Millennials, My Church, and My Hope

As someone who turns 50 years old in a matter of days (which I confess painfully), I certainly don’t fall into the Millennial category. I’m not a Millennial, but many of my friends are. As a father, my two sons fall into that classification. As a district superintendent, I have Millennials serving in a variety of roles on my district. And you know what? Even though I’m almost 50, I not only love them – I really like them. I appreciate the way they wrestle with the difficult questions, unwilling to accept simple answers to complex issues. Their penetrating and valid questions have pushed me to think more deeply and grow in my own understandings. So many are bright, gifted, and passionate about God’s mission of redemption, and I have watched with admiration as they lead ministries that are creative and kingdom-building. Most of the ones I know honestly love the church and simply want it to be all that Christ has called it to be. Personally, my relationships with Millennials have made me better. I am grateful to them and for them, and I also believe my church needs them.

I love my church as well. The Church of the Nazarene has been my church since the day of my birth, and I stand as the third generation of my family to call it home. As with any other body of people, there have been moments of disappointment and the occasional episode of ugliness, but all in all, my life and experience in the church has been one for which I am grateful. It was in the Church of the Nazarene that my relationship with Jesus was initiated and nurtured. Through the embrace of this community of faith, my life was blessed by godly people who cared for me and my character was shaped by leaders who invested in me. The church has been an instrument of God’s grace and a family to which I am glad to belong. I love my church; I am loyal to my church.

But sometimes love leaves us in a hard place, and that’s where I find myself as many of my Millennial friends are now struggling in their relationship with the Church of the Nazarene. Recent months have been marked by issues and events that have, for some, created a sense of suspicion, raised questions of institutional transparency and relevance, and deepened feelings of disconnection. There’s no point in rehashing the events that have taken place – every Nazarene with a Facebook account is already aware. It would also be inaccurate to suggest that only those in the Millennial group have struggled or raised questions through all of this. My Millennial friends, however, have been open about their concerns, and some are genuinely wondering whether or not there will be a place for them in the church.

There are those who quickly dismiss all of this as nothing more than the whining and unfair attacks of a generation that simply doesn’t care or have any respect for institutional structures. Some will point to those who have voiced their opinions in a less than healthy or appropriate manner as justification for ignoring all of them. None of us, however, would want to be judged by some perceived characteristic of our particular generation. None of us would appreciate it if our concern was simply ignored because someone else raised the question, but did so with a bad attitude or wrong spirit. To turn a blind eye to the questions and thoughts of Millennials with sweeping, generalized labels is unfair, inaccurate, and inappropriate for the body of Christ. Most of my Millennial friends love the church and desire the best for it. And yet, despite their willingness to serve, some are asking if there will be room for them in the Church of the Nazarene. As a family, we should care enough about that to listen.

At the same time, I have no intention of calling into question the heart or motives of those church leaders who made the controversial decisions. Leaders are often faced with difficult situations that, regardless of the direction chosen, will inevitably leave someone unhappy, hurt, or angry. There are circumstances when the whole story cannot be told publicly for one reason or another. That has been my experience as a pastor and a district superintendent, and in all honesty, I have messed up more than my share of decisions. I respect the role of church leaders and recognize the difficult positions in which they often find themselves, so I will not cast judgment on their intentions. As a family, we should care enough about our leaders as people, as brothers and sisters in Christ, to treat them with respect and understanding.

But without judgment or accusation toward any side and with the highest degree of respect for all, I believe we have come to the place that we must admit there is a problem.  Intended or not, some feel that the events of recent months are sending a message; whether it’s accurate or not, a perception has been created. From the conversations of which I’ve been a part, it is clear that some of our young leaders are feeling uneasy about their place in our church. They sense that there is a circling of the wagons, a drawing of lines to protect the institution as it has been. They fear there is a redefinition taking place of what it means to be a Nazarene, reducing it to a more narrow and restricted form of “Nazarenedom.” The perception is that those who ask the tough questions will be shut out and those who differ from popular opinion will be disciplined. Now, some – despite their true desire to be loyal to the church – are uncertain as to whether or not they have a future serving in the Church of the Nazarene. You can call it a breakdown in communication. Call it a generation gap issue. Call it a matter of misinformation or misperception. Call it whatever you want, but let’s admit that the rising wall exists.

