In part one of this episode, we dug into the reasons why so many emerging adults are leaving the church, or never attended in the first place. This week Rick Zomer & Tanner Smith return to give us the next steps to practically integrate the generations within your church and authentically walk in step with young adults as they pursue a deeper understanding of God.
[01:01] Christian theology and the emerging adult
To engage with younger adults, there’s a misconception that essential tenets of theology have to be changed and adapted beyond recognition. There’s also sometimes an unwillingness to lay the agenda aside to move forward in meeting emerging adults where they are. But what the next generation really craves is connection and authenticity when it comes to learning about Christianity. When church leaders can clearly articulate who Jesus is, what Christians believe and why they believe it – even if they struggle – it can be refreshingly intriguing to younger audiences.
[7:45] Discipling and integrating the young adult leader
Working with a multi-generational leadership team has unique challenges and opportunities. Rick and Tanner show us how to encourage and guide your mature leadership team as they create space for younger adults to learn, grow and let their talents develop for the glory of God. They also dive into the three areas of life where younger and older leaders alike need to experience transformation in order to best serve the church.
[17:10] Final takeaways for engaging with emerging adults
We close out with the foundational premise for engaging people of all ages with the gospel – not just young adults: instead of offering easy answers, we talk about the importance of offering other people your presence on the journey to understanding God.
Get in touch with today’s guests:
Rick Zomer, Director of Next Generation Engagement for the RCA: email@example.com
Tanner Smith, Pastor of Harbor Life Church in Granville: firstname.lastname@example.org
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DOUG: Welcome to the Luminex Podcast. Here you will find ideas and conversation to help you on your church leadership journey. Luminex is focused on developing leaders to start and strengthen churches. We provide resources and support for you and all the leaders of your church family at luminexusa.org.
DOUG: Well, we want to welcome you to part two of this conversation on emerging adults and we’re just grateful to have back with us Rick Zomer, who is the Director of Next Generation Engagement for the Reformed Church in America, not the King of Scotland and Tanner Smith, the pastor of Harbor Life Church in Granville, RCA church here in Michigan – who even though he’s fast, is not quite as fast as the flash. Tanner, welcome.
TANNER: Thanks Doug.
DOUG: And Rick welcome.
RICK: Thanks for having me back Doug.
DOUG: Let’s talk about a simpler topic. Let’s talk about theology and the next generation because this topic isn’t difficult enough to grapple with – but there’s this kind of narrative out there that we have to somehow change our theology in order to reach emerging adults. Is that true and what are some of the ways that we can articulate the gospel contextually if that’s not true?
RICK: I don’t think that is true. Again I will go back to something we talked about a little bit earlier about the idea of authenticity in emerging adults. They will give a lot of space and grace if the church says this is who we are, this is what we believe and this is why we believe it. They’re very interested in that conversation because it’s not just “this is what we’re telling you, believe it because we’re telling you to believe it.” It’s treating them with respect and that they are adults who can help think about what this might mean and I think where it even really plays itself out is when we start talking about challenging issues that come up with our theology and to approach that again from a position of humility and to say these are really tough issues these are things I struggle with too. In my faith, this is where I’m at and this is how I stand before God at this place at this time. Even if they disagree with you, that will be such a powerful statement to a young person because they are like this person is trying to figure it out and they’re approaching whatever the issue is with grace and humility as opposed to this is the way it is and if you don’t if you make it very binary that is not going to be I think a way that a young person is really going to look at theology and say, “I want to learn more about that, I want to hear more about that.”
DOUG: So it’s not changing our theology’s tenets, it’s changing the way we talk and the way we have conversations about those things.
RICK: I guess I would put it this way: a young person who gets involved at a theological conversation, pick whatever topic you want to pick. If you are involved with an older person talking about a challenging issue and the younger person says to the older person “why do you believe that?” and their response is, “I don’t know I just always have” or “We don’t really ask those types of questions here,” that is a huge turn off for a young person because that’s how they’re going to view the church and I think you get along much further along the line to say “I struggle with that too” or even better “I struggle with that too, let’s explore it together.” If you ask them to join you in the journey and you’re honest about it I think that’s the way to go.
