There is a 17th century Christmas carol called, “I Saw Three Ships”. It has always been a favorite of mine. The lyrics are a bit confusing. The song refers to three ships that sailed into Bethlehem on Christmas day. However, the nearest body of water, the Dead Sea, is over 20 miles away. Some say the ships refer to the three Maggi who traveled by camel, or “ships of the desert”. Equally confusing are the three ships that have recently set sail out of the church. Not boats, or camels, but something much more vital to the 21st century church. The church needs to navigate these three ships back to port, or the church will continue to see young people walk away from what she offers. So what are the three ships? There are three key areas that are lacking in the church today that have young people saying, “Thanks, but no thanks, I’m not interested”. The three ships essential for this generation to be engaged in church are: discipleship, relationship and partnership.
There is a lot of focus on making converts, but very little mentoring. There is a lot of teaching, but very little accountability. Real discipleship is not a program, it is relational and intentional. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It requires time and strategy. Discipleship is what Jesus offered His disciples before they ever received forgiveness, and young people today are no different. They need what the church once offered. They need to be taught, challenged and held accountable, and they need it in the same context that Jesus gave it, through relationships.
The world offers many opportunities for relationships. But the most satisfying of all relationships are spiritual relationships. Too many church activities focus around superficial relationships. The church needs to take advantage of this powerful, life changing component of church life, and develop environments where spiritual relationships can flourish. People need a level of transparency in order for the Holy Spirit minister effectively. Without real relationships don’t expect young people to choose the church, over the many relationship options the world offers.
That brings us to the third ship, partnership. This one may be a little trickier, because this generation says they want to have purpose, but they want it on their terms. Regardless, the old school style of ministry that compartmentalizes leadership to paid staff and church members as clients will need to change. Partnership gives greater purpose, while allowing the gifts of the Spirit to flourish throughout the community. In this era of knowledge young people feel more empowered than ever, and they feel like they have much to contribute. If the church doesn’t give them opportunity, the world surely will.
Is it too late to steer these three ships back into the church? It will require a change in direction. It will require leadership. It will require prayer and a work of the Spirit. The church will need to look for ways to restore real discipleship, accountability relationships, and ministry partnership opportunities. I pray these three ships come sailing back to the church, and restore what is lacking. Without them, the church will continue to see young people leaving out the back door as quickly as they enter the front door.