This year I turned the ripe old age of forty-eight years old. I am a bit passed middle aged unless I happen to live to be ninety-six years old and if I do I hope I don’t need to wear diapers! Sadly and suddenly I have become one of those gray heads that line the hallways of BGCT gatherings with circles of old friends catching up on old times.
One of the great threats to the future of the BGCT continues to be the attraction and retention of the next generation. Many of this generation exhibit the characteristics of what some have called “the emerging church” movement. Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones published a number of essays by the leaders and thinkers of this movement in a book entitled The Emergent Manifesto of Hope. I have found these essays insightful and helpful in critiquing the challenged faced by churches today. The church I serve is well over one hundred years old and yet hundreds of youth and young adults fill our pew each week. One question I wrestle with is how can I effectively meet their needs and not lose touch with the changing realities around me?
One of the essays that caught my attention was written by Adam Walker. He entitled his observations “Prysbymergent: The Story of One Mainliner’s Quest to Be a Loyal Radical”. I was drawn to how Walker described how he became a Presbyterian, he recounted:
“Before I begin to explain how I became involved with Emergent, it’s important to understand one thing about my denominational heritage it’s a mixed bag. In his early twenties my father became a Christian through a Plymouth Brethren gathering in Kentucky, and my mother grew up in a large Mennonite family on an Illinois farm. I was dedicated (not baptized) as an infant in a Presbyterian Church (PC USA), and I went to a Nazarene church youth group in junior high, an Assemblies of God youth group in high school, and a variety of mainline, evangelical and nondenominational churches in college. To say I’m a denominational mutt is probably an understatement.”
Walker’s journey is a far cry from the narrow Baptist path I have taken, and many of those who have gone before me took. Denominational lines are blurred for the generations following me. Many choose churches by how they “feel” rather than what they believe. They follow friendships rather than doctrine and traditions. So how do Baptist churches attract these young leaders and stay true to our heritage and foundational beliefs?
If you listen closely to what Walker is trying to tell us, it is clear we need to create and environment that invites them to join us on a journey rather than to a destination. The day we proclaim we have all the answers is the day that many of them will write us off as being irrelevant. I am not suggesting we throw out all of our values and biblical principles I am speaking more to an attitude and smugness that often comes with experience and gray hair.
Note how Walker describes what “loyal radicals” (a term coined by Bob Hopkins of the Anglican Church in the United Kingdom) long for in their fellowships of faith. Walker writes:
“One of the things I appreciate most about these friendships is the unspoken understanding that it is acceptable to question, critique, and deconstruct much of what we think and believe. Many today have more questions than answers, and the church has not always done a good job creating safe places for people to ask questions and share concerns.”
How can we create this “safe place” for “loyal radicals” to gather and think outside the box about the future and still hold true to our Baptist heritage? A good starting point will be learning to live by faith and not in fear. Luther started the Reformation with the stirring statement from the ancient prophet “the just shall live by faith.” Faith means not knowing all the answers but trusting the One who does. It means learning to live in the tension of the mysteries of life. In means coming to the Word of God with an open mind and open heart and allowing the Spirit to teach you with insights from within and from the community around you.
It’s my prayer we will make the BGCT (its universities and congregations) a “safe place” for the “loyal radicals” to gather so we can join forces (young and old) to change the world.