You talk to your young people (the way you used to talk to me).

I spent this last Easter weekend at a Baptist Eastercamp, with 5000 young people, leaders and volunteers. It was a bit of a returning for me. About 6 years ago, you would have found me behind the scenes and on stage, running the programme and writing all sorts of creative experiences for young people.

At writing school, they try and train you to make your point up front, then produce your evidence summarised with a convincing conclusion. They also tell you not to begin sentences with the word ‘but’.

But today, I need to give you the supporting evidence before I make my point, so you have the opportunity to understand why it matters. So you have the chance to know why I can say it, must say it and say it with conviction of honesty, love and hope.

6 years ago, we parted ways from each other, that Eastercamp and I. About 6 months after that, I moved away from my formal connection with the Baptist church. So going back to that place where I have poured sweat, blood and plenty of tears – well, it was a big deal. It was like returning home and returning to the scene of the crime all at once. They were tumultuous days then, they still echo now in the peaceful times.

Here are some things you might want to know:

  • I went back because the young people I work with now, in a different spiritual community really wanted to go, so their needs came first
  • I have plenty of dear friends who continue to serve and volunteer with that event and do an amazing job. I admire them and love them deeply.
  • I’m no longer part of the Baptist church, but I am connected deeply to dozens, even hundreds of youth workers & youth volunteers, young people grown up and young people still growing. I’m as invested in that community as I ever was. As I ever was.
  • The event was good. Reconciliation is a process of years and it’s ongoing.

But this is my open letter to the Baptist church in New Zealand. As one of your born and bred. You trained me, you were my home for many years. I fought you and you fought me, and now I’m happy not to fight about it. But I will fight for you.

Here’s what I love about you, Baptists.

Here’s what I love about the Baptist church in New Zealand, and why when people ask, I still describe my way of following Jesus as being bred in the Baptist tradition. Which, for me, means ‘freedom of conscience’, the ability and invitation for every believer to participate in governance, theological practice and missional engagement. The tradition I grew up in was full of pioneers, ground-breakers, boundary pushers, people who engaged at the edges of society and innovated.

Baptists, please learn to love your boundary pushers again. Don’t fool yourselves that ‘inclusive’ doesn’t also apply to a line of political correctness that easily draws us away from provocative truth. Those who push the boundaries are diving into new territories of what truth looks like in today’s emerging reality.

Learn to love your provocateurs again. Don’t settle for talking to young people about sexuality in a way that gives them all the responsibility and none of the tools. I was horrified when my amazing friends, who worked so hard on the programming, had to swap out a movie choice. Somehow, no one complained about showing The Hunger Games (where children are forced to slaughter each other in a dystopian future) but it was unacceptable to show Captain Phillips, a movie that highlights the plight of Somali pirates in a cycle of economic oppression and slavery.

I’m not arguing the merits of the film, I’m pointing out that you can’t embrace some justice issues (freedom from sex trafficking) and deny the reality of others; like gay marriage, refugee policies or economic reform. You can’t choose the sexy stuff and deny the messier truths. There’s no film rating on the real world.

Eastercamp is just a shopfront window. It’s an insight into who the Baptist church is and will continue to evolve too. Everything you’re doing is good, even great – but you need to keep following through. If you’re going to continue to encourage young people to become agents for justice and social change – please realize you’ll be part of the society they’ll end up changing. You better damn well ensure there’s room for them at the table.

You see, you can read Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’, but it won’t make you a change agent. Reading it so you can talk about it, doesn’t make it real. Please don’t settle for the soundbite of philosophy that sounds good but doesn’t mean anything without hard yards and uncomfortable moments. It’s not enough to talk about social justice issues alongside the Gospel. We have to somehow engage with what an expression of these things will look like in our own lives. It requires some provocation to get there because real transformation of people, culture, churches and mission will always be more than a slogan that sounds good and an easy-fix of donation money to a cause.

The Baptist church, nor any church community, cannot thrive on Facebook likes, fundraising campaigns and easily digestible, dualistic snacks of the Gospel alongside justice issues. For more on this train of thought, please read the 2010 commentary by Malcolm Gladwell for The New Yorker, ‘Small Change‘. He argues that social media requires less motivation of those who participate.

Prophets and commentators

Societies need the prophets and commentators who cry out from the edges. Please be careful that you don’t lose too many of us. The way we think, often pushing and arguing with you will not ever be comfortable – but if you lose us all, you’ll begin to realize something’s missing. It’s part of your identity – to wrestle, to provoke, to engage.

The first Baptist church I went to as a young person was started by a group of rebellious 20-somethings. Don’t lose what it means to our history, to embrace the diversity and spectrum of who we have always been. Fight against the gravitation towards middle ground. Treasure the diversity at each end of your theological spectrum. That’s what has powered your ability to be accessible to such a broad range of New Zealanders and to wrestle with complexity in your missionality and governance.

In the last 20 years, the NZ Baptist church has bred and housed some amazing theologians, community leaders, creatives and philosophers. What I noticed last weekend was how they were missing from the shopfront. I saw lots of people excelling in their work – but they used to have prophets and provocateurs around them and beside them. They were the ones I called on, wrestled with and relied upon. Where have they gone?

Well, I know where I am. I still have the phone numbers, blogs, email addresses of many of those provocateurs. So I know where some of them are. It’s not our lack of fortitude that sees us finding other homes and places of respite, nor a lack of desire to engage. It’s that you don’t love us in the same way you used to.

It’s ok, I know (I’m) we’re hard work. We step on toes and speak out all the time. But it’s our role – we provoke, in order to give new ways of being and thinking a way to emerge.

You talk to your young people (the way you used to talk to me) and inspire them to take a stand. To be bold, inspired, challenging. But be careful what you wish for, because if you want us: the outliers, the goalpost changers, the innovators and boundary pushers – the ones our Baptist history was written on – you’ve got to follow through with what you’re asking us to be. We won’t be satisfied with ‘inclusive’ or politically correct, or safe. We’ll want to shape and change you, as well as the rest of the world.

You’re calling a generation of kids to be something you don’t know how to love yet. I know you want to love us, you’ve got to love us; sometimes we’re more Baptist than you.