I grew up in the 1960s generation. That tells you a lot really. We were disillusioned, on a very profound level, yet very idealistic on another. I adopted elements of both of these as my own intellectual and spiritual life developed over the decades that followed. In my first two decades of adult life and ministry, serving as a pastor in the local church, I was mostly an idealist. I dreamed about making a huge difference by pastoring a faithful and biblical flock. Over the last fifteen years, or so, I have had to resist the opposite extreme, disillusionment. This period of time corresponds to my present ministry with ACT 3. I have seen so much that breaks my heart, in me and in others, that I wonder about the whole business.

I am actually never far from falling off the wagon on either side. I am too often driven by my vision of what things could be, or ought to be, but my age now (58) tends to take that away after years of real experience. The danger now is to become a prophet of gloom and doom, just writing myself and the whole Church off and giving up.

It seems to me the real problem with the idealist is that he or she is more in love with ideals than with people and the Church. This is Bonhoeffer’s famous "wish dream." The problem with disillusionment is that you will lose your way just trying to get by and not mess things up too much. Don’t misunderstand me. This latter response is not totally bad. Young adults must face life and experience their hard knocks like everyone else. Middle aged adults tend to still think that they can get it right if they only have the "perfect storm" come along. By this stage of life I just want to love God and love my neighbor and remain a truly faithful follower of Christ.

I am convinced that only idealists engage in renewal and reformation work like my own. Thus I have not lost my idealism entirely and hope I never do. I have just learned that my dreams are not what this is all about. Being in love with the idea of renewal and community is not the same thing as actually loving people and the Church. After a painful few months, in which my local church pastor had to finally resign from his pastorate last Sunday, I have seen again how tragically flawed the Church actually is. My wife asked an older lady last Sunday, who only recently came back to Christ and the Church after being away for fifteen years, "What do you intend to do now that the pastor who helped you so much has left?" She answered as I think every Christian should: "Where am I to go? I come here not for the pastor but for the Word and the sacraments." This lady, now a Protestant, has a Catholic background. In this case I think that stood her in a pretty good place to have a right perspective on this matter.

Many of you know that I have a deep personal interest in many people and ideals within the emergent movement. You can praise it or condemn it. Because I do neither some find me an easy target. But I count many of the writers and leaders in these circles as friends. At the same time I profoundly disagree with some of these men and women on some very important issues.

One of the concerns I repeatedly have, after conversations with emergent leaders, or when I read the newest highly-promoted book release like Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change (Nelson, 2007), is simply this: "When will this idealism run out and people will begin to burn out?" Brian is so interesting, so serious, and so engaged. At the same time he writes some of the best, and some of the worst, material from within this movement. His ideals are stimulating and his prose moving.

I believe this issue of idealism is a real problem here and thus I wonder how seriously these popular ministers and ministries understand this danger.  In Brian’s case I personally think he is a spiritually mature man and will handle this well so I am not judging him at all, or predicting anything about him. (I am not a prophet in this sense, not at all.) I am concerned, however, for many of the young people who follow these trends and the continually moving ideals generated by this, or any similar, movement. Where will this lead these young adults when these communities do not work the way they are supposed to work? Where will they be when the music stops and the movement is no longer exciting? Where will they be when the trendiness no longer seems trendy enough? What then?

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  1. Daniel Kirk November 10, 2007 at 12:38 pm

    Reminds me of something I read in Look Homeward Angel: “He was so bitter with his tongue because his heart believed so much.”
    Cynicism is often the corresponding and opposite fruit of idealistic, expectant belief.

  2. Michael W. Kruse November 10, 2007 at 3:37 pm

    A wonderful post, John. You have articulated my feelings exactly!

  3. Nick Morgan November 10, 2007 at 10:30 pm

    Well said John! I too have been plagued with both idealism and disillusionment not only in the Church but my career as well. I recognize everyday more and more how important balance and maturity are. Burnout is NO fun!

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