A reader sparked a great question – what does open dialogue look like in churches? Churches desperately need to open up dialogues with young people – both those who stayed and those who bailed, as both can tell you what in the faith attracts them and what misgiving about churches bother them.
Opening a dialogue with Millennials don’t take a handbook. Or a magic spell. “Open dialogue” might sound fancy, but it looks the same to a 90-year-old as it does to a 12-year-old, the same to a Millennial as it did to Adam & Eve. Open dialogue looks the same to young people as it does to you.
There are different mediums, sure. One generation calls, another texts; one writes letters, another emails; one sends pigeons, another smoke signals. The medium is beside the point – if it’s authentic, compassionate and meaningful you’ll have an audience. So at risk of stating the obvious, open dialogue is… communication free of judgment. Otherwise, you’ve just got smoke signals.
Businesses implement this by “open-door” policies, creating atmospheres where dissenting opinions aren’t silenced or held against you with retribution. They are just opinions, after all – better out than in. Kept bottled up, dissenting opinions foster bitterness and anger. Only when let out can they be carefully considered. And not all opinions are dissenting – the ideas God gives to the guy sitting beside you might be more amazing than the ones he gave you. Just sayin’. Open dialogue is creating communication channels to welcome all opinions. Sounds pretty healthy, but regrettably is rare in churches.
Rare, you say? Our church invites adverse opinions and input from members! Doesn’t it.
It’s an important question. Church leaders often fall into the false belief that they are the only ones doing ministry. The truth is, all Christians are called to do ministry and church leaders are simply called to prepare their congregation to go out into their personal ministries. When church leaders think they are the only ones doing the heavy lifting, they prioritize things like “church order” and “congregational bylaws.” We have to make sure we hold the reigns and control the service and no one challenges our authority, right?
I recently performed a wedding. When asked if the bride and groom could dance at the church, the pastor said he’d consult the deacons. The deacons were okay, but had to consult the bylaws. It never occurred to them that bylaws may need updated if no one objects. Instead, they defaulted to, “Let’s check if founders 150 years ago opposed it because if so, we can’t allow it.” These are the sorts of frivolous, unbiblical decision making processes devoid of any compassion that drive Millennials nuts. They’re entrenched in dangerous business models and “old ways thinking” that never adapt or update.
Decision making based on unbiblical sources is just one of many issues that stifle the genuine and godly contributions young people can make. Most churches restrict any decision making to closed door meetings with leaders who view their flock as simple sheep, unable to hear from the Lord or contribute to the vision God has for their church. How dangerous is this?
God often used “the least of these” and non-leaders in Scripture to speak into the lives of insiders. Older brothers weren’t listening so God spoke through Joseph. The shepherd boy David had to shame Saul and the Israelite army before Goliath. A 12-year old Jesus taught priests in the Temple. A prostitute educated the disciples when washing Jesus’ feet. The dissenters in Acts 6 had a valid point, and if the Apostles hadn’t humbly listened we might not have deacons, Gentiles or charity toward widows in churches today. It’s only because they took the advice of the complainers and empowered them to fix the problems that the church was able to get through it’s earliest scandal.
If you’re a pastor who thinks you’re the only one God will talk to in your church, I can guarantee you will never see his full vision for your church. Just because someone is a paid pastor or an elected elder hardly means they hear from God more – or clearer – than the church janitor or nursery worker. A little humility goes a long way when inviting church members to contribute. And inviting church members to contribute goes a long way in uncovering God’s plan for your congregation.
I can see my church saying, “We have congregational votes, doesn’t that allow members to give input and express dissent?” It would, if the vote was legit. We do a show of hands in a congregation of 1500 members during three time slots over two days spread across campus in four venues and then call that a “vote.” There is no logistical way for anyone to give input or voice a dissenting opinion. Votes like these are ways for leaders to push through whatever they want while giving the impression of openness.
The way we hold church votes are just one sham when it comes to pretending to invite discourse and involve members. We have congregational town halls, during which certain members are asked to remain silent. We only welcome some opinions, you see? Whatever God placed on YOUR heart isn’t really important. Just the guy who already agrees with us. If you don’t think that happens, then you haven’t been to one at my church! Often when we don’t believe a problem exists, we just haven’t experienced it yet – church leaders need to be very cautious about silencing the very people who God might be laying the answer on.
We have deacon and elder boards that often don’t represent any segment of society except white, Anglo-Saxon, upper-middle class men who are current or former businessmen. Do your leadership teams have a blue collar electrician? A young adult? A woman? Someone poor? Any measure of ethnic diversity representative of your community at all? The answer is usually, sadly, “no.”
Ever had a pastor blast an email back at you for daring to suggest his sermon or a recent church decision has a second side that should be considered? Or was he a peacemaker willing to discuss differences and find a godly path forward? I regrettably know the answer for my church, and it isn’t pretty.
Leaders that develop a veil of secrecy around decisions to avoid criticism or accountability are just as dangerous. Large budget allocations without itemization are easy ways to sweep in spending without congregational accountability for how donations are used. Our church usually dismisses leaders without a word from the stage or a vague or blatantly false announcement (all three within the last year). These are just examples, but they’ll ring true to many. Critical decisions that are kept vague, veiled or unannounced are red flags of a church that no longer values open dialogue. If you don’t value it from your people, you don’t value it from your God – no matter the lip service you give. Because God speaks through his people.
Churches lacking healthy communication channels between members and leaders will often be revolving doors. In some cases, people don’t want to leave but stay upset with the failure of leaders to listen – so undergrounds develop and pockets of dissent become bitter and rebellious. If you haven’t seen any of this in churches, God be praised, you lucky son of a gun. My church has all of these and these are the frequent complaints I hear from Millennial peers when they counsel with me about making the hard decision to leave their church as conscientious objectors to the problems within – problems no one is willing to openly dialogue about.
So, how to communicate with Millennials. I don’t believe method matters – Millennials love when I reach out to them, period. It doesn’t matter if I text, call, Facebook, Snapchat, drop by, mail or email them. They’re happy just to be contacted by someone who cares about their view. Invite them to coffee or invite them to do a service project, let’s be honest – they’re just hungry to be wanted. They’re glad to voice their opinions to anyone who cares.
You don’t need a young adult ministry either. Invite them into the ministry you already have, but do so in a way that actively involves them in contributing ideas and partnering with leadership. Ask them what they think, from surveys to grabbing coffee. Be transparent, lay problems on the table and ask them what they would do. Give them a little responsibility. Create advisory positions, teaching assistants, recruit a young deacon, ask them to lead a home group – anything that invites them into partnership for solving your church’s unique problems.
A snapshot of success: I serve with other young adults and youth as representatives on an advisory board at our local zoo. Youth. And young adults. On an advisory board. At a zoo. Why don’t churches have these?! It’s incredible to partner with an organization that cares what the next generation thinks and actively seeks their input. It’s awesome to serve an organization that respects the fact Millennials will be next to lead them. It’s phenomenal to see organizations with a mind toward using the next generation’s assets while trying to meet the next generation’s needs and best prepare them.
Yet it’s rare to see in churches. The church I grew up in was great with it – I served on a committee and even preached when I was in college. But most churches are a far cry from this sort of involvement and investment in young people. No wonder our churches are graying. Churches will need to invite the opinions and give responsibility to those who will be leading them next, if they hope to remain relevant and survive for another generation. As an Archbishop of Canterbury once said, any church is only one generation away from extinction.