Recently, I was teaching a class on missional church when, in a moment of unguarded clarity, one of my students said, “I like hearing about all these new ways of doing church, but I don’t know if I could do them because I’ve grown up in church and I love it.” The unspoken end of that sentence was, “the way it is.”
Don’t you love the honesty of some young people? Without knowing it, he had just spoken a mouthful.
Can we expect people who have grown up in church and have enjoyed their experience (hence they’re still in the church) to renegotiate the church contract, to rethink how church could be done in a new era?
When I was doing my diploma of teaching (many years ago) one of our professors was introducing some new educational methodology when he broke off in the middle of his presentation, and with obvious frustration in his voice, said, “I’m not even sure why I’m teaching you this stuff. You’re the success stories of the education system as it is. You made it through. Better than that, you want to go back into it to teach others. You’re the last people who would ever try to change the way we do education.”
That stayed with me. He was right. If you loved school so much you want to become a teacher what are the chances you’re going to change much about the way it’s done?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying teachers or ministers never change anything. They read a lot and are always looking for new ideas and practices. But they’re not going for root-and-branch change of the system. They’re generally tinkering with it so it runs better.
But when my young student naively confessed his love of the church as it is, I had an epiphany.
I’m like that professor from my teachers’ college days.
For 20 years, I’ve been teaching in a college that equips the church’s “success stories,” the young people who have thrived in church and want to go back and serve in its leadership. Can I expect them to bring radical change to the church? Or any significant change for that matter?
When my students graduate and are ordained to clerical roles in their churches what’s to stop them from being shaped into what Aiden Kavanaugh called “the hegemony of the presbyterate”? They will join the power system that rules the church today, a hegemony comprising people who have thrived in the system they’re now leading, making change very difficult to effect.
Let me give you an example – the sermon. No one I know thinks a 25 minute monologue is the best way to teach people the Bible. If teaching the Bible is the intention, why haven’t churches incorporated clearly stated learning outcomes, tutorials, online support materials, assessment devices, etc? Why does the 25 minute monologue persist? Is it because congregations are calling for it? Multiple studies show that congregations don’t get a great deal from them. Why then does the sermon persist?
Because the hegemony of the presbyterate love it!
Preachers loved listening to preaching even before they became preachers. They are the sermon’s “success stories.” Why would they reconsider it as a teaching device?
Why would those who flourished in church rethink the way we make disciples, or whether to incorporate a fivefold leadership structure, or new approaches to liturgy or missional spirituality or, you name it? And since seminaries are full of such “success stories” is that where we’ll find visionary leaders?
You might ask me then why I’ve persisted in educating leaders for the church if I’m so pessimistic about the results, but I’d say I’ve persisted precisely because I’m so optimistic and hopeful.
I’ve had enough students come through my classrooms over the years who are true visionaries, capable of exerting meaningful God-honoring change in our churches. Not a flood, mind you. A trickle. But a trickle might be enough. At least it’s enough for me to keep at it.
Not every business school graduate will become Steve Jobs. Not every tech entrepreneur can be Mark Zuckerberg. Not every film school graduate turns into Christopher Nolan.
That being said, I have noticed that those students most likely to become visionary leaders are the ones who turn up to my classes with a sense of holy discontent about church-as-it-is. What keeps people like me teaching new leaders is the hope of finding those few visionaries who can find new opportunities for the church to impact its world.
We need to find those leaders who are daring and imaginative, who can return to the source and imagine future possibilities for being God’s people in our current age.
We need brave leaders who can see the big picture, not just the next small step.
We need leaders who enjoy the process of change, and who are patient and steadfast in effecting it.
We need emerging leaders to be focused and present, who empower others, who create non-anxious environments for innovation and experimentation.
We need open minded leaders who aren’t fearful of new ideas, who don’t agree with everything they hear, but can entertain the possibilities while sifting ideas to find what God wants for us.
We need leaders who aren’t terrified of failure.
I think many in our churches are yearning for visionary leaders that give us the big picture of God’s intended mission of the church, and then inspire us to be creative and explore new approaches to achieving that vision.
Where do we find such leaders? I’ve been banking on the theological education system to yield them. As I’ve said, I’m not naive about the limitations of that system. I just hope I chose correctly.