DOUG: Tanner, I’ll be interested in your thoughts on that subject as well.
TANNER: Well, I think two things comes to mind. The first one is that we have to be interested in what the live questions are for this generation – the live theological conversations. For a long time the church has been answering questions that no one is asking. That’s a problem. We need to stop having arguments that nobody else is fighting about or arguing over and focusing our energy on things like that and then allowing other people to ask questions and introduce conversation with us and to receive their questions and then plumb the depths of our very rich tradition to find tools that can be helpful. So I think now absolutely we have a very rich tradition and we need to ask what questions are essential right now for people and how have we already engaged these things in the past and are there ways to update it?
The second thing is that we have to be willing to allow ourselves to be challenged and not to be afraid of that. I think around specific issues, for instance baptism, the role of baptism in a church plan. We do baptisms, we do infant baptism in our church and there are a lot of people who come to our church with tons of baggage from some other church they went to or something that happened and if I just tell them “this is the way it is this – is the way it will always be, just do it” and I don’t allow them to push back on that and I don’t engage with the many, many texts in the Bible that talk about adults being baptized and I don’t deal with conversion. If I’m unwilling to deal with that, I’m not doing them any favors. I’m not doing myself any favors either. I’m really short circuiting an opportunity for a deeper theological conversation and I’ve learned a ton from people asking those questions that these folks have good questions that, frankly, seminary didn’t teach me to ask. So I find that it has to be an open conversation where you’re willing to be vulnerable.
RICK: The one thing I would follow up on that is to say the price of not taking that posture because if a young person is coming to you with theological questions and your response is to not engage them, they’re going to find somebody else who will and there’s going to be no shortage of people willing to offer them answers to their questions inside and outside of the church and so it’s not a matter of, should we answer this question? It’s who is going to answer this question? Who is going to engage with them? I think that’s where the church’s responsibility lies.
TANNER: Absolutely. For us, we’ve decided to make as much around that particular issue, for instance baptism, we’ve decided to make so much space for people to explore it because we feel like this is a gift from God and the miracle is that anybody wants to receive this gift from God. So let’s not get in the way of people wanting to experience God’s love, let’s help them understand what’s happening, let’s be open to learning from them learning from their questions. We just found a ton of fruit in that space of exploration with people like you said actually engaging in those questions that for a lot churches that probably gave some people chills just thinking about having that conversation. They don’t want to have that conversation. I understand like Rick said, somebody is going to be willing to.
DOUG: Isn’t that the crux of the matter – is that willingness that taking that discipleship step that leadership step to lay down our own agenda, to lay down our own lives, if you will, in order to move forward engaging adults. It’s not going to happen in a convenient pre-packaged way. It’s only going to happen as we journey with them and I think you mentioned it earlier as we engage hospitably with this generation.
TANNER: To circle back to something Rick said earlier about discipleship: If your 45-year olds are discipled well, they’re actually going to have something to offer as well. I think a lot of us who are a little bit older haven’t been discipled well or haven’t really engaged our faith and now we’re in crisis mode because our kids don’t seem to be interested in the things of Jesus but they have never seen us interested in the things of Jesus and when they come to us we’re like “I don’t know ask your mom?” or “Can you ask the pastor?” or “I don’t know – Google it” and those just aren’t good answers. There’s no way they’re going to want anything to do with this if they don’t see it an authentic discipleship in us. So one part of the strategy, I think, and Rick I’ll let you push back on this, but one part of the strategy for reaching young adults has to be discipling middle aged and older adults. We have a massive discipleship gap that we were taught to just accept because of the culture. Andy Griffith would make people Christians. Andy Griffith is in syndication now and it’s not really working anymore so maybe we need to find a discipleship plan for our whole church not just trying to get those kids to come back it just doesn’t work like that.
