Bridging Worlds: The Tension between Modern and Emerging Leaders

October 5th, 2009

I was sitting nervously in the office of my senior pastor with a resignation letter in the manila folder I was holding. This was serious. I'd written a 3-page resignation letter and had my in-laws and another pastor in my church read it over, and I was about to turn it in. I'd fasted the day before, as I recognized this was a critical moment in both my personal life and the life of my ministry.

The irony in all of it was that everything in the ministry I was leading was going great. A few years earlier, we'd started a worship gathering and a ministry geared for emerging postmodern generations, and God had blessed it tremendously. It blossomed into a huge part of our overall church, and we saw so many younger people become part of the new community we started. We saw teenagers who'd basically left the faith after high school return to church. We had a great percentage of the young people being mentored by older people in mid-week home groups. It was an incredible time of ministry. Yet, there I sat with a resignation letter.

The Modern and Postmodern Ministry Clash

The church I was in was a great church. It was a large, modern, alive, contemporary church. It wasn't backwards or out of touch with culture. I'd been the youth pastor there for 8 years and had a large thriving youth ministry. But the trouble all started when we noticed that, although our church was effective for those with a modern Judeo-Christian mindset and worldview, we weren't connecting with emerging generations who were growing up in a postmodern, post-Christian world. I actually never even heard of the word postmodern back then, and I would by no means say we became postmodern. We were just instinctively feeling that we needed to change the way we were working with teens and young adults because of the changes happening in their worldviews and the way they were approaching spirituality.

Feeling Like a Mac in a PC World

The changes we made weren't just about changing methodology of ministry, either. We were changing our philosophy of ministry as any missionary would when entering a different culture. We made shifts in how we approached leadership, preaching, worship gatherings, spiritual formation, and evangelism. We changed our worship gatherings into multi-sensory experiences that changed the way we set up the room, used art, and used prayer stations. It introduced things that had never been done in our church before. We brought in some ancient and historical faith disciplines into our worship practices. We changed how we taught and preached and how we approached evangelism. It was a rethinking of all we did, not just changing the style of music.

We saw not only teenagers but also many young adults resonate with this different approach to worshipping God, and consequently learning to be disciples of Jesus. However, this made things messy. This deconstructed many of our current modern contemporary evangelical ministry strategies and formulas. As the ministry grew larger and we became more experimental, the questions started coming.

“Isn't this just another generation gap?” “When will this group grow out of this and come to the main worship gatherings?” “Why aren't you preaching like the way we do in the rest of the church?” “Why do you set up the worship band in the back of the room instead of the front?” “Why are you buying incense?”

These were all valid questions. What made this tension all the more interesting is that these questions were being asked by other pastors who were my friends on staff with whom I served for many years. We loved each other and were committed to one another. But they were involved in the more modern aspects of the church, and I was immersed in the postmodern.

To make matters worse, the more I was asked about the changes I wanted to make and the more I tried to explain, the more confused looks I got. I didn't know quite how to explain it all; I just felt that we needed to rethink church if we were serious about engaging these emerging generations. I was beginning to feel more and more out of place, more and more like a Mac in a PC World. Sure, there were some things that could be cross-platform, but the more postmodernism impacted emerging generations, the more we needed to move to a different operating system, not just change the mouse pad.

Cultural Change Not about “Us” and “Them”

Eventually, the tension rose to such a level that, after a lot of prayer, I felt it was time for me to leave the church. I believed with all my heart and experience that we must change how we go about church if we're to engage emerging generations. Since so many teenagers and younger people in our community needed a church that would approach things differently, to restrict that or to pass it off as a fad was something I couldn't bear to live with. So, after many, many meetings and long discussions, I felt that it was time to leave, and I wrote my resignation letter.

But as I sat there in the office and began talking with the pastor I was about to tell I was resigning, an interesting thing happened. As we talked and I got past some of my emotions, I was reminded that there weren't any “us” and “thems” here; there wasn't a “right” and “wrong” here. It was just two different ways of looking at ministry that developed into rising tension. So I poured out my heart and how I was personally feeling. After that discussion, we talked about starting a new church. We discussed how we could continue to take what we started with the experiment of our Sunday night worship gatherings, going to the next level.

The Next Level

I never did pull that resignation letter out of the folder that day. Instead, we moved on to something new. We admitted that even though what was happening in the rest of the church was extremely effective for those of a modern Judeo-Christian mindset, those influenced by postmodernism saw the world differently. This not only called for a different kind of ministry, but a different kind of church.

We're now bridging the two approaches to ministry and starting a new church that's a little different from traditional church plants. We'll still be meeting on-site for our Sunday night worship gathering, but now it'll be considered its own church, not just a worship service or life-stage ministry. I'm still going to remain part of the strategic leadership team for Santa Cruz Bible Church in addition to leading the new church. But as missionaries have different approaches and different values related to different people groups, we recognized this in relation to what's happening with today's culture. We didn't want to totally separate; we wanted to work together as two sister-hybrid churches.

