Friday, September 07, 2012

Passing the baton

Last night two ex-students of mine came for dinner. They’re a great pair and I always enjoy the thought-provoking discussions we have when they come. They’re both Christians, but badly disillusioned with church. So much so that by their own admission they can’t really contemplate being part of one.

They love (I think) coming to our community and there’s genuine friendship there, but they’d run a mile (I think) at the thought of joining us. Not especially because it would challenge them; more that it’s all a little too ‘pre-packaged’ and they’ve got too many painful questions to easily accept our ‘answers’.

It chimed in a little with something I’ve been thinking about: the challenge of winning a new generation. Like in a relay race (there’s my topical reference; good eh?), the handover of the baton is a crucial part of running a good race. Raising up a new generation is crucial to a movement’s ongoing life.

In any transition from one generation to another there is the crucial importance of taking all that the previous generation have found (often at cost) and passing it onto the rising generation. Yet there’s also the importance of taking the risk of letting the new generation truly be just that: new. Of letting it wrestle with some questions in order to find its own answers. It may even have to repeat some of the mistakes the previous generation made, and invest some pain in learning things the hard way.

That way, a generation will come to hold a movement as truly its own.

It’s the difference between passing on a vision and passing on a blueprint. A vision catches hearts, stirs aspiration – but it doesn’t bolt everything down too tightly. A blueprint defines everything, leaves nothing to chance. A vision produces a movement; a blueprint produces a machine.

The blueprint option feels safer, feels right, precisely because it eliminates risk and leaves nothing to chance. Yet I suspect it produces two basic responses in a rising generation: rebellion (in its leader-types) or passivity (in its follower-types). Neither are much cop – and castigating the former and being over optimistic about the latter will not achieve much either.

I was intrigued to read bible scholar Walter Brueggemann’s comments about the last chapter of Deuteronomy (a chapter of generational transfer if ever there was one). Here’s what Brueggemann wrote (with the phrases that leapt out at me in bold):
[There is a] gap as wide as the Jordan, between the end of Deuteronomy and the beginning of Joshua... When the reader enters the Jordan and the land and the book of Joshua, Moses and Deuteronomy are finished. Fresh faith and fresh strategies are required under new leadership. The “new generation” of Israel represented by Joshua must now take form. This is “your little ones” [1:39] in “the next generation” [29:22] upon whom the tradition has its hopeful eye. The discontinuity is clear, a discontinuity necessary if Israel is to have a life beyond recalcitrance. Thus the new generation does not need to pay forever for the failures of the old [24:16]. At the same time, of course, the tradition insists that the new generation does not appear in history de novo. These are “your children” who must be fully inculcated into the story of wonders and into the demands of Torah that are the premise of life in the land. Thus the tricky relationship of new and old, of discontinuity and continuity, is much on the mind of this tradition, for the covenant is “for all of us here alive today” [5:3], but also for “those who are not with us here today” [29:15]... [This text is] powerfully contemporary for every generation that finds itself pondering old miracles, trusting old memories, heeding old commands, and always again entering new territory of promise.
I know that when something’s on your mind, it can seem to crop up everywhere, so I wasn’t altogether surprised when, this morning, I read something Tom Wright wrote which seemed to be about the same thing.

He tells the story of how he was invited to go and preach at the school he attended as a boy. It was ‘one of those annual events where we were supposed to remember the great pioneers who had founded the school’.

‘I pointed out something very odd was going on,’ writes Wright. ‘Each one of the men and women we were honouring had been innovators. They had been the ones who dared to do things differently, to go in a new direction despite the people who wanted to keep things as they were. But we, by reading out a list of their names in a solemn voice, and by holding them up as our founding figures, were in danger of doing the opposite: of saying that we wanted everything to stay the way it had always been. Do you honour the memory of an innovator by slavishly following what they did, or by daring to be different in your turn?’

I couldn’t help thinking of our Jesus Army founder, Noel Stanton, who died three years ago, nothing if not a visionary and a force to be reckoned with. I, among others, am tasked with taking his vision forward. Yet one of the great abilities Noel had was the ability to contradict himself. If he felt an emphasis or direction had outlived its purpose, that new ones were necessary, he wouldn’t flinch (even when almost everyone else was reeling). He was an innovator to the core. We had at least one major revolution every decade – and many minor ones between (if you want a flavour, try to imagine a deep, rural, Anabaptist-influenced community becoming Jesus Army, an urban missionary fighting force in the space of about five years.)

It may not be right for my two ex-students to join us. Our answers may not be their answers, though I do pray they won’t drift on the tide of their questions forever. But God help us find, call, envision and train a new generation.

And God help us not try to give them all the answers. God help us let them be innovators.


Tschaka Roussel said...

Well expressed

pierscjc said...

Very well said!

pierscjc said...

Important stuff

s0upy said...

Challenging, deeply, but necessary thinking.

Icebreaker said...

"writes Wright" Hmm !!
Nicely done James, Praying that the right eyes read this and that there is the courage to chew over the questions and to take a risk when there is no absolute answer

Carole T said...

I love that our church is wrestling with these issues. All sorts of new wineskins will be produced to hold the new wine of the Kingdom of God. I can't wait to see more. It is happening