listen to this essay
I need to preface this post because the sensitivity of what’s going to be discussed demands it.
This is not a diss post. If you know me well enough, you know I’m calculated about what I say and how I say it.
What I’m going to write isn’t revolutionary. It isn’t a novel solution to an ever-present problem. It isn’t even my own string of thoughts.
These are things that are spoken behind backs, whispered under breaths, and accepted as a norm of some sort.
But it shouldn’t be this way.
I’m blessed to be in a church, now, where I feel like I belong. Where I feel like the leadership does care.
But it wasn’t always this way for me. And there are plenty of people who are yearning for a paradigm shift.
So, I’m gonna bring it up.
Let’s talk about it.
Years ago, Xerox’s research & development was a treasure trove of innovative and forward-thinking projects.
There were no annual media-hyped product unveilings. No star-studded trade shows. No fancy presentations.
There were just some brilliant, game-changing ideas. Under wraps. And somebody just needed to tap into all that potential.
But, because computers were about gigantic mainframes and not about personal convenience at the time, there was no inherent need to take their revolutionary ideas and change the way people looked at computing.
And then, in 1979, Steve Jobs happened.
During a private meeting with a 24-year-old Jobs, Xerox demoed a bulky, rudimentary device they were working on. It was quite nearly a forgettable presentation. In fact, most mere mortals would have looked the other way after seeing this device and hearing the unexciting pitch.
But Steve Jobs wasn’t a mere mortal.
A device that fit under a palm, wielded a plethora of buttons, and had the potential to interact with elements on a computer screen? Xerox felt like the rest of the world did at the time, resisting the release of this product because there was no inherent need for it. The world was fine as it was in 1979 and change wasn’t necessary.
But Steve Jobs saw the device, jumped around like a madman, asked a bevy of questions, and headed back to Apple headquarters to tell his staff about this new product that was going to change the future.
Sure, the device- as designed by Xerox- was clunky. Sure, it had too many buttons. But, with the right tweaks and a heavy dose of minimalism, Jobs knew this device was going to be revolutionary- even if nobody else did.
And 34 years later, the computer mouse is still alive and well.
But what if Steve Jobs didn’t realize the potential of that device? In fact, Xerox didn’t. They designed it, had patents, and kept it in their research labs until the fateful meeting with Jobs unleashed it to the world.
What if Jobs felt like Xerox and the rest of the world did? In 1979, the world was fine without a mouse, and the world would arguably be fine without one in the future.
Instead, Jobs recognized the state of the world, he determined that change was needed, and he did something about it.
But what if Jobs hadn’t done anything?
What if he was content with the status quo?
I grew up in a church that stifled me. Creative thinking was suppressed. Suits and ties made us all look and feel and behave like models of perfection. Every week was an inevitable struggle between the anti-jewelry and pro-jewelry sides of the fence. And, most importantly, if you were under the age of 30, the vision of the church had absolutely nothing to do with you.
I don’t say all of that to start a fight. Rather, I say all of that to point out that I’m not unique in my upbringing.
My childhood church isn’t the only church with deficiencies. Rather, my childhood church is just one of many South Indian churches and South Indian youth organizations that are riddled with hazy vision and malfunctioning leadership trees.
And the root of all of the problems in our organizations is one single, incredibly important thing: what to make of the status quo.
That’s really it.
An aging core of leadership wants to stick with the status quo for as long as possible and a burgeoning core of young world-changers wants nothing more than to desperately shift the paradigm.
Two groups are at odds and neither is free from blame. And neither is making headway.
But… what is the status quo?
My dad is the safest driver I know. But he’s also slightly difficult to drive with. He drives 5-10 miles per hour below every posted speed limit. He hugs the shoulder on the right lane all the time. And he decelerates before merging into the next lane.
Those are 3 things you’re not supposed to do when you’re driving. You’re supposed to follow the flow of traffic- legally. You’re supposed to stay in the middle of your lane. And you’re supposed to either maintain your current speed or accelerate before merging into the next lane.
But whatever. My dad’s awesome. And he’s always had a clean track record on the road.
And I’ve learned to respect what he’s all about. If he tells me something about the car and the road, I’ve learned to honor what he says and incorporate some of the valuable tidbits into my routine.
But that does not mean that I should imitate everything he does.
So, sure, I value his words. And I respect that he’s lived years and years of safe driving on the road. But it does not mean that I should go out tomorrow and buy his same car, drive at the same hours that he would, drive the same way with the same habits that he has, comb my hair the way he does, wear the same shirts that he does, and wear the same brand of underwear that he does.
I threw that last disgusting image in there to prove a point. Honoring your elders- or, in my grander argument, your ancestors- doesn’t mean you have to imitate everything they did.
Because it doesn’t make sense in the example with my dad and his choice of driving and undergarments. And it doesn’t make sense any other time our ancestors are brought into the picture.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it has little to do with how much you honor your past and how effectively you move forward.
The status quo in South Indian churches? It’s the idea that we must propitiate our ancestors by not deviating from the way they themselves did church.
We are too busy trying to produce smiles on the faces of the skeletons of our ancestors who we have dug up out from their graves and propped up onto the pews beside us… That isn’t church. That’s playing dress-up.
But, even more importantly, young people in South Indian churches and organizations have been force-fed a hypocritical message and our ancestors have been bandied about like superfluous ragdolls.
It’s time to discuss where we both stand.
This is where the older generation has gotten it wrong. (Don’t worry. I’ll point out the flaws of the younger generation next.)
Young people in South Indian churches, typically, are told that we can’t do this or that or the other… because our ancestors didn’t do this or that or the other.
So, jewelry? Not cool, because our ancestors gave up their jewelry when they were baptized and wanted to separate themselves from their past.
