“You have to understand how shocked I am to be in this interview. I assured my husband, when we were engaged, that I would never join a church staff.”

Stacie was a vibrant, passionate, highly gifted thirty-something. We were pursuing her as our Associate Pastor of Disciple-making. She was currently a doctoral philosophy student, a veteran of marketplace ministry as a health care professional, and a seasoned Campus Crusade for Christ staff member. Stacie loved Jesus, emerging adults, disciple-making and SEC football—the perfect combination for our southern church’s commitment to make disciples through relationships with our community’s emerging adults.

“The reason I made that promise,” Stacie continued with absolute clarity and resolve, “is this: I am called to make disciples and churches don’t make disciples.” That statement “I am called to make disciples and churches don’t make disciples.”convinced me that we had the right person to partner with us in rescuing our church from its current drift. Our church was well on its way to becoming a traditional, contemporary mega-church, rather than a gospel-formed, disciple-making movement. We had demonstrated how to build a local church filled with emerging adults. Now it was time, by faith, to learn how to build mature emerging adults disciples; first with those in our church, and then with the multitudes in our local community living totally disconnected from Jesus and His Body.

We had to change. I knew that we needed Stacie—and more like her—to bring the passion, transparency, clarity, and resolve that would be required for that change.

A Bridge to Nowhere

Stacie’s perceptions of local churches were formed during her own emerging adult years. Stacie had experienced the church as a place where people attended and served, but not as a place where they could be developed into fully mature disciples and, thus, disciple-makers. To use a metaphor from my own experience, Stacie perceived the local church to be a disciple-making “bridge to nowhere.”

The Nashville radio station WSVM reported on one such bridge: “Some are calling a perplexing public road project in White County a ‘bridge to nowhere.’ They can’t figure out why it’s there or where it leads. Is there an explanation behind what appears to be an unnecessary, irrelevant bridge? “The state says the idea goes back to the late 1970s when local leaders wanted a way to link two state roads, Highway 111 and State Route 135.” Demetria Kalodimos, WSVM, ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ Sits Near Second Rural Pass

Imagine that you have been appointed with the task to get crowds of people to travel this bridge. Imagine your leadership effectiveness being measured by the number of people who, going against the common consensus of the community, choose this bridge as the path to their destination. Questions like these would occupy your waking—and sleeping—moments:

  • How can I impress upon the community the true value of the bridge so they will begin to travel on it?
  • How can I personally persuade key influencers in the community that the bridge was relevant, to them and their community?
  • How can I overcome the near universal perception that the bridge’s raison d’être is rooted in past assumptions that are no longer valid?

Now, making matters worse, imagine that you believe God has specifically called you to this purpose: to persuade people to alter their routine travel pattern to use a bridge to nowhere.

If being in charge of local traffic patterns seems too distant from your own personal leadership experiences, then try this: imagine being a leader in a local church where less than 10% of the emerging adult population in your community attend church and you feel called by God to “reach young adults.” In communities around the globe, Emerging adults largely perceive local churches as religious “bridges to nowhere.”especially where Christian churches have been established for generations, this scenario is being played out. Evidenced by their attitudes and attendance patterns, emerging adults largely perceive local churches as religious parallels to the “bridge to nowhere.” They can’t figure out why it’s there or where it leads.Furthermore, emerging adults largely perceive the church to have evolved into its present form based upon ancient spiritual and moral assumptions that are fundamentally disconnected from their present reality. The church is, therefore, deemed irrelevant and irrational.

The Local Church: A Perceived Bridge to Nowhere

A powerful disconnect between emerging adults and the established church currently pervades my part of the world, both in the spiritually numbing affluence of American suburbs as well as in the impoverished isolation of the American Appalachian hills. American research on the spiritual lives of emerging adults demonstrates that this issue is not unique to the southern region of the United States. Barna Group, Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church

My own experience in intercultural ministry settings demonstrates to me, firsthand, that a generational disconnect likewise exists in churches in western Europe, eastern Europe, east central Africa, and in southeast Asia. Dialogue with local church leadership in additional diverse locations leads me to believe that this is, in fact, a global reality. Early twenty-first-century emerging adults, for all manner of well-documented reasons, perceive established local churches to be “bridges to nowhere,” relationally and spiritually.

