January 18, 2012

Opening a Letter to Myself

Recently I received a letter sent way back in 1997. The letter was written by me . . . to me. It was titled “A Letter to Myself (Open in 2011)” and published in the Adventist Review, where I was working as a 26-year-old assistant editor. When I wrote the letter, I never imagined I’d actually be reading it someday. But sure enough, last year I sat down and read it:
Dear Andy:

Happy fortieth. Hope all’s well with Cindy and your two teenagers.

Speaking of stress, remember back in 1997 when you were worried about the 38 to 50 percent attrition rate among your Adventist peers and frustrated that so many programs and ministries targeting youth and young adults were being planned exclusively by people twice, even three times, their age? Remember that?
Well, I’ve got news. Now you’re them. That’s right, pal—Generation X got old. And because it did, I have a little message for you . . .

If, by any chance, you currently happen to be sitting on a committee that’s planning anything for young people, and if young people aren’t well represented on that committee, then recuse yourself. That’s right—get out of your leather chair, flip on your shirt-button telephone, and invite a young person to take your seat.
2012 1502 page30Do this, Andy, not because young people in the year 2011 are necessarily more talented, creative, or even progressive than you are. (Some will be; some won’t be.) Instead, do it for the same reason the execs at MTV used to let your generation, the Gen Xers, generate MTV. Because 1997 young people best knew the minds of 1997 young people.
This doesn’t mean, Andy, that the youth and young adults of 2011, the millennials, don’t need you. They do need you—desperately. They need you to mentor them, to teach them, to pass on what you’ve learned about Jesus Christ. But when it comes to planning their programs, step back. Give them ownership. Let them do their thing.
Because in the struggle to be relevant—to communicating Jesus in their language—you can have the best intentions, but you can’t change your birth certificate. Don’t forget that.

Reading this after all these years leaves me with several impressions:

1. I certainly was a bold young man. How did Bill Johnsson and the rest of the staff tolerate me so graciously? The confidence I possessed in my 20s was battered like a floor mat in my 30s.
2. Do I still agree with what I wrote? Yes and no. I’m less focused now on being relevant to contemporary culture—speaking in today’s language. Bill Knott and I used to go back and forth on the balance between faithfulness and relevance. And as much as I hate to admit it, he had a point. The story of redemption running from Genesis to Revelation (and beyond) will always be relevant.
I still think it’s important to involve young adults in all aspects of church life. And I don’t think we’re doing much better than we used to do. At the 2010 General Conference session the North American Division sent 240 delegates—with only a few under age 30.
3. Am I personally practicing what I preached? Yes and no. I lead out at a church, and we do our best to be multigenerational in all our ministries: from music to outreach to our annual Christmas play. But last year I realized that our 12-member leadership team (half male, half female) had no members under the age of 30. We immediately added a twentysomething, but we should add more.


4. A final thought from my perspective as a college professor and father. The years have changed the dynamic with many Adventist young adults. While in the 1990s our cry was “give us a piece of the pie,” the challenge is different now. Outside of such groups as GYC, many youth and young adults simply don’t care much about church. Their lives are full of noise and secularism. Before they’re going to be involved in the church, they first have to be called to reformation—to put away their idols. In fact, many of their Gen X parents need the same thing.

Andy Nash is a college professor, pastor, and author of Paper God, a spiritual memoir. This article was published January 19, 2012.