Bridging Modern and Emerging Values

I believe there are a lot of youth pastors who are experiencing similar tensions. We're living in a time when youth leaders are at the epicenter of shift to a post-Christian world. You're the ones who most sense change is needed, but so often your church isn't as open to the changes you hoped to bring. Some situations turn out well, like mine. Some unfortunately don't turn out so well. I've heard many heartbreaking stories from youth pastors who came into severe conflict with the senior leaders in their churches, and the results were catastrophic for them.

As I reflect on what was a very long process, there are some lessons that I'd offer to other emerging leaders. Especially if you're a youth leader desiring to bring change to a modern church, here are some thoughts to consider.

1 Do research and be able to clearly communicate why change is needed. Many modern leaders aren't yet aware of the serious changes going on in our emerging culture. If they were, there wouldn't be such hesitation in starting something new or making changes. But most senior pastors have a desire to learn and understand what's happening out there. You might be the one to teach them. But those in authority above you need to know that what you're thinking about isn't just your opinion.

Compile information from books, Web sites, tapes, etc. about what's happening in our culture. Then present them with your research so they can understand missionally why you need to do things differently. It may take effort, but show data on the local population, the population of teenagers in school, the young adult population, etc. Then contact local churches to find out how many are part of their churches. From this research you can explain, just like a missionary would, what percentage are part of churches and what aren't to build a case for new church methodologies.

Give examples of other churches with emerging worship gatherings. There are many churches all across the country that have been pioneering change.

2 Pray and ask God to move in the hearts of those with authority in your church. Know that, if what you're proposing for your church is from the Lord, it'll happen. We need to prepare, make a case for why change is needed, and then leave it up to God. It's Christ's church, not ours, so we can have confidence that if God wants to see something happen in our church, the Spirit will move in those with decision-making authority to allow it to happen. We need to pray and then rest in the confidence that what's supposed to happen will.

3 Respect, honor, and willingly submit to the ones the Lord has placed over you. The reality of being in any church, whether as an employee or a volunteer, is that there's an establishment of leaders that have biblical authority above you. Authority can be a great thing, or it can be misused. But the fact is, there are established levels of authority in your church, no matter what form they may take. We have a biblical charge to submit to our church leaders.

What happens when you feel something needs to change and you try to make changes but find only resistance from those above you? What happens when there's friction that arises as you try to pioneer new things in your church? What happens if you do research, make a case for why something new is needed, but then aren't given permission to make changes?

There'll be some argument and tension, and that can be a great thing if done in a positive way. Any family will have disagreements—differences of opinion and argument about decisions. This is natural and part of any relationship. In a church setting, you'll need to make a case for why you believe you need to do things differently. You'll have to defend some of the things you change. In church history, there's always been an exchange of dialogue and tension as things are pioneered. So don't be afraid to take a stand.

But you'll still need to submit to those above you. It may mean compromising on some issues. You'll need to determine what it is that you can live with in terms of freedom to do what you feel is best. It may not always work out either, and you may not be understood. In some cases it may mean leaving your church, but if you believe that change is needed, then you must look to the longer term. I'm optimistic that many modern churches will empower youth leaders to make the necessary changes as they become more aware of the cultural changes happening all around us.

4 Guard your heart to avoid a root of bitterness, anger, and poor attitudes. If we're not understood by those in authority, or even wrongly suffering leadership abuse, we need to be careful not to sin in response. We need to recognize that some people won't be able to stretch their thinking to a new perspective, and that's okay. Maybe it's the Lord's will that what you want doesn't occur.

We need to guard our hearts and pray that we don't allow bitterness or anger to grow. I think most of us are aware of the destruction that occurs in churches when someone bitter or angry about something poisons others with their words. As a leader in your church, how you respond to being disappointed or hurt will influence many. Allowing bitterness to dwell in your heart will only hinder effective ministry.

We also need to be very careful of our overall attitudes. I've heard things from some emerging leaders that come across as arrogant, insensitive, and disrespectful to the generations that have gone before us. I've been privy to several “us vs. them” types of discussions that must cause Jesus to weep. Jesus doesn't want the emerging church to move ahead with anger, cockiness, or a critical spirit. Jesus wants leaders in the emerging church to demonstrate maturity, love, gentleness, and respect. And Jesus wants us to demonstrate unity in heart, despite differences in approach to ministry. We need to be very careful we don't develop a sense of superiority or arrogance because we think other people don't get it. Maybe they don't, but we shouldn't thrash other ways that people do ministry. If we aren't demonstrating love to one another, then we're in sin.

5 Don't give up! You're not crazy and you're not alone. It's not easy being in leadership as we bridge cultures in our churches. In many ways you're the ones who'll face the struggles of challenging the church to change. But when you face hardship, when you get in trouble with other leaders in your church, and when you lie in bed at night and wonder if it's all worth it, please don't give up. You're needed to stand strong in the power of the Holy Spirit to build God's church for emerging generations.

Change doesn't happen easily or quickly in most churches, but if you don't help your church change, who will? Perhaps the Lord has you where you are to help your church transition. Remember that there are many emerging leaders all facing the same struggles, the same questions, and the same wonder about whether they're going crazy or not. Rest assured that you're not alone in all of this, and you're not crazy (probably).


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.