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Ministering with My Generation

The young woman standing before us looks a lot like Morticia Addams. Like the classic TV character, her hair is long, black, and stringy. Her skin is typing-paper white, except for her lips, which are painted black, matching her floor-length sheath. She is pierced. She is the worship leader.

In this incarnation, Morticia's warm contralto is replaced by an intense soprano that hugs a melody line of only three or four notes. Her tango is a rich, rhythmic amalgam of classical, grunge, and funk, produced by the band behind her: cello, bassoon, violins, flute, keyboard, guitar, bass, and drums. The sound is neo-classical funk, a little bit Celtic, a little bit rock-and-roll; Isaac Watts' hymns set to new tunes. To untuned ears, it is strange, stirring, not that singable, and in this setting, very right.

This is Seattle.

The place is a Seventh-Day Adventist sanctuary, rented on Sunday for two services. The congregation—numbering about 150 in the early service—is mostly under 30, college students, a few artists, perhaps, and young professionals, some with small children. The service depends heavily on liturgy, including the Lord's Prayer, the Nicene Creed, and a question from the Heidelberg Catechism. The Lord's Supper will be served, as it is every week. A trim young man with short blond hair, a former Army Ranger, greets by name each person who comes to the table. He peers into the eyes of each communicant. "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?"

A pop quiz. A pause. "Um, no one?"

"That's right. This is the body of Christ, broken for you."

This is Grace Seattle.

The blond man is Tom Allen, the pastor. He is warm. His style is unadorned, but over lunch he is passionate about his ministry. He is hesitant to be labeled. Labeling a ministry "postmodern" violates the tenets of postmodernism, he observes enigmatically. But Allen knows what he's about, and the mission of the church he founded two years ago. Allen wouldn't say his work is a paradigm shift. He considers it an "indigenous church" in a community he's made his own.

Allen is finding a hearing among a largely unchurched age group. George Barna reports that two-thirds of people under age 35 shun all organized religion. He's finding support for his very untraditional endeavors from a very traditional denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. And he's finding an audience in a city that historically has been indifferent to the gospel.

If it can work in postmodern Seattle—the city that gave us Microsoft, Starbucks and grunge music—then maybe it will work in my town.

Contextualizing the gospel isn't new. And the reinvention of American Protestantism isn't new. But this generation's incarnation is. Right now it has that new car smell. And this version offers some lessons for pastors driving older models who struggle to keep it on an ever-changing highway.

Haphazard, but focused

The walls of the Paradox Theater in a rundown section across town are draped in black. The carpet is older than most of the attenders. There are baggy jeans and bare midriffs and a gallery of body art. This congregation looks much like the cartoons drawn by those who fear Gen-X ministry.

It is steamy in here. The garage fan at the front is moving only hot air. The band is delayed. Their first service at a rented church facility a couple hours earlier probably ran late. The guy setting up PowerPoint and the video projector is having trouble. "Welcome to Technical Difficulties R Us," he says into the mic. Down front he has only the light from three votive candles. In the back, the glare from a single bare bulb is blinding, and if there were any seats available for latecomers, which there aren't, they wouldn't be able to see them.

The service starts 15 minutes late, but nobody seems to mind.

It's Sunday night, and this is the second service staged by Mars Hill Fellowship, a three-year-old church plant in Seattle. Pastor Mark Driscoll is away this night, but that hasn't affected attendance. Every seat in the musty theater is filled and some worshipers hug the walls.

The band cranks up. Their sound is raw and edgy. The words, black on white in some extreme Mountain Dew font, spill off the screen. The crowd listens more than sings. One leader prays, using words from a 16th century prayer. And another man brings up his girlfriend and proposes marriage to her—one-knee, ring, and all—the most intimate public act of his life before a crowd he himself said earlier he hardly knows, but this is the Paradox. And she accepts.

A thirtyish elder is preaching in Mark's stead, but sticking to Mark's schedule. Tonight's topic is the Tabernacle, explained from Exodus one verse at a time, in great detail, with cross references. The style is said to be typical of Mars Hill. Some take notes, many are impassive, but nobody leaves as the sermon far surpasses the evangelical standard of a half-hour. If this is the A.D.D. generation, their Ritalin has kicked in this night. Two hours after the service ends, some are still hanging around outside the theater, talking. The service seemed haphazard, but the attenders were focused. This is the paradox.

Haphazard, but focused. That may be an apt description for ministry aimed at young people. Many pastors are doing many things. (Leadership Network, a church training and research think-tank, estimates there are 1,000 young pastors starting independent, generation-targeted churches in the U.S. right now.) The innovators all have strong opinions, but this is an inexact science. It's so new. And it's not just in Seattle. Pastors everywhere feel the urgency to reach a younger generation. Just when we thought we understood boomers, we're about to miss the opportunity to reach their successors. The generation parade marches on, and it's speeding up.

Target a generation or a mindset?

There is disagreement over which term to use: "Gen-X ministry" or "postmodern ministry"? And what's the difference?

