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01 January 2009

Haunting Last Words

Haunting Last Words

Churches in Mission Executive Director Krish Kandiah looks at the challenge of reaching out to a missing generation and beyond...

I had been biting my tongue for 12 weeks. Biting so hard, in fact, that it hurt. My wife was expecting a baby, and I had been sworn to secrecy. As other extreme extroverts like me out there will know, this was like asking a toddler to save his Christmas chocolates until Easter. So finally when I was given the go-ahead to spread the word, it was like releasing the Hoover Dam.

I worked my way through the phone book with my good news; but there is only one of those calls I remember: the one to my grandmother. She was a remarkable lady who was born in the Himalayan foothills and, being a war-hero widow, singlehandedly brought up three daughters before emigrating to the centre of Stoke Newington, where she grew to know everybody and everybody knew her.

Her popularity may have had something to do with her extrovert nature, but during this particular phone call her tendency to speak before thinking meant that her response was not a predictably warm "congratulations" or an excited "wow", but a never-to-be-forgotten, heartrending cry of despair: "Oh no!"

Now that shut me up. And I don't to this day remember how the phone call ended, let alone understand why she reacted in that way. Perhaps it had slipped her mind that I was actually married to the future mother of my child. Or more likely, perhaps the prospect of passing on her genes and becoming a great-grandparent wasn't quite as exhilarating as becoming a first-time dad.

Jesus' final words force us to rethink our priorities 

A few years later I was to have another memorable phone call with my grandmother. This time she called to give me a piece of her mind. I had let her down and, try as I might, she was accepting no excuses. In fact, my excuses just made the phone call harder. Had I known it was to be the last time I would speak to my grandmother before she died, I would have bitten my tongue in respect of her love for me over the years.

My grandmother's last words of challenge to me to rethink my priorities were unwelcome at the time and they still haunt me. Yet over the years I have come to realise that this is how many of us feel about the last words of Jesus as recorded in Matthew's Gospel. They force us to rethink our priorities, apply our faith and step out of our comfort zones.

These words were not spoken by our Lord and Saviour in criticism, but in love. He was not writing a press release, issuing an order, uttering a homely adage or scolding naughty disciples. No, Jesus was passing on His last will and testament to His best friends, and on His heart was the need of the world and the vision of His Church investing into the next generation "to the very end of the age" (Matthew 28.20).

Invest in the future

I don't think it's a coincidence that the last words that the apostle Paul pens from his prison cell are written to Timothy, a next-generation leader with the same mandate to invest in the following generation and the one after that: "And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others" (2 Timothy 2.2).

There is a definite biblical imperative to make sure that we foresee and actively engage in becoming spiritual parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents.

This imperative is what drives the Alliance's dedication to invest in younger leaders, both helping current-generation leaders and recognising that there is a need to raise up the next generation, as well as the one after that.

In a recent survey of UK Evangelical Alliance churches conducted with Innovista, an Oxford based evangelical leadership development agency, 96 per cent of pastors surveyed said that increasing the number of the emerging generation (ages 16-30) in their churches is either "more important than" or "as important as" other issues. Yet only 11 per cent of respondents stated that they considered themselves well-resourced in the form of people, training and tools to do this.

Innovista is committed to investing its energies into meeting these needs, particularly in churches in deprived urban areas that felt under-resourced to reach out to 16- to 30-year-olds. This missing generation in the local church is a key area for evangelicals to address, not simply because we are worried that some of our churches will die out, but because we need to take seriously the last words of Jesus calling us to pass on this precious deposit of the Gospel to every generation.

Inter-generational learning is no doubt critical in a variety of ways. My grandmother taught me many things including the medicinal benefits of raw ginger and how to value people from different walks of life. But her lasting legacy to me is to take seriously Jesus' last words. Thankfully, we are not sworn to secrecy, but empowered to be proud parents, grandparents and great-grandparents in the faith.

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