soul-talk or a house church? How do we become more community-centric? How do we unleash the talent and enthusiasm of the next generation (and not just those who go into the ministry)?
I don’t think it is just about passing the baton. The next generation may drop our baton and map out a new race. In fact, the next generation may not be so interested in an ICOC 3.0 or 4.0, a tweaking of the current, but may be dreaming about something more disruptive – like what Jesus did in his day.