I was recently asked to give a talk to a classroom of ministry students at Trinity International University. The topic was on some of the challenges they will likely face as they enter church leadership. Kind of a broad topic don’t you think? I first considered that every generation has challenges awaiting them on the other side of the graduation stage. Every generation has obstacles to overcome and barriers to break through. Then I made a list. A huge list. I looked for similarities, themes, trends, and then compared them with some of the most current research. So here is my list. I know there are more. I’d love to hear what you would add to this list or modify.
Is the church worth trusting?
In years past, institutions considered as a hallmark of U.S. culture, like the education system and government, were seen as beacons of trust. Something we can rely on to have our best interests in mind. The same holds for the church. The church, once the very center of a community, has historically continued to influence culture, politics, and morality—even among non-believers or non-church goers. However, in their most recent survey, the Barna Group discovered that not only is the United States, for the first time in its history, a post-Christian culture, but trust for the commonly trusted institutions have also plummeted—including the church. According to Barna’s study, only 36% of Americans believe the church has their best interest at heart. That number is even worse for our nation’s government and educational institutions, 6% and 16% respectively.
So what do these numbers mean? When you consider our fast-paced digital world, the race to be first in the news, to be relevant, and to cut through all the noise, truth is often left behind, lost in translation, or exchanged for something far flashier. The answer for most people, according to Barna, is to look inward for truth. In other words, people define their truth as they see it, leading us into deeper and deeper seeded relativism.
If I find truth within myself, what need do I have for the church? If institutions are already under suspicion, what reason do I have for seeking out meaning and purpose in life inside the walls of the church? The result: the church no longer holds the cultural authority it once did. In fact, only 4% of Generation Z have a biblical worldview and the percentage of Generation Z students that identify as an atheist is double that of U.S. adults. Largely because they are not growing up in church. Most students now believe that meaning, purpose, and even God, a wheelhouse held sacred by the church, can be found anywhere.
What is love?
In my ministry experience, I have begun to see a trend that is greatly disturbing. More and more people who identify as Christians love Jesus, but have little intention of following him. I know that sounds harsh. I even struggle with making the statement. Is that something I ought to say? Or should say? So let me explain.
We are called to love. Our culture has taught that to love someone means to do more than accept them for who they are, but affirm them in that. Even if their behavior is traditionally considered sinful, we learn that to love, we must affirm. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in issues of sexual sin, whether heterosexual or homosexual sin. Yet as Christians we are called to be Jesus in our world, to model his example in every way. In his conversation with the woman at the well, Jesus never condoned her sin. Instead, he rebuked it. The woman caught in adultery, Jesus defended her, accepted her, and loved her; but he also told her to go and sin no more. Jesus managed to eat with tax collectors and sinners but never told them to be the best version of themselves.
We believe culture’s definition of love.
Champion the idea that God is love.
Therefore, God is now the kind of love culture is promoting.
This is not only toxic but dangerous.
The challenge for the church is to reorient God’s people with what it means to love others as followers of Christ. It looks different and feels different. It requires a steadfast commitment to truth lathered with grace, but it is radical and world-changing.
Bible? What Bible?
If you have ever read the Bible cover-to-cover, it comes as no shock to you that God can be mysterious, confusing, amazing, and even a little scary. There are commands and stories in the Bible that I simply just don’t like. But how I feel about something does not change how important it is. My kids hate chores, but it is crucial that they learn responsibility. The entirety of God’s grand narrative is designed to teach us how to live the life God desires for us, how to reflect him, and how to ensure that I am rescued into the new heavens and new earth.
At the same time, the Bible can be offensive, difficult to interpret, and far too easy to read our experiences into its meaning. I had a student once asked me, “Can a person still be a Christian if they never read the Bible?” Technically, I told him, “Yes.” “But would you have a very good faith or relationship with the one you claim to follow?” Think of it this way: can I be married if I never really bother to know my wife, take her out, talk with her, etc.? Sure I can. But I could never have a marriage.
More and more Christians are exchanging the authority of the Bible with an attempt to be relevant and tolerant, and a Jesus we are only familiar with, but with no relationship. We hope that if we sort of ignore the Bible or maybe just use it a little bit that we will offend fewer people. If we offend fewer people, then perhaps more people will come to the church and possibly experience salvation.
I had a good friend say to me this week, “If we are not introducing people to the Jesus of the Bible, then what Jesus are we introducing them to?” In other words, without the Bible at the center of what we do, what (or who) are our people following?
Culture drives culture. More specifically, youth culture drives culture. As people created in the image of God, we were created to create. We were created to be innovative and in that creativity reflect the glory of God. We have handed over creativity to secular culture. We spend far too much time copying culture hoping to appear “in touch” only to look even more out of touch. Let’s be honest, we all laugh a little (even at ourselves) when adults try to look and act like students. We laugh because we know that when we copy the culture, it just seems like we are copying.
There was a time when the chief creators of culture—the writers, poets, artists, and musicians—was the church. Let’s return. I believe that the church ought to be creating the best music, the best literature, the best movies, and the best art. After all, we are directly and intimately connected with the Creator himself which ought to give us a considerable advantage over the competition.
I sincerely believe that the next generation of church leaders will be forced to confront these, and many other challenges, head on. However, waiting only deepens the damage. The church is the hope of the world. I can think of no better time than now to firmly stand on truth, no matter the consequences and seek to make the kingdom of God a genuine and present reality in our midst. These are more than challenges. They are opportunities.
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