Gen-X ministry is defined by the age group. The 66 million people born between 1965 and 1983 (some would narrow the bracket, ending the "bust" as early as 1978) have driven the movement to establish new ministries. Now, Generation-Y is emerging. Some call them the "millennial generation," those born after 1980 who are coming of age and stepping into the spotlight at the opening of the new millennium. At 88 million strong, they will soon push Gen-X to the chorus line if age remains the criterion. So the discussion is turning to postmodern ministry. The issue is not age, it's how you think.

Postmoderns, called "pomo's" in some circles, are non-linear, multi-sensory thinkers, whose synaptic patterns are more like the Internet than the encyclopedia.

The analysts tell us postmoderns value relationships, yet they are skeptical because their parents—about 50 percent—divorced. They are delaying marriage. Trust is hard won. They are tribal, sticking more closely to their peers because of a perceived lack of meaningful intergenerational guidance. They expect to be heard, not because of age or experience, but just because they're there. Youth's right to a voice, won in protests by boomers, is the inheritance of successive generations, and they exercise it.

Postmodern people are tolerant of many things, including multiple paths to God. Truth, in this era, is relative, and the standard for measuring truth is personal, individual experience. That seems ironic for people who value community, but irony is to be expected and ambiguity is a virtue today.

"There are significant things in our culture that are changing, and if we don't pay attention to them, we are the fools," said Nancy Ortberg, a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago and area director of Axis, the church's Gen-X ministry. "But the way postmodernism is being depicted, there is the danger of making the church scared of reaching this generation because they sound almost as if they've landed from another planet."

Shape shifting

Postmodern ministry is taking many shapes. Some began as college-age Bible studies within existing congregations. Some high-profile ministries are operating on a church-within-a-church model, where a second worship service is designed for a younger audience. It usually has separate leadership, preacher, and worship team. That is the model for Axis.

Like everything else at Willow Creek, Axis is about excellence. This train runs on schedule. The service is in many ways like its older brother's: there's drama and video, the sermon is relational. The music is edgier and the people doing it all are younger, but for the most part, it looks and smells like Willow. (On this night, that's Salisbury steak, the main offering in the food court.)

"We don't use the term 'church within a church'," Ortberg said. "It sounds divisive." The challenge is to keep the congregations connected. "We're taking steps to do that. We're inviting older leaders to mentor younger leaders. Axis meets with the congregation in the main auditorium for our mid-week service. We're trying to share the DNA of the church and yet have room for unique expressions of how the Holy Spirit is working in this generation."

Todd Hahn is pastor of Warehouse 242 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Hahn's church launched with 80 in October. It now averages 500. His congregation began as an alternative worship service at Forest Hills Presbyterian Church in 1997. In an amicable agreement, the younger group became a separate, daughter church last year. "I used to get called on to teach workshops on how to do church-within-a-church because we had done it," said Hahn. "But I don't anymore. It didn't work for us. I'm not sure it's the best model."

The Next Level Church in Denver began as a college ministry connected to Applewood Baptist Church. Trevor Bron started the work in 1993. In three years, "Saturday Night Community" had taken on its own identity. "We realized that we were not a college ministry any more. We were a generational ministry," Bron said. "The things we had in common were our cultural experiences, the way we were raised, and the television programs we watched. That was our common bond.

"We had become a church-within-a-church. We weren't trying to be a church, but people were coming and that was the only church they were willing to go to," Bron said. Attempts to connect his congregants to the mother church didn't work. After a year of prayer, Applewood's pastor agreed to support Bron's launch of The Next Level Church. It started with 800 people. Three years later, it averages 1,800 each weekend.

In most cases, the defining issues in the creation of postmodern congregations are leadership styles, the inability of an older pastor to connect with younger listeners, and music. The flashpoint in their separation is, as the younger leaders see it, the unwillingness of older leaders to let go. Hahn urges, "Whatever kind of ministry you do, expect that ministry to fit within scriptural boundaries and within the mission and values of the church, but after that, give them space and don't control it."

Willow Creek was founded in 1975 as a new model for reaching lost people. That isn't the issue for postmodern ministry, Ortberg said. In most cases, it's style. "We don't need a new church to reach each generation. We need the church to respond to each generation. I think that's a critical distinction." Willow Creek has given her ministry lots of freedom to experiment and for younger people to find their place in leadership, she said.

Ortberg's challenge is keeping the team together and moving in the same direction. She tries to bridge the established boomer leadership of her church and the Gen-X Axis team. "We've got to figure out a way for churches to grow old together, to continue changing enough at the front end to minister to new generations and to be influenced by them," Ortberg said.

They will change your church

The question for most pastors is not, Do we start a postmodern ministry? Postmodern ministry is not about age groups anymore. For those contemplating a Gen-X ministry, that train has already left the station and train Y is building up steam.

Some younger church planters will start new congregations reflective of their generation. They always do. And most will grow old with their constituents. They will also watch as in 15 or 20 years, another generation says "I don't like your music" and starts its own worship service.

The questions for pastors of existing congregations are (1) How do we welcome younger people into leadership? and (2) how will they change our church?

