Rev. Landon Whitsitt wrote an article entitled “Dear Young(ish) Mainline Pastor Type People: Please Plant a Church.” Here is my disclaimer for this post: I am not writing this reply to fight Rev. Whitsitt’s ideas but to add some thoughts into this conversation.
First, I do not disagree with what I believe is Rev. Whitsitt’s main point: we need to be planting churches. We do need to be planting churches especially in communities with needs that are difficult to meet in more traditional church structures.
However, I must disagree with the idea that it is the young adults that need to bear the burden of church planting. There are many young adults pursuing ministry who cannot find jobs, but those young adults have seen their entire lives (perhaps even have attended) independent churches and plants. I could have begun a church plant without attending seminary, without seeking ordination within a denomination, and without the support of any other community. I still could, but PC(USA) churches have taught me the value of community, the value of ordered ministry, and the value of belonging to a structured denomination. Are there frustrations? Sure. However, any person could pursue church planting whether they are ordained, non-ordained, young, old, or middle aged. Church planting requires certain spiritual gifts that not all young adults or people of any age have. It is a difficult task, much more involved than simply (as Rev. Whitsitt wrote) “Find a job in a “ripe” area (define that as you will) that would pay them just enough to pay the bills, but not enough to sap the hunger of needing to do something worthwhile. Then, start gathering a community.” All those pieces are extremely difficult and involved (particularly seeking a job in a specific area; young adults are lucky to have any job) that is much better done in a group than as an individual. (Look at the New Monastics or at the origins of Celtic Christianity) I am all for the empowerment of young adults as church leaders, but it would be a mistake to section off our communities into young adults and church plants on one side and older adults and traditional churches on the other.
Young adults who are ordained or are seeking ordination know how difficult it is to find a job within a standing congregation, but that is what many are called to. A healthy and wise congregation knows how to nurture young adults and the newly ordained (young adult or not). Young adults have the opportunity when entering ordered ministry to have health care and begin a retirement plan. From where I am sitting (a young adult in seminary seeking ordination) it is easy for someone to tell the rest of us to go out and plant churches. I cannot become ordained unless the call I get meets certain criteria, and a community being able to extend a call means they are organized already in some fashion. Could I pull a Paul, go out, minister, and wait years before my ministry is recognized by a denomination? Yes. I’m not going to do that because of my commitment to the PC(USA) and what I feel is and what others have seen in me as my call from God. The denomination that helped raise me and has walked with me during my ups and downs is the same denomination that has nurtured my call to ministry and resoundingly affirmed me through support and recognition in the form of the outer call.
I agree with Rev. Whitsitt that “no amount of bitching is going to change” anything. As a community we need to hear the minority voices, prophetic voices, devil’s advocates, and the what-if’ers. Listening to people’s complaints is part of being a pastor, a church leader, a Christian, a friend, and a decent human being because those complaints tell us what values that person or group hold and how the status quo is not reaching those values. We then have the opportunity to turn that bitching into dancing through changing the system. We cannot fix our brokenness by sending all our young adults and/or people who have radical (rooted) visions out to minister in church plants. Churches can’t deny their responsibility for ministry to communities by telling others to go make a church plant. We are called to love mercy, do kindness, walk humbly with God, and love our neighbor.
Many young adults want to do crazy things within a church. So do many youth, middle adults, and older adults. Most of us are not trying to “buck the system.” We see issues within the system that can be changed to be better conformed to Jesus’ vision for our future. If that requires bucking part of the system, we can welcome that bucking as a sign of the Holy Spirit working within our communities and a time for mutual discernment of who we are being called to be. Jesus is the Head of the Church. Our particular denomination has a way of doing things that has worked before to spread God’s love, and if those processes cease being effective they need to be pruned. Remember our church is composed of sinners. Everything is possible for us only through God. We are called against our natures and sometimes against our better judgment to be workers for the Kin-dom of God. Even if our efforts don’t work we are still called to try, to be salt and light for a hungry world that often walks in darkness. We are called to constantly be renewed and to become closer to Jesus’ vision for our communities. That’s why we have presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly. This summer multiple overtures suggesting changes to our governmental processes will come before a meeting of representatives from all across the PC(USA) for mutual discernment. What a sign of the Spirit’s activity! Are there young adults whose ministry would flourish in another denomination or in a non-denominational church? Certainly. However, the young adults who are here within the PC(USA) have chosen to be here because of the Spirit’s actions in their lives.
I am not the exception to the rule that Rev. Whitsitt suggests in his article. If anything I am the very type of young adult he was thinking of when he wrote it. I’m young, progressive, and have some radical (rooted) ideas of how to adapt our denomination to a changing culture. I am a candidate for the ministry of teaching elder, and I am called to this ministry. I also believe I am called to be a part of the PC(USA). I know I must have a validated ministry to order to become ordained. Could I get ordained online? Yes, but that would not be responsible to my understanding of the Gospel and the decisions I have made to enter into a covenant membership with the PC(USA). Could I start an independent church and get ordained however I can? Yes, but that would not be sustainable for me. I know I will take multiple jobs throughout my career in ministry; and the polity and structures I have agreed to use to further God’s mission will also guide me when the time comes to change jobs, to seek new ministries, and perhaps one day to even plant a church. Through the PC(USA) I will have sustained health care and retirement plan throughout my career in ministry. That is one of the great gifts the denomination can give to its young adults whose economic future is uncertain.
I am a progressive young adult with gifts for ministry. I do not expect the church ladies to pay for my radical ideas. I expect us to work together in a multi-generational church for the furthering of God’s mission and the Gospel, and if I am called into a pastoral relationship I do expect to be paid a livable wage as I help the church particular and the denomination minister in the 21st century. Our system of church governance is not perfect, but if everyone leaves who has an idea about how to change the system for the better there will be no one remaining in the church. If we are worried about denominational and/or individual church health it does no good to tell the young adults to go out and plant churches. We need to work together communally to discern God’s calling to individual lives and to communities. Ministry is not something undertaking as an individual but instead as a single member of a larger Body of Christ. When we see communities hungry for the Word we can work together as a multi-generational Body of Christ to minister to and with that community whether or not that involves planting a new church.
As Henri Nouwen said, “We need each other more than we need to agree.”