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It was fall. I was a teenager. And the annual back-to-school ritual had begun. Mom hustled me off to the mall and dogged me from clothes rack to clothes rack as I painstakingly selected three shirts.
"What's wrong with this?" she demanded, holding a bright red-checked shirt to my chest. I hated checks.
"I don't like it," I moaned, my fragile teenage ego already dented by Mom's mere presence.
"You need enough shirts to get through the week," she declared with finality. "Now, this is a perfectly good shirt."
Needless to say, I went home with five shirts that afternoon and dutifully put them in my closet. The three shirts I picked, I wore. The others I didn't-not simply because I childishly balked at parental authority, but because I was also emerging into an adult, and I needed to make some decisions for myself.
Many times church leaders are frustrated with a congregation's lack of enthusiasm for a perfectly good church program. Perhaps it's because they have, not a rebellious child, but an emerging adult on their hands. A congregation not only grows physically, but also moves toward maturity. And that causes growing pains.
As an elder in a growing church, I worked with an adolescent congregation. Our church Session had successfully overhauled a stagnant, dying fellowship by introducing an innovative small-group ministry. "If you want to be a part of what's going on," we implied, "a small group is the place to be." Many of our people, especially our new arrivals, instantly felt they had a place to belong within the church.
Then, to improve pastoral oversight, the Session modified the system. Groups were clustered around elders who led them in monthly fellowship meetings. A few groups complained that this disrupted their routine. We suggested that the elders had their best in mind, and encouraged them to go along with the change.
The following year, we improved the program again, structuring it around ministry tasks. We felt that group members ought to be involved in organized ministry training. Owing to the limited number of elders to oversee them, the ministries available were limited. The slightly greater chorus of complaints was met with a request to "just try it; give it a chance."
Most did, but over the months, attendance slumped. Group leaders were told to call the absentees and urge their return. A bewildering array of complaints began to filter up from the ranks.
"Every time I find a group of people I can relate to, I'm asked to move to another group."
"We all participate in different ministries already. Why can't some of us meet over dinner and just have fun?"
"Several of us feel called to minister to the homeless. Since the church isn't able to do that institutionally right now, couldn't you just give us your blessing?"
When the elders announced yet another plan (this time to reorganize the small groups into neighborhood outreach groups), people didn't rebel. They just began dropping out of the system. Some started their own groups. Some continued informally their group friendships and no longer participated in the church-sponsored fellowships.
We elders assailed those who refused to wear the perfectly good shirts we had picked for them. "Unteachable and immature," we called them. Like my mother, my fellow elders and I were late to see our congregation's changing behavior as a good sign, not a bad one. Our congregation, like Mom's once-compliant son, was beginning to experiment with adulthood during a painful but necessary process called adolescence.
Adolescent is, unfortunately, a term we hurl as an epithet. But isn't an adolescent who never balks at having his life run by his mother or father in danger of never maturing into an adult? And isn't a congregation that never challenges the church leadership's plans in danger of never maturing as a body?
Admittedly, it is difficult to see underneath an uncooperative, crabby veneer the person who hopes to be accepted, albeit on different terms-more as an equal than a subordinate. Looking back, I recognize that our members simply were longing to make their own decisions.
And, of course, letting go of the kids is a risky but quite unavoidable phase that precedes mature adulthood.
-Michael D. Musselman
Copyright © 1990 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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