*Editorial Note: The keynote lecture below was given by Miriam Swanson, entitled “Disruption, Mission, and The Next Generation” during Awakenings 2023. Miriam’s keynote sought to name the reality that the last few years have had a huge impact on our young people in some of their most formative years of development. Has the church been a place of refuge for them in these times? Or are the next generations struggling to find a spiritual home where they belong? It is simultaneously hard and hopeful to become a church that truly reaches and disciples the next generation, which begs the question: Can we afford not to enter the disruption of loving and connecting with today’s younger generations where they actually reside? ~CK
- Purchase “Disruption, Mission, and the Next Generation” video plenary here.
- The full Awakenings 2023 Gathering bundle is available here.
Sketchy Theology participated in Awakenings 2023 by creating these fantastic sketchnotes of most sessions. So great!
The presence of God is disruptive. It brings new life in ways we cannot manufacture, and it also uncomfortably kicks you in the ribs while simultaneously adjusting your inner landscape to make room for what is being formed for birth. Click To Tweet
I don’t know how many of you have ever had the bizarre experience of being kicked in the ribs from the inside, but I can tell you it doesn’t feel normal. Genuinely, sometimes it’s like you can almost hear the crunch of a little foot or elbow, making a bit more room for itself in the final weeks of pregnancy.
The gift of new life, the gift of formation and growth as you add people to a family comes with profound disruption.
Nausea, sleepless nights, a complete rearranging of the internal furniture otherwise known as a woman’s vital organs. It’s all wrapped up in the gift of a new human.
You can’t have all the benefit and none of the cost.
With each new life you add to a family, the whole ecosystem of that family has to adjust. Just like your presence here now at Awakenings 2023 makes the room different. Just like this forming baby in me will forever change our family and my bellybutton.
Are we prepared for the disruption of the incarnation?
New life in our midst comes with stretching, pain, discomfort, and change, as well as unimaginable hope, destiny, and possibility.
New family members bring fresh energy, passion, creativity, and contribution. They also take time, resources, love, cultivation, discipleship, and commitment.
This is true for the arrival of a baby.
This is also true for the emergence of the next generation in the church. This is also true if we were to begin to see the fruit of being a missional church. Reaching new people and seeing new lives come into the Kingdom will cost our churches as well as benefit them.
Are we prepared for the disruption of new life?
The (Healthy) Disruption Young People Bring
When a local church leader says to me that they “want more young people” in their congregations, or they just don’t know how to “get more young people” to come to what they’re doing as a church, I have to ask in response: “Do you actually want who young people are, and all that they will bring?”
Because if the reason you want new life in your church in the form of young people and young adults, is so that…
- You don’t feel like your community is aging out or dying into decline…
- Or because you could really do with their volunteering energy in children’s ministry and behind the sound desk…
- Or because you think what you’re already doing is brilliant so surely they’d love to come and just receive from you…
…then we might have a problem if some young people and young adults actually tried to join your family.
Additions to the family change the whole family. New life changes the dynamic in the room, rearranges the furniture, and…
- disrupts what was…
- …in order to be what is…
- …so that a community can grow into what will be.
If we want Gen Z in our church family, we have to be ok with the fact that Gen Z will change our church family by their very presence.
And if we want to be a church that is missional, and dare I say it, reaches people who don’t yet know Jesus and may never have experienced church before, then we have to make space for the fact that our church community will be changed by people who haven’t been conditioned to conform to the culture we’ve currently got.
This is very fun of course, and very messy.
My teammate Luke, who leads Fusion in England, told me a story recently that illustrates this tension perfectly.
A few weeks ago, Luke was speaking about the good news of Jesus at a gathering of college students at a local church. He gave some space for people to respond to the love of Jesus and a student ended up surrendering her life to Jesus that night. After the gathering, she came up to Luke to tell him what had happened to her. And the way she described her experience was, and I quote:
“It feels like my whole f***ing soul got renewed!”
That is a remarkable good news testimony that we don’t quite know how to share!
What a relief this moment was for Luke, because it proved he wasn’t simply preaching to the choir, but that instead the church was actually creating spaces of belonging for those who needed to taste and see the good news of Jesus most.
And the fruit? Her “whole f***ing soul got renewed!” Thanks be to God!
The presence of God is disruptive. It brings new life in ways we cannot manufacture, control, or predict, and it also uncomfortably kicks you in the ribs while simultaneously adjusting your inner landscape to make room for what is being formed and brought to birth.
Additions to the family change the whole family. New life changes the dynamic in the room, rearranges the furniture, and disrupts what was, in order to be what is, so that a community can grow into what will be. (1/3) Click To Tweet
And if we want to be a church that is missional, then we have to make space for the fact that our church community will be changed by people who haven't been conditioned to conform to the culture we've currently got. (3/3) Click To Tweet
Post-Christian Europe Has Invited the Church to Embrace Disruption
I want to to confess something to you about the Asbury Outpouring of February 2023. When it all started kicking off, I didn’t jump on a plane despite a fair bit of social pressure too. I’m not a hype girl. I actually want to run the other way if I sense any pressure to jump on a band wagon or live up to other people’s expectations in over excited ways. So I took my time to wait and to watch, seeing if the seeds of revival were growing. I texted with my friends on the campus and in Wilmore to see if they were ok, and I waited until the timing seemed helpful to them, to go and serve the exhilarated and exhausted team during the second week of the revival.
