NPR has made a case for “gig” to be the word of the year. Gig as in “the gig economy,” alternatively known as on-demand, peer-to-peer, or shared economy. It’s the new normal, especially for Millennials, whether because they prefer a job that doesn’t tie them down to one place and time or because they have no choice in an economy that no longer offers jobs with benefits or full time hours.
“Careers will be a patchwork of temporary projects and assignments. Work will be less secure but lots more exciting. We can make our own schedule and hours, pick the projects that interest us, work from anywhere and try our hands at different trades.”
The future is one big smorgasbord of work projects, with all of us competing in the buffet line for the crab rangoon.
What, oh what, does this have to do with theology?
In a world with this economic and mental framework, church leadership had better pay attention to how the Millennial generation feels about working within its walls. If we want to do faith with the next generation, we need to examine these trends carefully.
Because if Millennials are unhappy with the way we approach leadership, they are aware they have options.
Increasingly, are leaving church not to abandon the faith but to begin their own approach. They have new ideas and forms, but their leadership in churches has been unwelcome. Instead of putting in their time, as most Baby Boomers were taught and followed (just ask me about the 24/7 hours expected of Baby Boomer generation medical residents), they choose to become faith entrepreneurs. Church gig operators, if you will.
As one explains, “We’re afraid we’ll never get a chance to try out our new methods. We’re afraid the church will grow stagnant. When we get frustrated and annoyed, we don’t lash out. We retreat. There’s somewhere else we can spend our time and resources, and if the church hasn’t taken the time to welcome us into its community as a thinking, participating member—someone who is cared for and trusted with caring for others—then why should we stick around?”
Yet, usually, the church continues to insist on a top-down approach to leadership. We expect what we learned—that others will put in their time, pay their dues, and wait for us to vacate our senior roles. That we will have the freedom—no, the right, of being able to pick and choose whom we believe to be our best successors.
Surrounding those expectations is another common denominator. We’re afraid. We’re afraid the next generation doesn’t have the experience or education to lead. We’re afraid that they are not as biblically trustworthy as “we” are. We’re afraid their apparent lack of loyalty will translate into playing fast and loose with local church and denominational affiliations. We’re afraid that what we’ve built will disintegrate around us, or at least, after us.
What we’ve built. And that’s the important distinction here.
We focus too much on the “we” part. We forget that when it comes to the church, Jesus said that he would build it. What if, while he is building it in the next generation, he chooses to make it look different than what we know and are comfortable with?
Legitimate fears deserve discussion. Before that, though, let’s look for a while at Jesus’ model for equipping and empowering leaders and see what we can learn. It’s a tad unconventional.
Jesus doesn’t appear to have any judgment at all.
“As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Philip found Nathanael and told him, ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked. ‘Come and see,’ said Philip.” (Matthew 4, John 1)
Jesus sees these men for the first time, and the first thing he does is call them. Straight up tells them to follow him. No introductions. No “Hey, what are you doing, do you think you could take a break for a while?” Not even a “Who are you and what’s your resume, anyway?” Just this script which, if we take at face value, we cannot think of as anything but odd.
Jesus has bided his time for thirty years in Joseph’s house making end tables. Now he’s been baptized, beaten Satan in the wilderness, and finally, the time has come to start what he came for. He gets a chance to assemble his core, his ministry team. If anyone could compile a dream team, Jesus could.
And what does he do? He goes and snags anyone who happens to by lying around that day with nothing else to do. Fishermen taking a break. People napping under trees. Grown men who can’t join him unless they bring their brothers and friends along for moral support. Seriously, who does this? He’d be fired as a manager.
No rabbi would bother with day laborers and farm workers. They amassed followers from the educated elite of Jerusalem. Peter, Andrew, James, John, Nathanael—they did not imagine any teacher would stop to discuss the things of God with men such as themselves. They had their place—and it was limited.
It would be like Lionel Messi telling some young kid in the vacant lot, “Hey, stop kicking that soccer ball around and let me teach you how to play.”
That’s Jesus’ model for how he finds leaders. He takes anyone who says “yes” to the command, “Follow me,” and he works from there. It’s so not how we find leaders. It so is appealing to the would-be leaders of the next generation.
He doesn’t worry about there being bad apples among them. (He knows there are.)
He doesn’t give them a theology quiz when he calls them. (He knows belief is important, but obedience is more so.)
He doesn’t look skeptically at the young ones, the poor ones, or even the ones who question him. (He knows they will have a community to work it out in.)
He lets anyone who answers the call come watch and learn from the Rabbi.
It’s like he just glances at people and says, “You want to come? You’re in”. “You skeptical? You’re in.” “You uncertain? You’re in.” ” You unworthy? You’re in.” “Whatever, people. If you want to come, you’re in.”
I do know how important it is to ensure truth stays forward. I do know that a loose cannon in leadership can blow up a whole church. Jesus’ approach is, honestly, so against what I would naturally be comfortable doing. I like knowing I don’t have to worry about someone’s theology before I put him or her in charge.
But I clearly see that Jesus first invites, later vets. We do it the other way around. His way is messier, crazier, more prone to misunderstanding. But it works—because when the willing feel called and welcome, they become more willing to stay.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.