DOUG: We’ve touched on discipleship and of course discipleship relates to leadership. Let talk about engaging young adult leaders. We’ve talked about engaging folks that were hoping will participate in the life of the church but what about the leaders among them who are emerging as our future leaders. What are some thoughts? What are some strategies? What are some things that you’ve struggled with about merging adult leadership?
RICK: Well, I’ll say a couple of things. One is just sort of our history, which is a leader in the church is in their 40s or 50s, they’re settled in a career, they have a family, they’re all these sorts of things leaders have to do and that they waited their turn. That’s one of the things I hear all the time is “well, I didn’t have the opportunity to be in church leadership when I was 25, I waited my turn, no it’s my time” and to me that’s like, well a couple of things about that. One is I’m not really sure this is about you. If we’re talking about the well being of the leadership of the church it shouldn’t be how that impacts me it should be how it impacts the church so I think that’s thing one. Things two is when people usually say that to me it’s not like they think they’re describing the best experience in their life they usually are describing that experience of waiting with a certain level of bitterness and so I usually respond “well, how’d that make you feel? Because it doesn’t seem like that was really a great experience for you.” So those are two things right off the top and then I think just for us to question some of our assumptions because the other thing I hear often times is “well, if we were to put a 25 year old or if we were to put a 23 year old in a position of leadership that will be a problem.” I say, “Why would that be a problem?” They go, “Well, they might make mistakes” and I say “I’ll accept that argument as soon as we present 48 year olds who don’t make mistakes.” We give way more grace to someone my age to make a mess of something in the church as opposed to a 23 year old that we kind of making a referendum on all 23 year olds if one of them does and I just think that is a huge, huge mess and so I could say more about that but Tanner I’m sure you’ve got a few things to about that too.
TANNER: I don’t know any 48 year olds who make mistakes so I would like to meet some of them but I would say at that early age pedagogical theory learning theory is so helpful because they’re asking questions and the question that they’re asking at that stage younger people are asking is, who am I and how do I fit in? What am I supposed to do with my life? And those are really rich questions and unfortunately we stop asking those questions at a certain point in life because we have children or we have a job or we have a crisis or something but at that point they’re really right for asking those questions and that’s the time that the first step to being a good leader is leading yourself. If you can’t lead yourself, you have no business leading anybody else.
The thing that a 21 year old needs for leadership development more than anything else are tools that help them lead themselves for rest of their lives and what am talking about is teaching them how to slow down when they’re making the decision, teaching them how to pray, teaching them how to assume good in other people, teaching them how to deal with disappointment, teaching them how not to become a workaholic, teaching them about systems and how they are a part of the system and how not to overfunction. There’s all kinds of things we can teach. By teaching themselves how to lead themselves at that early stage is a really great gift. I learned to lead myself through a crisis when I was probably about 30. There was a moment of crisis where I was like I really had to lead myself and I needed other people to come around me. I sure wish I could have learned that nine years earlier. So that’s a big piece that you can really pour into them is just about self leadership self care.
Transformational learning theory talks about how there are three stages to changing and we’re going to change from who we are to become someone else. The first stage is psychological, which is just a change in how we understand ourselves. I think about when I took my ordination vows to become an ordained minister, that was a psychological change for me. I took vows, I made a promises that were public, I signed a piece of paper and psychologically I came to understand myself differently. But then the second stage is convictional changes and I think about these are the revisions to your belief systems and this is when I realized that planting churches is the future of the church. I am convinced that is true. My belief system is changed and we’re going to do it. It has to happen. And then third is behavioral changes and that’s where the rubber hits the road. This is like changes in lifestyle and that happened when my children were born. Like that utterly transformed my lifestyle and I have to be changed because if I don’t change when they show up on the earth is bad news and recognizing that the transformation happens through to these different stages and that you can actually engage with these people by learning how people are transformed and entering into their world where they are at because they’re right for it when they are in their late teens or early twenties. They’re ready to answer or ask those questions about how to lead themselves, how to be changed.
