Next Generational Leadership

I was off work today, recovering from a cold, and I spent a good deal of the day devouring Ross Parsley’s new book, Messy Church. Yesterday, I suggested that everyone should get a copy of it. See my post here.

I’m about halfway through the book and what Parsley is advocating is to see the church and its mission through an entirely new lens: the church, not as a well-oiled corporate machine, but as family, where life reigns over structure, relationship reigns over protocol. And where there is life, there is usually mess. But it’s okay for church to be messy.

I couldn’t agree more.

Part of the appeal of this book is that many of the lessons learnt were forged in the context of worship ministry, when Parsley was the worship pastor of New Life Church. It is interesting to see how worship ministry is often the place where a lot of the issues of church are often played out most sharply.

As I read this book, I saw a lot of my own philosophies of worship ministry being articulated, and articulated well.

In 2010, when I was one of the worship ministry leaders setting up a new satellite service planted by my then church, one of the things I was keen to do was to involve and grow the next generation of leaders. My co-leader and I decided to establish what we called a “Think Tank”, a group of emerging leaders in the worship ministry who would bring fresh and innovative ideas into worship ministry, but who would also get the opportunity to work alongside, and to glean from, more seasoned leaders. I even challenged some of them that in two years’ time, they could take over my job and I would remain to stand alongside them, rather than to lead them.

Parsley presses the need for a multigenerational approach to ministry, which he calls the “family worship table”. The key is to invite the younger generation to the table, because freshness and innovation lay with that generation. He says:

“The family worship table” was a way to describe our multigenerational approach that would help every age-group embrace people at different points on the age continuum….

The commitment to use Sundays as a gathering place for the “family worship table” began when I started thinking about how to integrate fresh faces and young hearts into the leadership of worship at New Life Church. We made a shift in our church to remain musically relevant, and I struggled to get people to understand what we were doing. New Life had always been a charismatic church theologically, but our style and culture had stagnated. We were thriving spiritually but hadn’t progressed in our expression artistically or musically…. The church continued to grow, and we built the foundations of a successful worship ministry with strong musicians and biblical teaching, but we weren’t moving culturally at the speed we needed to. I recruited some young college graduates to inject life into our ministry and help chart the course ahead….

Slowly, we began to change and experience genuine multigenerational worship. New Life was a thriving and healthy church, but as we began to change musically and artistically, the process uncovered some poor attitudes and selfishness in some who had been there for a while. Some of the family did not want to invite the kids to the table. They wanted them to stay at their own kids’ table.

Parsley goes on to make a pretty bold claim: “Young people create the culture of our tables, our churches, and our country… Our job as parents is to raise them – to influence them and give them our hearts”.

My own experience agrees with this statement. The older I get, and the longer I have been in worship ministry, the more I realise how “uncool” I’m becoming. Even using the word “uncool” betrays my lack of “coolness”. Young people interact and integrate with, and influence, culture in a way I can’t even begin to grasp. Some of the guys in our “Think Tank” were actually “back seat driving” our worship culture by telling me to listen to new songs and to deploy them in our worship sets. In the end, our ministry owed a lot to the young people for pushing us all forward.

However, we are often like Eliab (David’s older brother) and Saul. When Goliath stood there day after day, taunting the armies of Israel, Saul was paralysed, with no new strategies for victory. In comes David the young punk to deliver some cheese to his brothers. And Eliab tells him (with a great deal of indignation perhaps), “Shouldn’t you be back home looking after the sheep?” When David finally gets to confront Goliath, Saul gives his armour to David: ill-fitting, heavy and speaking of old methods and paradigms. Instead, David rejects the old, and launches an assault that is completely innovative (but birthed by God): a sling and a smooth-stone to the forehead of the giant.

Many of us who have been in the game a long time are reluctant to hand control over to the young, because in our minds, they are tempestuous upstarts who lack credible experience. If we let them play, we become like Saul, forcing old paradigms and old wineskins in the hope of somehow containing the new flow of the Spirit and the new wine.

By the way, anyone who thinks that we don’t need to keep renewing our worship expression stands on dangerously tenuous ground. We simply can’t keep singing the songs that are 20 years old and expect the next generation to connect with them. Personally, I love the songs of the 90s because they were the songs I was first taught as a young Christian. But stylistically, they mean nothing to the present generation. They simply make the church look old and weary. Of course, there can be space for blending of old and new (I often like to throw in an old song into every worship set) but if we don’t keep moving forward, as they say, we are actually moving backward.

Parsley goes on to say:

Wouldn’t it be incredible if we could take the maturity, wisdom and resources of age and put them together with the energy, enthusiasm, and creativity of youth? Our churches would be an unstoppable force in our communities….

Creating opportunities for young and inexperienced leaders is one of the most effective tools we have to continue to make the church dynamic and relevant in our culture. Helping young leaders is extremely challenging because it demands accountability, it involves some risk, and it can be downright messy; but it is indispensable to a church that is committed to longevity.”

I don’t think the question we should ask is whether our young people are ready. If we ask that, we will always conclude that they are not. The question is whether the older generation is ready to stand alongside the youth, to nurture them, to father them, to guide them and to create save spaces for them to take risks and push established boundaries.

So, this is a call for worship ministry leaders to participate in the “family worship table”, to build up the next generation of leaders of our churches and ministries.

Will it work? I believe that the results speak for themselves. New Life Church and Desperation Band, through Parsley’s leadership, remains one of the cutting edge forces in the worship landscape today, producing worship music that is relevant, edgy and yet congregation-friendly. And that sort of legacy can be ours too.

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