We are poised in the foyer of a new millennium. The leaders of tomorrow's church are waiting in the wings. A new generation is preparing to lead the church into this new millennium.
In November 1999 I attended (and spoke at) a gathering of young Christian leaders. Held in Seattle, USA, it was a conversation themed around the topic: A New Generation Leading the Church into a New Millennium. As preparation for this conference I wanted to ask young Christian leaders what ministry was like for them.
I surveyed over 100 young Christian leaders around New Zealand. What were their needs? In what areas did they wish to grow and learn? What did they dream of? What new ministry skills did they think the future would require of them?
The native New Zealand rata begins life as a seedling perched high in the branches of other forest trees. Roots descend from the young rata down the trunk of the host to reach the ground. Over time these roots become thick and woody, uniting to form a massive trunk.
The imagery of the rata is instructive. Around New Zealand, young leaders are initiating new expressions of church, worship and gospel communication.1 The creative Spirit of God is active. New life, native to Aotearoa New Zealand, is emerging.
This article is written in honour of a new generation which stands on the hinge of two millenniums. Let's start by listening to their dreams.
In time this new rata, perched amid the canopy of the old, will put down roots. These roots will become thick and woody, uniting to form a new tree - the Christian enterprise - in Aotearoa New Zealand. What shape this new rata? What form the future? What does this emerging generation dream of? What possibilities for life, church and mission would they like to see or create as we enter the twenty-first century?
New dreams of engagement
Young leaders dream of a church that is engaged with the world that God loves. A rata that - as it grows - is deeply rooted in its community, was a repeated theme. These dreams of engagement included extending the frontiers of what is traditionally understood as mission.
a new generation dreams of a multiplication of urban mission agencies,
of an engagement with the arenas of big business, the wealthy and the
media, of short term mission, and of developing another 'student volunteer
leaders dream of a church that is integrated into the community. These
churches will care for the 'back-sliders', the young, the poor, the
single mothers. Such churches will proactively provide for needs, whether
by offering services, or by taking back the social welfare role that
we have abdicated to the government.
A new generation wants to honour the world God made by rediscovering the movement of God within the community, by reflecting on culture as a starting point and as a tool for theology and mission. They dream of coming to terms with mission in our postmodern, relativist society.
New dreams for church
dreams ever become reality, church for a new generation of leaders will
have undergone a radical revamp. Thirty-five percent of replies involved
dreams of new forms of church.
The despair evident in the comment, "sometimes I'd like to put a bomb under the church and start again", is partnered by dreams of a metamorphosis of worship and structure.
leaders yearn for new music and worship that is more than singing. They
dream of worship services other than on Sunday and long for a complete
reinvention of Sunday morning worship. Some dream of large youth events,
of revival and of a stronger, more vibrant local church in our nation.
Others dream of worship that will be more reflective, interactive and
celebrative. A recurring theme was the hunger for a greater spiritual
Small groups are a repeated refrain in this dream of reframing. So, too, is the dream of established churches spawning new, creative and innovative ministries and congregations that are given autonomy within a supportive environment.
New ways of relating
This small group emphasis is part of a broader dream of discovering new ways of relating. Young leaders express a desire to be part of a church that is a community of deep relationships and authenticity. They hope for a church that can relate as a functional family and so accept those who have no sense of family. They dream of a church which can be a place of transformation and a place to tell one's life story and have that affirmed.
Among young leaders, new ways of relating include the sharing of financial resources among a church family which is financially interdependent and accountable to each other. For a radical few, this dream extends to initiatives in community and co-operative housing.
We have listened to the millennial dreams of a new generation of young leaders. Now we need to listen to their needs. Young leaders are crying out for support, for nurture, for encouragement.
Like the rata, they feel perched on the branches of other trees. It is a precarious and unstable place to start life.
A new generation of leaders speaks of needing outside support and personal leadership development. They also require the ability to innovate and contextualise. Please hear the cry of many a young rata around Aotearoa New Zealand.
. . . needing outside input
Seventy-five percent of young leaders asked for outside support. It is a staggering cry. It is even more staggering to realise that this cry for support is defined in relational terms. Ninety-six percent of the requests for support defined this support in terms of people: people to give encouragement, recognition and credibility.
Young leaders are crying out for role models. These role models come in different forms. For some it is peers, for others it is a professional mentor, for others it is older leaders to guide younger leaders. Young leaders are asking for role models and structures that give permission to experiment and take risks.
A 'try before you buy' generation don't want books and courses and years of study before getting to do anything. They want to have a go. One young leader expressed it vividly. Forthrightly, she demands that Gen Xers be apprenticed. "The baby boomer way of running organisations scares me . . . all these big boys of mission . . . it offends me . . . there are hardly any youngies . . . [they need to] involve us, apprentice us."