As I watched college students and high schoolers pour into Hughes Auditorium and rest in the presence of God, I struggled not to think of Europe and wonder why this hasn’t happened where I come from. I struggled not to weep over what is happening, or rather not yet happening, in the church and with young people’s faith in that post-Christian continent. Why did it happen at Asbury? When might God move like that in Europe? My friend Jon says Europe’s culture is so post-Christian, he’s started calling it pre-revival Europe. I hope so. But that’s not happened yet. Instead, the situation feels desperate.
Where I come from, less than 1% of any college student population in any town or city in the UK1 can be accounted for in a local church or Christian community. Think Jesus’ parable of the 99 sheep in the fold and one the missing sheep, lost on the hillside (Luke 15:1-7). Except flip it. In the UK, there is one sheep who found home, and 99 sheep wondering about without a shepherd, with no idea how to get where they’re made to go.
In Europe, we’ve had to disrupt current church culture and practices, because no one simply comes to church. We have to go to them. Mission and innovation have to be at the heart of reaching and discipling young people, because there is no default core group already in the fold that can make us feel big enough, successful enough, or satisfied enough to ‘maintain’ our youth group or college student ministry.
If you lead in the church in the UK, chances are you know you can’t do it without prayer, unity with other churches in your community, and without taking the initiative to go, not waiting for mythological people to come. Because they don’t.
There’s something really healthy and holy about reaching this point of desperation for Jesus, in recognizing our need for God.
The stories coming from the church in Europe present both inspiration and challenge for us. There are wonderful stories of innovation, planting, supernatural encounters, and waves of unity in the body of Christ – and yet the Church is tiny and the harvest is massive. Awakening feels more like it’s smoldering under the surface, rather than breaking out in waves.
In Europe, we've had to disrupt current church culture and practices, because no one simply comes to church. We have to go to them. Mission and innovation have to be at the heart of reaching and discipling young people. Click To Tweet
How Do We Turn the Tide in the American Church?
This doesn’t have to be the story of the US church too. I have never been in a country like this before, where we actually have a decent number of laborers who call themselves followers of Jesus already, who could be mobilized for the sake of loving our neighbors.
So my question is, what are we going to do with what we have been given here in America?
In this very room, we are representatives of the church in the US. You are leaders who might actually have the agency and courage to change things.
- What might it look like to choose the road of divine disruption even before you reach the point of total desperation?
- What might it look like to become a family marked by mission and the welcoming of inevitable change that occurs when making space for new life?
- How might we already be training ourselves to instinctively respond in hope to the invitation to go and love our young adult neighbors, rather than pray disembodied prayers, hoping some young people will magically come to us, without our communities adjusting an inch?
Whilst many of you still have some sheep in the fold who are able to be shepherded, and whilst your young people who say they have a personal relationship with Jesus number around the 30% mark in Gen Z according to Barna’s latest study in the US, I implore you not to stand by and watch the tide go out further.
Instead, may the transformative presence of Jesus kick you in the ribs, move about the furniture and add to his family in the ways he is longing to. Make room now for Gen Z to participate and shape your conversations, decisions, and church culture. Let them kick you in the ribs while simultaneously bringing you deep joy.
A Prayer for Embracing Life’s Disruptions
Thank you Jesus, for being the author of life.
Thank you Jesus, that new life disrupts and alters things.
May we embrace the cost, as well as the gift that new believers and younger believers bring.
The Body of Christ is made for this kind of thing.
May we embrace the gift of all that has come and is coming in these days with this generation.
For He has come to bring life, and life in all of its fullness, even when it kicks you in the ribs.
May it be so. Amen.
Miriam Swanson is the Director of Fusion USA, an organization that equips local churches to love, reach and disciple college students. She is originally from the UK, where she was the Global Student Mission Leader for the wider Fusion Movement, but now pioneers this work from her home in Jacksonville, FL. Miriam is passionate about the potential for Kingdom transformation through the hearts of university students across the nation. She is active on Instagram at @miriamgswanson.
I have never been in a country where we have a decent number of laborers who call themselves followers of Jesus, who could be mobilized for the sake of loving our neighbors. What are we going to do with what we have been given? Click To Tweet
1 *Editorial Note: It is challenging to confirm this exact nature of this statistic, as public surveys and national census data are notorious for not being extremely accurate with such personal and private things as one’s religious involvement. Regardless, whether 1% or slightly higher, it is without question that Europe, and the United Kingdom in particular, is well into the throes of a post-Christian age, and this includes younger generations for sure. More data information can be found here and here for those interested. ~CK