Occasionally I hear someone mention what has become a commonplace about ministry: let’s find where the Holy Spirit is at work and work there as well. It reminds me of a song from the sixties, or perhaps the seventies, a song about going where the action is.
I enthusiastically agree with this sentiment. It has affinities with Lesslie Newbigin’s writings on the missio Dei and is a good reminder that we in ministry follow the lead of the Master, rather than a corporate (or other) marketing plan. I’m not criticizing marketing plans either, just trying to get at what I think is a crucial and quite controversial idea.
For s0me time, I’ve been reading a sermon of John Wesley as part of my morning prayers and reflection. Today I read “On God’s Vineyard.” If you want a good summary of what Wesley thinks about Methodist doctrine, read the first section. As we prepare for our annual conference business, particularly the constitutional amendments, I wish we all would read it. But annual conference is not my business this morning.
One part of the sermon caught my eye and put me on a certain flight of fancy that I have been having for awhile. Wesley writes, “Many sinners were thoroughly convinced of sin, and many truly converted to God. Their assistants increased [i.e. the assistants to the Wesley brothers], both in number, and in the success of their labours. Some of them learned: some unlearned. Many of them were young...” (emphasis added). Young preachers. Young leaders of the movement.
Conventional wisdom says that being the senior pastor is where the real action is. If you’re not the pastor, but a staff member, say a youth director, then you’re a little bit out of the real action. It is not uncommon that youth directors with strong pastoral gifts are encouraged to “grow out of” youth ministry into something closer to the real action. It may be changing, but it used to be fairly common that people who are not very good at being pastors were appointed to campus ministries.
But what if the real, apostolic, missional action is among the young? What if we flipped conventional wisdom on its head?
Those of us who work with young people have been watching a trend. Most young people who feel called to ministry do not want to pastor already-established congregations. They want to start their own churches or go into some other kind of ministry instead of the local congregation.
We’re talking in United Methodism all the time about starting new churches. What if the youth group in one’s own congregation was seen as the new church start? I’m not playing semantic games. What if the youth director were part of a new apostolic generation?
I’m not necessarily saying that people my age and up are not “where the action is.” But it is a sad truth that many congregations are controlled by people who treat the church as if it were their own religious club. The label “United Methodist” may be on the sign or above the door, but little of the lifeblood of Methodism flows through its veins.
A significant factor in the growth of Methodism historically has to do with the calling and nurture of the young. Young people took ownership and leadership. John Wesley understood this critical point. Those of us who are no longer young would do well to pay attention.