. . . needing personal leadership development
I asked a young leader why he embarked on a creative approach to evangelism. "Because I've always wanted to", he replied. This is not clearly articulated missiology. This is an instinctive awareness from within the new generation. A new generation of leaders is finding fresh resources from deep within.
As Gerard Kelly notes in Get a Grip on the Future Without Losing Your Hold on the Past,2 "Gen X are the icebreakers of the new, the generation at the bow of societal change who will be the first to forge into the emerging world . . . . Whatever is to come has begun in them". What better place for a new generation of leaders to look than to what is instinctively deep within them?
Thus young leaders write of the need to ground themselves in their identity and in God, in their own tradition, in their own personal story. Self-understanding is a key resource for new leaders.
It is from this self-understanding, this implicit awareness of the needs of a new generation - the generation that is their generation - that creative and innovative leadership is emerging. As one young leader notes, "We need to follow our heart, to be different, to think outside the box and 'have a go'. We need to re-think and re-construct the shape of the church and not just paint the same animal a different colour."
This personal journey is a spiritual journey. Young leaders speak in different ways of the need to purposefully deepen their spirituality.
Many Xers understand Good Friday better than any other part of their faith"3
Reality bites was the title of a Gen X movie. It is an apt description of personal leadership development. Young leaders surveyed spoke of the need to struggle, to be honest about their strengths and weaknesses, to cope with theological and personal inconsistencies, to learn to live with difference. Thus leadership among this new generation of leaders is aware of the need for authenticity and vulnerability as part of personal leadership development.
. . . needing to innovate and contextualise
Young leaders are aware of the dissonance between the church of today and their dreams of tomorrow. They speak of the need to get outside what feels like a Christian ghetto, to saturate themselves in the emerging culture, to read widely and be involved in their own culture. Young leaders are borrowing the language of postmodern theorists like Derrida and calling for a deconstruction of what they thought they knew.
In his book Wild Hope, Tom Sine writes that "if we don't begin in our lives, professions and churches to anticipate both the new challenges and the new opportunities the twenty-first century brings us, we will quite literally be buried alive".4
It is good news that deconstruction and cultural immersion sit prominently on the dashboard of emerging leadership.
In this context, the most highly sought after ministry skill among young leaders is that of innovation. Forty percent of the responses spoke of needing to be open to change, to stay abreast of new technology, to find new ways of working, seeing, being. Aware of a rapidly changing culture, flexibility and adaptability are prized ministry skills. Young leaders want to dream, to think outside the box.
. . . needing leadership skills
While leadership for young leaders is primarily personal, they are also seeking to add specific leadership skills to their toolbox of ministry. Young leaders speak of needing training, of needing to learn to lead. Others want to equip and release leaders, to bring clarity of vision and planning, to work within existing structures, to communicate and counsel and administrate.
It is instructive that stated leadership skills include the avoiding of power trips, learning to be a listener, wanting to empower people and learning to facilitate change at the level of a church's culture. A listening, serving leadership that works with attitudes and values rather than structures and programmes is surely a vision of leadership to be applauded.
Some of this need for upskilling suggests a responsiveness to a changing global context.
Rather than wringing their hands, young leaders are demonstrating a practical 'sleeves-rolled-up' willingness to be part of the solution. In recognising a world which is global, they want to be bilingual and gain multi-cultural skills. In response to emerging postmodern family structures, they want to be able to adopt and foster children.
With Christian ministries under increasing financial pressure, young leaders aspire to practical skills so that they may be self-funding - some even hope to be able to build their own houses. Similarly, a young leader who observes, "conflict is killing the church", is taking a practical approach to that problem by seeking to upskill in areas of conflict resolution.
A dream and a cry. A dream for engaging in Christian mission, for church, for relating. Are such dreams part of the promise of tomorrow's rata tree? Will the future mean a Christian enterprise that has prioritised new ways of engaging, worshipping and relating that is mission focused, people loving and community embracing?
Will the new millennium witness a church that has undergone a worship transformation? Will it be structured to empower people and to nourish relationships deep enough to include financial interdependence?
This is one potential picture of a new millennial, New Zealand rata. New life emerging from within the canopy of the old. A new generation emerging to lead the church into a new millennium. To make this dream a reality necessitates creativity and imagination. To root a rata of this shape in the soil of Aotearoa New Zealand requires innovation and leadership. It means a new generation with a lot of work to do.
Thus the cry. The rata starts life reliant on the old. It only survives if provided with shelter and nurture. The rata of tomorrow's church, creating anew, dreaming afresh, calls out for support and sustenance, for nurture and for encouragement.
Steve planted and provides pastoral leadership at Graceway Baptist Church, a Christian community committed to mission and worship in a postmodern world. An accredited minister of the Baptist Union of New Zealand with a first class Masters in Theology, he is engaged in doctoral study exploring mission and worship in a postmodern world and lectures in biblical studies, missiology and theology. He is married to Lynne. They have two daughters and together value friendship, art and good coffee.