(Warning – this is a long one – originally meant for use in Awana International. Get comfy if you intend on unpacking this ditty.)
He lifted his brush. With a passion that was at once delicate and frenzied, the artist made the final strokes in the landscape that would become his masterpiece. Each house in town was given a stroke of yellow and orange paint, signifying warmth and comfort shining through their windows. The lights were on. The small town was safe. The only structure in town that wasn’t given a light was the church. Black. Vacant. Functionally absent.
The world knows Vincent Van Gogh for his somber-yet-beautiful work we’ve dubbed “Starry Night.” But the world has forgotten something about Van Gogh: Throughout his early twenties, Van Gogh lived and worked among the poor in Belguim as an itinerant pastor. Moved by their poverty, he reached out in strikingly out-of-the-box ways: giving most of his clothes away to coal miners, struggling alongside of laborers in their work, giving much his modest income to their families.
Though a series of altercations with the state church (which was frighteningly detached from the culture at that time), Van Gogh was advised that his ideas were too radical to serve the purposes of the church, eventually persuading him to give up the ministry he loved. So the brush became his pulpit – the canvas became his sermon – and millions of art viewers became his congregation.
I’m a huge Van Gogh fan. But there’s something hauntingly sad about that. For what it’s worth, I’m thankful Van Gogh became an artist. But I feel a sense of sadness about the circumstances surrounding his decision. Was he not understood? Was he not heard? Was there really no space for the kind of thinking in the church culture at that time?
The fact is – it’s frighteningly easy to forget the next generation.
As someone who’s concerned about this kind of stuff, I’d like to explore what it looks like for those of us already in ministry to prepare the way for those coming next:
- Creating opportunities for involvement. When talking with a group of unpaid summer interns recently (ages 18-22), I asked them what we can do to keep them engaged. Their resounding answer was: “Continue to give us a seat at the table – give us something to do.” As stewards of momentum, it’s simply not enough for us to merely promote awareness anymore – saying, “Here’s what’s important to know.” We must actively create opportunities for their mobilization – saying, “Here’s where you can go and here’s what you can do.” And if we’re really on top of things, we’ll be able to say, “Here’s what I’m prepared to do to help you get there.”
- Allowing spaces for becoming. Most of us measure our identity by what we accomplish: how much money we’ve brought in, how many people have been touched by our ministry, how many organizations we’re connected with. Hence, the programs we create (whether they’re internships, ground-level ministry positions, or missionary appointments) usually employ quantitative measurement tools and look more like report cards than personal development strategies. In seeking to create spaces for becoming, we need to remember that doing is not the most critical piece of the puzzle. Doing is a simply a means to an end. We need to realize that in the process of doing, young adults forge their becoming. From a management perspective, this looks like crafting intentionally open-ended job descriptions, self-directed projects, and explorative learning experiences. Through the process of becoming, the next generation of the church will discover new (and likely uncomfortable) ways to expand the kingdom the God. They will blow the task-list out of the water, becoming people who are capable of re-thinking and re-imagining the accepted structure. In so doing, they will likely exceed the expectations placed on them.
- Advocating intentionally adaptable paradigms. If young adults do so they can become, they become so that they can create and shape. It is the responsibility of those who control the structure (both financially and organizationally) to be intentionally adaptable. This kind of management looks more like listening than talking. It is characterized by constant re-evaluation rather than entrenched tradition. The coming generation will measure an organization’s success (whether it’s a local church, para-church ministry, or business) not by how long it’s been around, but how agile it is – how quickly it can shift to meet the needs of a rapidly changing culture. The scary part (the exciting part, depending on where you sit) is that they are all too eager to help play a part in the reshaping of accepted processes and paradigms. The more we advocate for open ears and adaptable, agile paradigms the more we will attract and retain those who will shape our future.
The real value of programs like internships, field experience, or mentoring isn’t that we can ramp up productivity. That’s easy. Monkeys can do that. The eternal value is that we can play a part in directly enabling the next generation to expand and shape the kingdom of God. If we take a more selfless and open approach, we then cease to be managers, directors, or executives. Instead, we become stewards of momentum.
When Jesus looked at the church in first-century Ephesus, He said: “…repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place” (Revelation 2:5). Jesus’ words show that it doesn’t take long for something strikingly beautiful to become something obviously absent. Looking across my office to the Starry Night print that hangs near my doorway, I think it’s likely Van Gogh saw the same thing in his church.
A dark church. An unreached town. A cold kingdom.
Van Gogh took his life when he was 35 – detached and alone. All we have to do is nothing.