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The Next, Next Thing

The iPhone is so last month. 
 
Which means, observed the New York Times, that “it’s been downgraded from the next big thing to merely new.” And these days, “new can seem so yesterday. What matters is what’s next.” 
 
The article then noted how “next” is the go-to buzzword of our day. 
 
Newsweek’s annual “Who’s Next” issue, intended to run against Time’s Person of the Year issue, prompted Time to start a regular “What’s Next” feature of its own. 
 
New York magazine had a cover article on home design titled “The Next Next Things,” an update on the title of Michael Lewis’ 1999 book, “The New New Thing.” 
 
There are even stores specializing in the “next” through “fast fashion,” such as H & M and Zara, which replace their entire line of clothing every few weeks. 
 
Our preoccupation with “next” has replaced our earlier fascination with “new.” The difference? New is what something is; next suggests a special insight. 
 
Christians can be captivated by “next” as much as anyone. 
 
I know of pastors who joke about a “migratory flow pattern” among Christians in their community who are constantly church-hopping to the “next” thing in church life. They move from one church to another, looking for the next hot singles group, the next hot church plant, the next hot speaker, the next hot youth group. Many times they end up full circle where they began, because their original church suddenly became “next.”
 
Church leaders can succumb to the same temptation, only in terms of church model. First it was Willow Creek. Then Saddleback. Then came Hillsong, North Point and Fellowship. Or perhaps instead of doing it by church name, it was by type: first came seeker-targeted, then purpose-driven, then postmodern, then ancient-future, then emergent, then “simple.” For some the allure of the next “next” is programmatic, moving from Alpha to KidStuff to...well, you get the picture. 
 
And then there is the latest “youth culture” report that boldly proclaims how radically different the next generation is going to be, and how massive the changes will need to be, if churches will stand a chance at reaching them.
 
But is the next really “next”? 
 
Consider the widely disseminated window into the faith of young adults, or “Millennials” – so called because they are the first generation to come of age during the new millennium. According to the Pew Research Center, the headline is that this collection of teens and twenty-somethings are “less religiously affiliated” than previous generations. To be specific, one in four Americans age 18-29 do not affiliate with any particular religious group.
 
As Stephen Prothero rightly observed in his essay in USA Today, this is not news; it is a “sociological truism that young people cultivate some distance from the religious institutions of their parents, only to return to those institutions as they marry, raise children and slouch toward retirement.”
 
Similarly, many of the “next” churches we flock to - as attenders or leaders - have little of the true “next” about them. More often than not, what is behind the attention is little more than a gifted communicator, or a niche-focus, or tried-and-true contemporary approaches in a traditional context, maybe one or two twists on previously envisioned programs – coupled with a growing edge of town. Yet the seduction of the “next” lures us to race to their conference to find the “secret” to success. 
 
But racing toward the “next” is more than just deceptive – it can be dangerous.
 
According to James Katz, who directs the Center for Mobile Communications Studies at Rutgers University, our current level of engineering knowledge allows products such as the iPhone to be developed more quickly than ever before. With basic performance less and less of a concern, consumers will purchase on the basis of looks. Add in what he calls “the professionalization of hype,” and you have the life of a product burn hot - and fast.
 
Meaning you can buy into the “next” before you know whether it was ever worth buying into in the first place. With an iPhone, you’re only out a few hundred dollars. With a church, the stakes are much, much higher.
 
And even if not dangerous, it can be discouraging, particularly when the church you got the “next” from changes to the “next next” thing, and you are left high and dry trying to figure out what to do with the old “next.”
 
Here’s the critical question for the “next” - do you know why you are doing it?
 
This is a pressing question for every church leader as they grapple with mission, strategy, and method in light of reaching out to an increasingly post-Christian culture. There is a myth that churches are successful because they do certain things; in truth, churches are successful because they know why they do certain things. In other words, there is a clear missional target on the wall.
 
This is why the most effective churches lead the way for innovation, and those who borrow their innovations get frustrated when the church they copied drops what they copied for something even more innovative.  
 
This is far from original with me.
 
In How the Mighty Fall, bestselling business author Jim Collins poses a simple but profound question: If you were in organizational decline, what would be the signs? What made the question more pressing was Collins' early sense, later confirmed through his research, that decline is analogous to a disease, perhaps like a cancer, that can grow on the inside while you still look strong and healthy on the outside.
 
He calls it “the silent creep of impending doom.”
 
One of the earliest signs is companies saying “We’re successful because we do these specific things,” as opposed to the more penetrating understanding and insight: “We’re successful because we understand why we do these specific things and under what conditions they would no longer work.”
 
This is the foundation for any and all innovation; otherwise you are simply gathering an assortment of tactics independent of a mission. Biblical fidelity is, hopefully, a given, but once you are confident you are working within those parameters, you must then determine why it is you do anything: What is the foundational nature of your mission? What are you trying to accomplish? Who are you trying to reach? 
 
If you know why you are doing something, you know whether it is effective, and are quick to discard things that no longer work. If you are attempting to evangelize the unchurched, you are not attracted to any and all innovation, or even innovation that may reflect the culture of the unchurched; instead, you are after innovation that is effective at evangelizing the unchurched. 
 
There have been, and will be, some truly “next” churches. But our threshold should be more than rapid growth, a charismatic leader, a niche-market, the latest beneficiary of a growing edge of town or the migratory flow of believers. Not simply because there may not be anything truly “next” about it beyond that which is cosmetic, but because our appetite for the “next” has us looking to churches that have yet to truly prove themselves, much less their ideas, through the test of time.

Leaders must realize that however exhilarating a new church model may appear, silver bullets do not exist. Leaders must look deeper than the latest model or program, conference or style, and realize that the process inherent within a thriving church has not changed in 2,000 years: you must evangelize the lost, then assimilate those evangelized, then disciple those assimilated, and then unleash those discipled for ministry.
 
I’m not sure whether this is original to me, or if I heard it somewhere else and the source has been displaced in my memory. But knocking around in my mind for some years has been the idea that we can do ministry from one of three standpoints.
 
For some, it’s done through memory. Meaning, the way they have seen it done before, were trained to do it, or have seen it done in other settings.
 
They do what they know to do, and little more.
 
Others do it through mimicry.
 
They gravitate toward a model of ministry that is attractive to them, or exudes levels of success they long to experience. They absorb that approach, and mimic it.
 
The dilemma with doing ministry from memory, or mimicry, is that it is not “alive.” If you operate solely from memory – the way you’ve always done it before – then you are caught in the past. If done by mimicry, then you are caught in someone else’s snapshot. They are doing ministry in a particular way, at a particular time, and in a particular context. There is value, to be sure, in learning all you can from their snapshot, but it may not be of ongoing value as time goes on. Or it may not translate well to your context. 
 
Solution? Do not do ministry from memory or mimicry, but from imagination. This means you are the originator, the creator, the one who is fashioning new solutions and opening new vistas. Born through earnest prayer and hard work, it’s what keeps you from trying to chase the next, next thing.
 
And instead, become the one offering it.
 
James Emery White
 
 
Sources     
 
Adapted from James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You In Seminary (Baker), available through Amazon.
 
Adam Bryant, “iSee Into The Future, Therefore iAm,” The New York Times, Sunday, July 1, 2007, section 4, page 3.
 
Review the Pew report, titled “Religion Among the Millennials.”
 
“Millennials do faith and politics their way,” Stephen Prothero, USA Today, Monday, March 29, 2010, 9A.
 
Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall (2009).

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