Here are some ways your ministry will be affected by postmoderns:

1. The quest for authenticity begins. The hallmark of faith in this generation is authenticity. Everyone uses the word, most struggle to define it. Authenticity is when your inside matches your outside, one person said. It is two parts integrity and one part self-disclosure. It is not soul-letting without a tourniquet, but a willingness to share from one's faith experience for the benefit of others is required. So is a thick skin. Inauthenticity will be checked.

Begin with one or two twenty-somethings. Get to know them over coffee.

2. The ending of the age of anonymity. Authenticity is practiced in community. A generation that esteems community will expect it of the church. New structures for encouraging community will spring up, and postmoderns won't ask permission. Existing organizations will take on new relational aspects. Boomers wanted to slip in and out of church undetected. Postmoderns want to hang out and be known. All this talk of story and resonance is born from the need to share who we are. Community is the embodied apologetic of authenticity. In this age, people must get to know the people of God before they get to know God.

3. The journey is the thing. This is an outcrop of authenticity and community. It also results from the appreciation of ambiguity and paradox. Without a pot of answers at the end of the rainbow (so few believe in answers anymore), the joy must be found in the journey. Church will become less about the body of knowledge and more about the band of pilgrims.

Expect a renewed interest in the ancient. Generations without roots need connections to something older than they are. Ancient texts, prayers, and liturgies will be embraced as our Christian family history and reinterpreted by their new adherents. Churches that have eschewed creeds will need to affirm something older than Fanny Crosby.

4. A roll-up-your-sleeves faith. This generation is missional, passionate, intense, and for the duration of youth, energetic. The result is a hands-on kind of faith. They expect the church's giving and sending to be matched by going and doing. Postmoderns want to make a difference, and they want to see and know the person for whom they make a difference. Incarnation is a key word here.

5. Participation gets a new face. Participation in worship once meant lusty singing and hearty amens. Not any longer. For a generation that spent 23,000 hours watching TV before they turned 18, participation can look passive. Church has no remote, worship no joystick. Some postmoderns are adding new forms of artistic expression to worship. Corporate readings are making a comeback. Expect development of new ways to participate.

Your new power source

Leading postmodern people starts from a different position, not one of status or authority. The same spirit that dismissed "sir" and "reverend" has discharged your right to lead because you are the pastor. Nancy Ortberg calls it leadership from a different power source: "I have experienced the transforming power of Christ in my life; and because I have been transformed, and I know the sins I struggle with, I can offer you that same power. I want to be in community with you."

Leading postmodern people means adopting a new position: I'm a slightly older person who can learn from younger people and who just happens to be the pastor. It means adopting a new preposition: with. We can't do ministry for them, but rather, we do ministry with them.

"We're so excited. We just invited a 39-year-old to our elder board," the pastor said. The question was, how is Generation X affecting your leadership style? He missed the point—and the age bracket—entirely.

The first step is to make room at the table. Chad and Heather must take their place alongside Hubert and Edna as you pray together. Make a place on the platform, too. The best signal about who you welcome to your church is who you welcome to your pulpit and your orchestra pit.

Eric Reed is associate editor of Leadership.

Brave New Worldview

Postmodern ministry takes a different shape in Britain, where it began.

While postmodern churches in the United States are less than six years old, such pioneering churches in Britain have a longer track record. Missiologist Tom Sine offers his observations.

In the last 12 years, a new generation of leaders in Britain is engaging postmodern culture. They are relational and experiential, involve the arts, more into narrative than propositional theology. They are more tribal and local than "regional churches" of the previous generation. In the U.K., they tend to display more global awareness than their U.S. counterparts.

The service at St. Mary's Anglican in Ealing is an example. Two Youth for Christ staff members planted a church-within-a-church there in 1993. Midway through an hour of Celtic music and prayers, we heard the sounds of chains and gears. A giant block of ice was lowered on a scaffold. It represented the frozen hearts of countries in the northern hemisphere, we were told, who were indifferent to global poverty and the national indebtedness that kept many people from having the basic necessities. The pastor urged the congregation to support Jubilee 2000 and lobby the British government to forgive the debts of poorer nations.

He then invited each person to bring a candle and place it under the block of ice. It represented a personal commitment, the thawing of our own hearts to the plight of our neighbors.

Fasting from designer labels

In the U.K. many leaders of postmodern ministries see the church as domesticated by modernity and needing reform.

On "logo fast night" at The Warehouse in south London, no one is allowed in wearing any corporate logos on their clothing. Inside about 140 young people worship with hands raised and eyes closed. The music is a loud mix from two DJs. The leaders call the young people to seek first the kingdom of God and to avoid the addictions of consumerism.

We watched as an attractive young woman brought three expensive items of clothing to place on the altar. Attenders had been encouraged to give clothing that could be sold to help the poor. This was the first time, the pastor said, that he had seen this woman not "dressed to the nines."

Thirty of these young believers have committed to a subsistence lifestyle. They work no more than 25 hours per week for pay, giving another 15 to 20 hours for ministry. This is one of many such groups who are committed to changing the world by serving Christ and their neighbors.

Tom Sine is the author of Mustard Seed Vs. McWorld: Reinventing Life and Faith for the Future (Baker, 2000).

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