Future Church: A Punk Kid’s Perspective
by Pastor Jamey VanGelder
The purpose of this article is to provide hope for the future of the Western church. Because of the decline in morality and troubling issues we see in the next generation, it is easy to develop a pessimistic attitude toward the future. However, I believe we are on the brink of a great awakening. In this article I’m going to share a bit of my story and then conclude by making some observations concerning my generation and their influence on the corporate church’s future. I am not pretending to be an expert, but I can speak as one who represents leadership coming out of this next generation.
I am a pastor’s kid. Like many, I found Jesus after a time of rebellion in my teenage years. My father was the pastor of a large denominational church in Minnesota. I grew up in Bible programs where we memorized lots of Scripture and grew in biblical literacy. Our youth group was large and had wonderful events and outreaches. There was such a strong value placed on the Bible and for reaching out to those who did not know Jesus. My upbringing was completely absorbed in the church culture.
I attended public school and was a strong athlete. My school experience was a positive one. Although this may not be typical, my friends did not reject me upon my dramatic conversion. I went from the life of the party because of sin, to the life of the party because of love. I would show up at parties and my friends would purchase cases of soda because they knew I didn’t drink alcohol anymore. During my senior year of high school I was able to share the gospel privately and publicly with the majority of my classmates. As captain of our football team and the crowned king of school dances, my public demonstration of Jesus was both accepted and even celebrated by many. I tell you these things because I am not coming from a jaded point of view. You are not hearing from a young man who is frustrated. My overall experience of the church has been wonderful. I have loved the church my whole life, and continue to be passionate about it currently. I have great hope for its future.
Upon graduation from high school I wanted to be used by God. I looked at the options provided for me: missions, college, or work. Whatever my decision, I knew it needed to have the objective of winning people to Jesus. I decided the most effective pathway to take was to join the United States Air Force. I would be educated in a career, able to win people to Jesus, and it would provide future finances for college education. Win, win, win.
The next six years of my life was a whirlwind of God encounters and church experiences. My first duty station was on the Gulf of Mexico. This was at the height of a major move of God happening in Pensacola, Florida. The Brownsville Revival was drawing thousands and thousands of people from all over the world at that time. Being from a denominational church in the North, I was completely ignorant to Pentecostalism or anything having to do with the manifestations of the Holy Spirit. A friend took me to one of these meetings and I was completely terrified at what I saw. To me, all of the participants seemed like crazy people – jumping and laughing and falling on the ground. I had never seen or experienced anything like it before. Yet when the evangelist gave the altar call at the end of the service, I found myself running for the altar and weeping under the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Even though I was actively sharing my faith and living a moral life with no major sin issues at that time, God’s manifest presence in that place brought a deep conviction within me.
I received the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and spent the next year attending those meetings three or four days a week. On my Air Base we saw amazing results. I began to drive groups of guys from the base down to the revival meetings and they were all getting saved. Our chapel services on base went from 10 people when I started, to well over 500 soldiers and airmen gathering weekly for worship and Bible study. We saw so many people get saved and delivered during that season, it was truly amazing. This was also the season where I got married and started a family.
My next duty station was overseas in Germany. This would mark some of the harder days of my life. The church there had very little expression of spirit filled life. Because of this, much of our fellowship was done with campus type groups and bible study. During this season I learned the value of small groups and intimate relationships. This value was created because we absolutely needed it.
My next chapter would be marked by a church that was growing rapidly. My wife and I moved back to the States and were stationed in North Carolina. Our church had a strong missional stance and preached the Gospel of the Kingdom as its core message. The leadership was dynamic and the program was absolutely top notch. This church went from 1,500 people to over 6,000 in a few short years. The worship was cutting edge and the crowds of people added to the momentum and strength of every choice they made. Continually people were getting saved and missionaries were being sent out. Not only was it an amazing church, but the emphasis on growing strong families was also hugely impacting. We never wanted to leave. There were so many points of connection for us that we were spending six or seven days a week with our church family. In conjunction with this, my job in the military was also amazing. I was working with the Special Forces and elite military teams. So both of my worlds, work and church, were advanced and really, really good at what they did. Yet as our time drew to a close in North Carolina, the Lord kept speaking to my wife and me about returning to our home in Minnesota. It was a hard decision to make but we knew God was calling us.
We made the long drive and settled in for the long winter. I began to work for the denominational church I had been raised in and finished out college. Shortly after our transition back to Minnesota, the realization came as to just how much I had changed spiritually during my time away. The church I grew up in and loved was still pushing forward in the things they had always done, yet I had tasted and seen so much more.
The first time I preached in my home church after being back, we saw creative miracles, healings, and several deliverances. I walked away from that experience thinking it had been a great meeting. People were so excited about what God was doing. I even thought that perhaps I would get to see revival break out again.
