Urban tribes and the church (part2)

People looking at phones

The story so far …..

Last post (Urban tribes and the church) I discussed how on a recent holiday I was observing young urban Generation Z professionals, and musing what they might think about church, or at least most churches.

I felt there were many ways that modern western christianity was an alien culture to them. This post, I want to look at what churches and christians should maybe do to address this.

Seven principles of ministering to Generation Z

Pondering all this, asking questions, and observing, has led me to eight conclusions about how churches need to disciple Generation Z.

1. Follow Jesus, not dogma

Jesus is an attractive figure to many in Generation Z. He was an activist with many values admired by educated postmoderns – he challenged authority, stood up for the underdog and oppressed, acted with unrelenting integrity and refused to compromise his convictions.

Church dogma, on the other hand, seems archaic and irrelevant to many postmoderns. It tends to look backwards and address yesterday’s important issues with yesterday’s solutions and yesterday’s language, and too often seems out of date and out of touch.

It is much easier to follow a person than a dogma.

2. Openness to new and alternative ideas

The historic churches tend to define their doctrines quite tightly, even the less important non-core teachings. Many of their stands are problematic Biblically, and hark back to old squabbles that seem less important today.

It would probably be best to put many of these doctrines to bed, but even if they are going to be taught, there seems no reason not to tolerate diversity in interpretation. Why can’t Calvinists and Arminians (labels from a bygone age) live, worship, teach and serve in the same church? Why do we all have to agree on the same theory of the atonement?

As one 20 year old said to me recently, she wants to be free to discuss alternatives to non-core doctrines without arguing and without being pushed to a particular dogmatic view.

3. Evidence and reason before authority

On some matters, we need to depend on experts. When I had a cataract operation on my eye, I wanted the surgeon to know exactly what he was doing. But many questions in christianity are matters of opinion or judgment. Expert knowledge can often help, but young postmoderns generally want to think things through for themselves – after all, their schooling should have tried to teach them that.

So using ministerial authority to insist on defined church dogma is a problematic approach. Those with expert knowledge or teaching authority need to learn how to provide information without stifling thoughtful consideration. Not only will this be better received by Gen Z, but they will learn better that way.

The prophet Jeremiah said (31:34): “No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord.. Authoritative teaching can sound effective, but it tends to keep the hearers dependent, whereas making disciples requires leaders to aim for others to become mature enough to be leaders themselves.

4. Give me a reason

Evidence-based learning and practice has become an important approach in teaching and in medicine, and of course is the basis of science. So young postmoderns grow up in this environment. They learn it at school, they find it on the web and they breathe it in our culture.

So if our churches don’t give reasons, and good reasons too, for what they teach, and what they expect the next generation to believe and follow, it will seem quaint and less acceptable.

This will be particularly true for matters of apparent scientific fact, like evolution vs Genesis or climate change, or (rightly or wrongly) for culturally prevalent ideas like the equality and right treatment of women, acceptance of gays or opposition to racism. Inconsistent Biblical interpretation, taking one passage literally while ignore or explaining away another, won’t cut it unless very good reasons are given (if in fact good reasons exist).

Particularly important these days is being able to give good evidence-based reasons to believe in christianity and to good evidence-based answers to difficult questions about christian belief.Without good reasons, many young adults will feel continuing to believe lacks integrity.

Not only that, investigating and answering these questions will often be the catalyst for changes in our own understanding, something I personally have found both challenging and liberating.

5. Active, transformational learning

It is well-known among psychologists and educationalists that most people don’t learn a lot, or change much, if they passively hear a talk or sermon, though they may feel encouraged.

Active learning, which involves discussion, research and self-learning, is far more likely to make a difference. Information will be better remembered and more likely to be acted on. Questions and doubts are more likely to be addressed rather than remain unspoken. Young christians are more likely to be motivated and enthused. Transformation is more likely to occur.

These are all factors that are generally more important to Generation Z than to older christians. One reason why some young adults have left churches is lack of answers and not being able to participate, question and discuss.

6. Open discussion, not controlled studies

This means we have to not be afraid to have more open discussions where viewpoints opposed to that church’s dogma can be freely expressed without earning censure or being shut down. Leaders need to feel comfortable with unorthodox and speculative views being expressed, trusting that discussion and the work of the Holy Spirit will lead to truth.

Too many church Bible study groups, especially among youth and young adults, are too strictly controlled, so that they become too much like comprehension tests where members try to express what the leader wants to hear, whether the participants think that way or not.

As christians get older, they tend to learn not to rock the boat and question the teaching handed down to them, and become more passive, but Generation Z is still ready and equipped for the challenge of working out their own beliefs.

7. Walk the talk!

Many of Jesus’ teachings, for example on wealth, non-violence, forgiveness, acceptance of minorities and care for the poor, is very challenging to affluent western people. But, as Tony Campolo said once, “youth is made for heroism”. Many youth and young adults still have their idealism and are often looking for causes. So while they may not be up to some of Jesus’ challenges, ones like acceptance, non-violence and care for the poor can resonate with them.

