Thursday, April 26, 2012

What the Orange Conference Says about the Church’s Future

Orange is the unlikely name of a revolution starting to sweep through modern evangelical churches. The brainchild of Reggie Joiner—the leading figure of a coming host of entrepreneurial church leaders determined to re-design local church ministry—the conference provides training in family ministry leadership. Orange transforms the older method of separating congregations into silos of “preschool,” “children,” “students” and “adults” into inter-generational ministry that recognizes the priority of the family as a unit.

Sounds crazy, I know. But all of us who’ve been in the trenches of the old model of church programming recognize its limitations. Orange seeks to restore the family to its rightful place as the center of spiritual growth.

I’m attending the seventh “Orange Conference” this week in Atlanta, along with 5,000 other church leaders from across the nation. Our church’s children and student leadership is here with me. Here’s what I’m learning:

Denominationalism is fading fast. This conference is full of aggressive, creative and capable young leaders. The break-out sessions, display booths, worship services and practical training in ministry are all first-rate and reflect the cutting-edge effectiveness of, especially, those large churches who are figuring out how to reach the younger generations. But conspicuously absent is a sign of any denomination. The old-line denominations like my own Southern Baptist Convention, United Methodists, Presbyterians or others are nowhere to be found. Even though its roots lie in the Southern Baptist Convention, the Orange Conference, like many similar conferences, aren’t bound to any particular faith tradition. It’s a telling point that the new, multi-million dollar Georgia Baptist Convention building is located directly across the street from the conference. It’s for sale because the convention’s financial decline can no longer afford the payments.

The next season of effective church ministry is being driven by exceptionally sharp young leaders. The approaches to effective ministry that Orange presents are emerging from leaders who are thinking outside the box of traditional church. Every local church should take heart from this and not be afraid to try new things that they develop within their own congregation. This is a great season for new ideas!

Worship is not as one-dimensional as you might think. Last night’s opening session was the most remarkable worship I’ve ever experienced. It was loud, of course, led by a rock band that made my head hurt. The production values were over the top: great use of lighting, video  and sound to create an environment that most rock concerts would be envious of.  But in the middle of it all, the band broke into a set of traditional hymns (“Blessed Assurance” was especially moving) that the crowd sang as loudly as the more contemporary songs. The old forms aren’t dead at all. In fact, true blended worship is making a comeback.

The Kingdom of God is being well served by the coming generation of leaders. This place is packed with spiritually mature, capable and passionate young leaders. It’s a joy for me as a middle-aged minister to be hanging around here. It makes me feel very positive about the future.

But along with the positives here at Orange, I also see some red flags, some things this movement and the others like it need to beware of:

There’s more focus on what brings in crowds of people than what’s true to Scripture. This is clearly a danger. The Catholic writer, Thomas Merton, observed years ago that the great enemy of the American church isn’t materialism but pragmatism. And when I’m in something like Orange I need to keep reminding myself that Jesus spent more time driving off crowds than building them.

This is mainly a white, upper-middle-class phenomenon. There are very few blacks, Hispanics or Asians here. Mainly what appears to be the children and grand-children of mainstream church people. For any movement to really gain credibility, there needs to be an appeal across the board, not just among those like us.

Everybody here looks cool and Christian hipsters are wandering the halls in abundance. The favorite adjective is “cutting edge.” There are cutting-edge children’s programs. Cutting-edge worship is presented twice a day. Cutting-edge missions programs. It’s apparently required that anyone who wears glasses must wear those cutting-edge kind that are black and rectangular. Cutting-edge church attire is everywhere: blue jeans and shirts hanging outside. The cynic in me would note that true cutting-edge here would be someone in a black suit carrying a King James Bible.

All in all, though, a great conference and one that’s teaching me a lot. I plan on coming back next year and bringing even more people with me.

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