DOUG: I think it’s interesting the theme of discipleship and leadership development the pathway that we designed the people as a strategy that we design in a church is so crucial for the future of the church and for the next generations of the church and I hear that being echoed in the things that you’re saying. Back to one of the things that Rick said about ‘it’s my turn’ this kind of thing. I remember when it became my turn, I was off in India and we got to the end of our vision trip and the people that took me there wanted me to have a heart for India and of course I have a heart for India but what struck me was how young the leadership was in the Indian church and at that moment there and then I resolved that it would be someone else’s turn to take my job 10 years before it was my turn and I think that’s the kind of thinking that abundance mentality in older folks that we need to really turn this over to the next generation.
TANNER: My friend Aaron Bart is a dean of chapel at Dordt College. I was visiting not that long ago and we’re sitting on his back porch just talking and he said and he’s a phenomenal speaker and a great leader and he started the non profit called One Body One Hope and he’s a fireball just an amazing leader and he said to me, “I’m starting to wonder if maybe what God wants to with my life is really through my children. Like what if the thing that God wants to do in me is that I would be a really good dad so that my kids can just turn the world upside down.” I thought that is a good leadership perspective that I measure by future generations, not what I can accomplish through my own little life building my own little kingdom but what if God wants to use my kids and the more I think about that the more I think that’s wisdom and so I have an apprentice at my church and I’m thinking, how do I set him free to be way better than I am? Am I threatened with that or does that look like success to me? And I wrestle with that but I know deep down God probably wants to do more through him and his coaching tree than he does through me and that’s good. That’s multiplication. Its supposed to be like that.
DOUG: That’s so profound. It echos Susanna Wesley who said ‘the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.’ It’s the leader that passes the leadership mantle down to next generation who has the most kingdom impact ultimately. Here we are at the end of a great conversation, here at the end of part two of our conversation. What is the final word that you would give to our listeners as they think about this subject of engaging emerging adults?
RICK: I would say probably two things. One is it’s okay to try and fail and I think that’s better than not trying at all to make a connection to try to understand what young people are going through and try to figure out way that you can do ministry with them. I think it’s far better and young people will give you far so much more space if you’re willing to try and fail. I think that’s thing one. I think the other thing I would say is continuing to do what we’ve always done or not do anything is actually doing something and it’s not going to be helpful. I think young people are waiting and wanting to be involved and the more time we choose not to engage them the more likely they’re to never want to engage with us down the road when we actually get ready. So that’s what I would say. Those would be my two things.
DOUG: Thanks Rick. Thanks for being here as well.
TANNER: From my part, I would say to look around with the culture and just recognize that everyone is trying to sell them something and to remember that we’re not trying to sell them something but we actually care about them and who they are and we’re not promising quick or easy answers but we can promise them to walk with them and accompany them and give them access to our lives. If you can embrace that sort of hospitality of life, opening your life to a person, those are the relationships that have changed me and have the most impact on me and emerging adults are really no different. Another things I’d encourage you to do is connect with Rick. This is what he does, he swims in this stuff, he dreams with this stuff all the time and he’s willing to help walk through some stuff. We’re going to be give at least a Great Lakes City Classis here in West Michigan of the Reformed Church of America. We’re going to give a couple of really concrete next steps in October at one of our meetings and some next steps after that we’re going to be working on that but reach out to this guy as he’s got really great stuff and can help you get results.
DOUG: And we’ll have his contact information in the show notes so that you can get a hold of him and also Tanner’s. Thanks Tanner for being with us, really appreciate it. Thanks for being with us over these two sessions and a great conversation that we could have. Until next on the Luminex Podcast, we’re grateful that you’ve listened. Thanks.
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