Picture if you will: It's a Sunday church gathering in early September. The school year is beginning and the youth of the church are clearly on the preacher’s mind. He gets up and talks about the youth of the church in very positive, passionate ways and eventually encourages the church to pray for them. Excitement is building, the “Amens” are flowing, Mrs. Betty on the second row is standing up (because she always does that. Even when the preaching is bad…she just does it), and parents are smiling more and more, growing in their pride for their children. The preacher's impassioned plea concludes with the most important reason for why we as the church need to pray for our students — “They are the church of tomorrow!”
You've been in that service before, right? I know I have, and when I, as a youth pastor and a father, was supposed to be excited I instead had a different response. I cringed.
One reason I cringe is because it shows the leader (or leaders) don’t fully value the contributions and the commitment to Christ that the youth of the church actually have. Jerry the 9th grader has been leading three of his friends in a Bible study at school. Lisa the co-captain of the soccer team led two friends to Jesus in her back yard. At least six families in the church right now started coming after Andre, who isn’t involved in any school sport, started pursuing the kids in the neighborhood and inviting them to church. These students are clearly contributing to the church and committed to Christ. But that’s not the only reason I cringe.
I also cringe, because even if you see their contribution to the church and commitment to Christ as valid and valuable, by saying they are “the church of tomorrow” what you probably mean is “they are the future church leaders of tomorrow.” Do you know what this implies, though? You say “church of tomorrow” in place of “church leadership of tomorrow” and that shows something far more dangerous. It shows that you think that the church — and by default the work she does — is done by its officers and paid staff and not by its lay people. This attitude is a casual, subtle and yet brutal assault on the reality of "the priesthood of all believers.”
The priesthood of all believers is something that is core to the advancement of the gospel in any and every context. The “real ministry” isn’t done by the professionals. It's done by the seamstresses, the baristas, the mechanics, the engineers, the teachers, the stay-at-home moms, the unemployed lineman, and, yes, even the students. As preachers and pastors our job description has never been to do the work of the ministry. Our task is to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry. As long as we view our role as anything different from that, we’ll never value the people in our gatherings as we should and they’ll never begin the life of ministry God has called them to in their respective spheres of influence. They’ll remain crippled by a false sense of unfulfilled purpose because we implicitly teach them that the real work is done by the professionals.
The youth aren’t the church of tomorrow preparing for their place one day in ministry. The people in the congregation aren’t the church waiting to get its turn to do the real stuff when a leadership opportunity comes up. They are all the church right now, and the gates of hell won’t prevail against them. So let’s empower and equip everyone in the church for their ministry now — for the elder meetings, board meetings, PTA meetings, youth softball leagues, backyards and wherever else the church is being sent.