So when Generation Z sees older christians, ministers and churches giving little regard to climate change and environmental care, sexism and equality for women and gays, or addressing global poverty, slavery and displaced persons, they are likely to feel those churches are not really serious about following Jesus. They will think (rightly, I believe) that if we pray in the Lord’s Prayer for God’s kingdom to come on earth, but don’t lift a finger to make it happen, our words are empty.

They will be tempted to find another cause that means what it says.

8. Trust the Spirit

It is a paradox to me that some churches that emphasise either the sovereignty of God or the work of the Holy Spirit, which leads them to believe that spiritual growth is the work of God, nevertheless can be controlling and coercive, insisting on doctrinal conformity and closing down dissent, as if growth and right teaching depended on them.

But if we are going to successfully disciple Generation Z, we may need to give them more space and trust the Holy Spirit rather than our rules to lead them to truth. Of course it may not always be the received truths enshrined in denominational dogma, but then again, God may be doing a new things. After all, the reformers did say that the church should always be reforming!

What might it look like?

A church or fellowship that did all these things might look very different.

Simple church and missional communities

There is a very loose movement of simple churches and missional communities, and I believe it is growing. Instead of spending time and money building and maintaining a denominational structure, a church leadership structure and expensive buildings, these approaches to church are small, meet in homes or public places, encourage participation, utilise the gifts of those who attend, and spend their money on others rather than building edifices.

Back in the 1970s, house churches could easily fall into the introspection trap, and rarely look outwards. But these days, there is a greater emphasis on mission and looking beyond ourselves. And so simple churches and missional communities will be more likely to have an emphasis on serving the community around them, or the poor, whether near or far. Some missional communities meet in public places, and so do their evangelism and mission at the same time as they care for each other and grow in their faith.

Some christians fear that these smaller expressions of church may go off track without the oversight of trained pastors and teachers, but:

  • There is no reason why denominations can’t sponsor these initiatives, or older christians exercise helpful oversight.
  • Larger denminations are just as likely to get out of step with the Spirit as smaller groups.
  • They are not permanent, or even necessarily long-lived, so groups that depart from God’s plan for them will likely slowly wither anyway.
  • It may be that a lively but vulnerable group is better than a safe but passive church. “It is easier to restrain a fanatic than to revive a corpse!”

Liquid church?

Almost two decades ago, Pete Ward published his prescient book Liquid Church, in which he outlined how he saw one way the church of his future (and our present) might exist in a culture where there are many different urban tribes, where relationships and lives are fragmented, and people are busy and not always willing or able to commit to meet with the same people in the same place and at the same time each week.

He suggested we re-imagine church as possibly:

  • not so much an institution as christians sharing fellowship or activity;
  • church happens whenever christians meet or communicate – “its basis lies in people’s spiritual activity rather than in organisational patterns and buildings”;
  • less necessarily a weekly congregational meeting and more a “living as Christ’s body in the world”;
  • therefore more like a network of people communicating and working in disparate ways and groupings.

So if you and I meet for coffee, fellowship and prayer, that is church. If you attend a Bible college and I attend a christian music festival, these too are church. It may be that, for some, church consists only of these networks and meetings, while others will continue to meet on Sundays in the normal way.

When I first read Ward’s book many years ago now, I was slightly shocked and not completely convinced, though I saw the truth in his observation that this may be the only form of church for many who live somewhat unpredictable lives in a very liquid culture.

But 15 years on, with mobile and internet connectedness and a questioning and flexible Generation Z, it seems much more real. For example, there are about half a dozen people that I have “met” through this blog and online generally, who I have corresponded with, whether regularly or intermittently, and who depend in part on this fellowship and reading for their faith and growth. Several of them don’t belong to a regular church for quite conscientious reasons.

It is happening already, and it will most likely happen even more in the future.

Re-imagining regular church

But of course the reality is that most christians will continue to meet in more regular churches, at least for now. So how can regular churches better organise for Generation Z?

It is possible to put all 8 of the above principles into action in churches.

  • Sermons can be shorter (if at all), with discussion before and after.
  • Teach people how to research, hear from God and grow themselves, and so “equip his people for works of service” (Ephesians 4:12).
  • Services should include input from many different people with different gifts.
  • Encouragement to ask tough questions after services and in home groups.
  • Tell and hear more stories – of how christians are serving God in their work, how ministry teams are working and seeing outcomes, of answers to prayer and seeing God at work.
  • Holistic ministry – word, Spirit and action!
  • Ministers will have to learn to be coaches more than star players, and be trained accordingly.
  • Following Jesus is the core, and everything else is open for discussion.
  • Focus on people and mission, not maintenance of building and structures.

This is just the start!

These are just observations and thoughts, based on a long history of reading, observing, thinking, praying and discussing. I don’t imagine I’ve got everything right. And certainly we need a lot more ideas than I’ve been able to come up with.

But I believe that holding onto the past and the present won’t bring many young urban professionals into the church for very long.

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