More English in our church services or a separate English service for the youth? Nope. Our ancestors did fine without any of this separation.
Girls leading worship songs on Sunday? Don’t be ridiculous. Our grandmothers never led worship and they did just fine.
(Honestly, a lot of the disagreement isn’t even doctrinal anymore. And, let’s face it. Young people are smart enough to know when you are using verses out of context to bolster your arguments. Let’s get to the heart of the matter.)
When young people have ideas or thoughts or suggestions, the immediate response by the elder decision-makers in our churches and organizations is that our ancestors would be disappointed if we deviated from how they did things.
But here’s how that isn’t fair.
Because our ancestors worshiped on the floor, sitting Indian-style, with candles and natural lighting filling the room… Without fancy sound systems. Without air conditioning units. Without spotlights and dimmers. Without TV screens and projectors for lyrics and verses. Without designer suits. Without designer socks. Without Rolex watches. And without the 15 layers of cologne and perfume people douse themselves in before a Sunday exhibition.
It isn’t fair when decision-making adults can deviate from our ancestors’ scripts whenever they feel like it but, then, suppress anything the young people in church want to do because they don’t want them to deviate from the script.
You can not have it both ways. You can’t shut down the youth with the same tired lines if you have no intention of listening to your own advice.
Now, I’m not saying that I don’t like sound systems or lights or air conditioning or socks. I do. I promise.
But I really don’t like hypocrisy. And that’s where a lot of our churches and youth organizations are now.
JEANS AND HATS
This is where the younger generation has gotten it wrong.
This is not a war. And many of us have come to believe that it is.
The only way we can ever make headway is by not sitting around quietly, talking behind our leaders’ backs, and wandering off to other churches that are doing things better.
We must talk about this. With leadership. With our elders who stand in the gap between the youth and the older decision-makers.
We must have civil discussions about the changes we see fit.
Because this isn’t 1930s Kerala anymore.
This is America in the 21st century… With multi-cultural neighborhoods that need God’s love. With philosophical free spirits around us who need to hear what we’re about and who God is. With jeans and hats representing the fashion-norm analog to our ancestors’ saris and lungis.
If our leadership doesn’t understand that, we must effectively communicate to them so they do.
This is not a war.
We must prove to the older generation that there is something in us worth believing in. Worth investing in. Worth banking on to help our churches evolve with the times and become effective hubs of the message of Christ.
We are worth their time and it’s time they find out.
Let me be real here. And, please, by all means… If you’re an older church decision-maker and you’re reading this and you think I sound crazy and I’m trying to stir up trouble, I urge you to call together the young people in your church and ask them if what I’m talking about here is a bunch of bold-faced lies. I’d rather initiate that conversation between the opposing generations than not stir the pot at all.
I mentioned Steve Jobs earlier because he saw something in Xerox’s mouse prototype and knew it had to be harnessed so that the world could evolve.
And what a lot of South Indian churches and organizations lack is exactly what Jobs had in abundance.
And it’s not that Jobs only made great decisions. He didn’t. In 2005, Apple decided to marry their concepts for a phone with Motorola- a company that was dominating the market at the time. The result? An incredibly pathetic flop, called the ROKR.
But what was incredible about Jobs was that he always managed to right the ship. So, he realized that working with another company for their hardware and software wasn’t going to cut it; Apple needed to do it on their own. And out of the ashes of the disappointing Motorola ROKR came Apple’s own phone that changed the way the world currently operates.
There needs to be a vision.
A clear, defining vision.
And you have to know when your organization isn’t moving forward.
You have to know that.
You can’t pretend that everything is fine and that suppressing the ideas of the next generation of world-changers is without its repercussions. You can’t pretend that the organizations you run are for young people when the youth worship teams are shunned off the stage at Conference weekend so that there’s time for the other 4 pastors from India to have their stage time.
C’mon. You have to know that.
If the vision of churches is only to make sure that the 45+-year-old population is content with church services, you will absolutely lose the young people. And you’ll lose them to the churches that have the vision to realize that THEY are valuable commodities there. Hillsong and Christ Tabernacle and Brooklyn Tabernacle all thrive because of the infusion of young ideas in their game plans.
So, if you’re content with seeing a grand total of 5 Indian people get baptized in your church every 6 months, you should be thoroughly rejoicing that these other forward-thinking churches see tens of hundreds every few months. They are impacting the world. They are bringing souls to Christ. They are infiltrating every walk of life with the glaring reality of Christ’s love… And they are doing all of this with the help of young people and their ideas.
What’s your church vision?
5 pastors speaking for an hour each on Sunday, a mini-concert for the new Malayalam albums coming out, and 87 Communion verses aren’t showing us that you want us around. If anything, it shows that you don’t have a vision for the church outside the 4 walls of your church building and for anybody below the age of 30.
You can either see that Xerox prototype and realize that incorporating it into your gameplan will change the way the whole world works… or you can be okay that personal computing isn’t a big deal in 1979 and you shouldn’t bother.
Here’s the truth. In a few years, if the only focus of the church is the 45+-year-old generation, it will crumble. Ask BlackBerry how it’s doing when they couldn’t keep evolving with their smartphones. Ask Windows how it’s doing with their marketplace now that iOS and Android have cornered the market.
This isn’t rocket science. This isn’t a novel idea. Organizations and businesses- and church structures- fail if they can’t or refuse to evolve. Our ancestors don’t make us invulnerable. Our culture doesn’t make us indomitable. Our saris and suits and cars don’t make us failure-resistant.
Not wanting to evolve will be the end of us.
Not having a clear vision will be the demise of many South Indian churches.
But, hey. There are plenty of world-changing churches around us that young people can move on to.
At what point will we be important enough to want to keep around? ■