Russell Rathbun, pastor of House of Mercy, has authored a new book, nuChristian: Finding Faith in a New Generation. Rathbun’s title riffs off Kinnaman and Lyons’ book, unChristian, both visually and topically. Rathbun knows what he’s talking about because he is one of the founding pastors of House of Mercy in 1996.
Judson Press sent me a review copy, which I read with appreciation because Russell seemed to be writing to traditional churches, providing guidance on how to engage with young adults. Rather than a book review, I asked Russell if he would respond to a few questions. He graciously agreed, and here’s the interview:
Chuck Warnock: As I was reading the book, I could see our congregation, comprised primarily of older adults, really benefitting from your insights on how to connect with a new generation. Who did you write the book for, and do you anticipate it being studied by established congregations?
Russell Rathbun: I wrote the book for churches, pastors and the folks in the pews who have already begun to maybe have gotten a hint that there is something different going on that isn’t represented in their churches and are interested in exploring what ever that is (how is that for a nonspecific over qualified sentence?). I really hope that it will be used as the beginning of a continuing discussion.
CW: I’m hearing a lot about “authenticity” these days. How does a church navigate between being authentic and making changes necessary to reach out to a new generation?
That really is an important question. And I think the answers are difficult. I really would like to say that, if you are a church with no one under 50 years old, that the best thing you can do is figure out who you are, what you love, how God has called you to be the church in your context and do that—be who you are. Don’t try to be something else, it won’t work and it won’t be true. But, you know, by doing that, there is a good chance that you are not going to attract a lot of people under 50, which means the church wont be around in 25 years. But on the other hand, what do I know? I guess I do know that if we are honest, authentic, about what God has called us to do, beautiful things happen. I hope people in churches like I’ve described really feel the gracious freedom to be who they are.
CW: Some of my members would have a problem with your statement, “Love people; don’t save them.” In our church, most of our members “got saved” as the result of an evangelistic, revival-type meeting or message. How would you help an established, traditional church that is accustomed to “crisis” conversions become open to a more gradual process of transformation?
RR: I don’t want to say that people have to change their understanding of the process of salvation (even though it might be different than mine), maybe just refocus a little on some of the important ways that Jesus talks about making disciples and loving the neighbor, to maybe realize the Holy Spirit was able to speak to them in a way that compelled them to pursue Jesus and that the Holy Spirit is probably capable of speaking to others as well, so maybe we love and serve, and the Holy Spirit does the speaking.
CW: If your book was intended as a kind of answer to books like
unChristian by Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, what would you say are the key steps a congregation needs to take to connect with a new generation? I realize you took a whole book to answer this question, but if you had to summarize in one or two statements, what are the core elements?
RR: Get know know them. Ask questions you don’t already know the answers to. Meet people you have never met before and enter into open relationship with them.
CW: You’re really doing this stuff you write about, and you use House of Mercy as examples of how you have reached a new generation. What issues is House of Mercy facing now that present new challenges to you?
RR: We are facing the challenge of transitioning from a young, upstart community to being a church institution that has a youth group and volunteers to help with potlucks and all that stuff. How do you become a church institution in a way that reflects who we are.