However, within the week I found myself standing before the church board. It was there that I was instructed “This is not that kind of church.” I was not fired, but it was made clear there would not be a future for me in ministry there. This was devastating because I had been a part of that community my whole life. Looking back on it now gives me great pleasure, though. During those intense moments, the Lord taught me how to live in a constant state of forgiveness toward people who were slandering me and in a continual state of mercy for those who just didn’t understand. I learned so much in that season.
My wife and I knew God had called us to Minnesota and to church ministry, so we did the only thing that seemed logical at the time – we prayed and asked the Lord to speak. Freshly out of work with no real options in front of me, we took a leap of faith. With my wife and three young children in tow, I called four of our friends together and we started a prayer meeting. Every Saturday night we got together to pray and worship, and I would share out of what God was teaching me. That was seven years ago, and what started as eight people in a living room is now a growing church of over 500. We are seeing miracles and salvations almost every day now. There is such a growing anticipation for what God is doing here. What an amazing time to be alive!
So what does all this have to do with the future of the church and this next generation? I shared some of my story with you because I believe I have a unique perspective. I planted our church when I was only 26 years old. I had no idea what I was doing, I didn’t have any formal training on pastoring, and I wasn’t mentored through this experience. Looking back on how we got started, I consider it a total miracle that we survived. According to popular church planting strategy we did everything wrong. Yet somehow it worked. I think I had a great advantage because of my ignorance. The one thing I did know was that I didn’t know anything. And because of it, I was continually seeking the Lord for His guidance and listening to every prompting of the Holy Spirit. I was desperate for Him! This developed an absolute conviction in my ministry, and that conviction was this: “If God doesn’t show up, then it isn’t going to work.” As a result, God’s presence became the number one priority in everything we did.
I am currently 34 years old and pastoring a church that would be considered a next generation church. However it is not just composed of young people. There are multiple generations in strong number. Yes, there are many young people, but there are also lots of blue-haired folks as well. They are passionate people, in love with Jesus. We have become a family, and like any growing family, we have obstacles to overcome. We are not following a program and we don’t have everything figured out. Yet in the midst of our imperfect systems and imperfect decisions, I have great hope for the future of the church. And not just my church but the church world-wide.
This generation has seen it all. They have been over-exposed to media and every form of marketing strategy. They have been given access to an unending supply of information with the internet. And the constant increase of technology has given them instant connection with a global network of relationships and news. For the church to try and compete or keep up with these things is futile.
Speaking for my generation, we are searching for something real. We have become completely adapted to modern technology but we also have a love/hate relationship with it. What is most important to us is authenticity. We want real relationships. It doesn’t matter how those relationships develop or are initiated (small group systems or house churches), all we care is that they are real. We have been given way too much information and we need the wisdom of an older generation to connect with us and become our fathers and mothers. Many of us come from divorced homes and don’t trust authority, so unless there is demonstration and experience, truth will be relative. Absolute truth is something that many of us wrestle with. Truth needs to be authentically demonstrated. Because of these things, we have become disillusioned with the church and don’t find it relevant to our lives. We may believe the same things as the older generation of Christians, but our experiences with the church as it is currently violates our core values. So many of us have left.
The reality is that this country is in the middle of a massive transition in church life. It is much like a relay race where two runners are running at the same time in order to pass off a baton. Both runners need to trust that the other will finish their individual race. If the current leadership of the church doesn’t make room for the next runner, we will suffer loss of momentum. And if the next generation doesn’t recognize and value what the previous runner is carrying, then they too will suffer great loss. Both have to trust and recognize the value of what each carries. And this must happen while they are still running! Waiting too long to make room for each other will be detrimental. The good news is that God has done amazing and wonderful things in this past generation of church life, and what God is growing among the next generation is also wonderful.
Here is the prophetic picture of what I see coming… What will emerge from the values that drive the next generation is a new kind of leader. They will be authentic through and through. What you see is what you get. Their families will be healthy and their marriages strong. There will be a strong emphasis on being good fathers and mothers.
These new leaders will also have a great value for what God has done in previous generations. Their honor toward those who have gone before will release great life on the Body of Christ. The supernatural power of God will become a normal expression in the church because they believe the Bible and demonstrate it. These leaders will know and understand the power of media and technology and they’ll use it appropriately. They will use programs, technology and every tool at their disposal to see the Kingdom advanced. The spirit of wisdom and creativity will drive much of the innovation and change.
And lastly, the Lord’s presence will be the driving value in all things. As these leaders begin to step out and lead, plant churches, or start organizations, there will be a massive influx of people back into the church. The ones who have left the church out of discontentedness will return with great zeal. The church’s influence will grow and increase in all areas of society. These things are already happening all over the world. The awakening has begun and it’s an amazing time to be alive. The future is bright, people are amazing, God is good, and the kingdom of God is winning!
Pastor Jamey Van Gelder is a blessed husband and father of five. He and his wife, Nicole, pioneered “The House” in 2006. The House is a cross generational and cross denominational church in Burnsville, MN. With the Lord’s presence being the focus for gatherings, their church is continually experiencing waves of God’s presence.