Much of the dialogue in the literature, conferences, and media wrestling with these issues centers on questions similar to “How do we get people to travel on the perceived bridge to nowhere?” The dialogue is being energized by questions like:

  • How can we get the emerging adults in our community to see the true value of the church so they will want to come to our church?
  • How can we persuade key influencers of emerging adults in our community to regard us as a relevant part of the community? To respect us as leaders?
  • How can we update our church and our methods so that we are more appealing to the emerging adults in our community who believe that our raison d’être is rooted in past assumptions that are no longer valid?

Assisting church leaders in repurposing church programs to attract emerging adults can be, at least in the short-term, highly effective in “getting emerging adults to come to the church.” Our primary task is not to attract emerging adults through programming, but to build disciple-making disciples.Such repurposing, however, when set in place as the foundational and primary questions for church leaders to explore, are sadly short-sighted. They are, more importantly, theologically impoverished and spiritually dangerous.

Focusing primarily on this approach to change rests on the presupposition that a church leadership’s primary task is to build local churches. By contrast, the gospel as introduced by Jesus and instructed by the authors of the epistles, identifies spiritual leadership’s primary task as building disciples who become disciple-makers.

A Vision for Disciple-Making: Building Bridges Where People Travel

Reflecting on the recent past and the near future, my colleague Jana Sundene and I suggest a way forward.

Desiring to reach an increasingly secularized culture, church leadership focused more and more of their energies on answering the question “How do we get people to come to our church?” . . . The twenty-first century church must focus more of its energy and resources on answering a different question “How do we take the people God has brought to our church and empower and equip them to go into the world as disciple-makers who will lead others to know and follow Christ?”Richard R. Dunn and Jana L. Sundene, Shaping the Journey of Emerging Adults: Life-Giving Rhythms for Spiritual TransformationDowners Grove: IVP, 2012.

Emerging adults simply will not re-route their lives through an apparently out-of-date, out-of-touch, sectarian, and stagnant institution like they perceive the local Christian church to be. Emerging adults will, however, engage a disciple-making movement that is, like Jesus on the road to Emmaus, walking alongside them as they travel their customary relational and vocational routes.

Thus the primary shift that must be made by twenty-first century churches is from building local churches to building disciples who become disciple-makers. Consider the difference:

  • Building local churches requires spiritual leaders to develop marketing strategies and culturally attractive programs that will get emerging adults to come to church in order to connect them to Jesus through the ministries of the church.
  • Building disciples who become disciple-makers requires spiritual leaders to discover and implement a leadership vision for moving the church toward people in order to connect Jesus to them through relationships in their community.
  • Building disciples focuses on moving with Jesus alongside the paths where people, including emerging adults, can be found on the move.

Repurposing the Bridge by Repositioning Its Path

Thankfully Stacie was led by the Spirit of God to join our church staff—His leading was the only way she would have taken the role! Stacie and several other young spiritual leaders are leading the way inWe are gradually abandoning building a local church as our primary point of emphasis. repositioning our resources and people. We are gradually abandoning building a local church as our primary point of emphasis. We are instead leveraging our local church to fulfill the gospel’s primary mandate to build disciples who make disciples. To borrow and redefine a term from the twentieth century, we have become a “seeker church”—a church increasingly filled with disciple-makers who are seeking to make disciples of lost people in our community.

It is humanly impossible to reposition a bridge to nowhere once it has been built. Truthfully, it has been equally humanly impossible to reposition a growing mega-church for authentic disciple-making with emerging adults. But as Jesus said, “with God, all things are possible.” We have found that the humanly impossible is, in fact, the only possible way for us as a local church to walk in the power of the gospel alongside this twenty-first-century generation of emerging adults.

For Further Dialogue

How do you understand the relationship between the practices of “building a local church” and the practices of making disciples who make disciples? What points of tension can you identify in your own context?

In what ways would the priority of disciple-making lead to a rethinking and a repositioning of the local church in the lives of your community’s emerging adults?

How do the leadership demands of disciple-making contrast to the leadership demands of building a local church? Given that moving church people out of the church into the world is very different than trying to move non-church people into the church, how do we train church leadership for disciple-making in this generation of emerging adults?