The issue will not be resolved if we come to the table with daggers of accusation or hostility, but neither will it be resolved by blind-eyed silence. We will not find a way forward if our only aim is to win a battle, but the way forward will also elude us if we are content to simply ignore what is between us. Telling others not to ask questions or to be quiet and toe the line will only deepen the divide. We do not need the fake and hollow appearance of peace that comes from denial. What we need is genuine peace and resolution, the kind that is forged by the sometimes difficult but necessary work of honest conversation. And it’s not only what we need – it’s what we are called to as the body of Christ.

And so, to the church that I love I would say:

Please find a way to engage our Millennial leaders in genuine, honest, and humble conversation. Affirm their place among us; assure them of our trust in them and our need for them. Extend to them the grace, honor, and consideration of hearing their voice, listening to both their concerns and their hearts. Let your responses be marked with transparency, authenticity, and a spirit of love.

I would never ask us to compromise the essentials of who we are and what we believe, and I am in no way suggesting that we alter our beliefs for the sake of placating anyone. Maintain and guard the boundaries, but within those boundaries, let’s reaffirm the freedom we have always known in the Church of the Nazarene. Alleviate the fears that the borders are being narrowed, and assure this generation that we still believe in liberty in the non-essentials and charity in all things. Unity does not require uniformity in all matters of thought and opinion.

Do not view questions with fear or resentment, but receive them as an opportunity to grow in our understanding together. Working through difficult situations or complex questions can make us stronger; challenges can shape us into a community that is better, more loving, and more effective in our mission. On the other hand, reactions of fear never serve us well.

Remember that systems and structures are not to be protected at all costs. Such things have always changed and always will. Holding tightly to a particular form or structure will only suffocate it, leaving in gasping in the shadows of irrelevance. Affirm that we are open to change for the sake of our effectiveness in mission.

If we lose this generation of gifted, mission-minded leaders for the wrong reasons, we may very well jeopardize the vitality of our church for years to come.

And to my Millennial friends I say:

I expect you to uphold the essentials of our church, guarding those things central to what we believe and who we are. I also expect that, within those boundaries, you will continue to challenge us to think more deeply and to seek greater understanding. Do not allow us to settle for simple or insufficient answers to the complex questions of life, faith, and ministry. Help us to articulate our faith for a new generation; teach us to communicate the truth of love made perfect in a language that is relevant, understandable, and compelling.

I would ask you to voice your questions and concerns in a truly Christlike spirit, demonstrating love and respect for our leaders, one another, and our church. But I will not ask you to be silent. Call and challenge us to be more than what we are; do not allow us to settle for less that what the body of Christ should be. What we hold in common is stronger than the things that would divide us; our love should provide us the confidence and ability to handle the questions and our differences with grace.

Remember those who have gone before you, showing gratitude and respect for the foundation upon which you build. Remind us, though, that we do not look to the past in order to live there. We find in the past the courage to move forward, encouraged by the witness of those who trusted in and experienced the faithfulness of God. Push us forward in faith, hope, and the profound optimism of His grace.

Continue to shape the ministry of the church, helping us to minister more effectively in our ever-changing context. Keep us focused on our mission and purpose, and call us out when our methods become idols and a source of bondage. And as time passes, do not allow yourselves to become enslaved by your own methods and preferences. Remember to extend the same freedom to those coming behind you.

Finally, keep in mind that our church, and every church, is imperfect and marred by our weakness, and will be until His kingdom comes. Until that day, we will always live in the tension of what the church is and what the church can and should be. Be honest enough to confront the shortcomings of the church, but also courageous enough to stay and work in love to make it more of what it should be.

And hopefully, my friends and my church can move forward together, unified in love and in purpose, always working to become a greater expression of Jesus in our broken world.