Earl Creps describes the importance of reverse mentoring in his book of the same name:

Reverse mentoring connects older leaders with younger teachers, opening a path for enhancing the elder’s practical relevance while the young draw from the wisdom and integrity of those who have been sustained by principle relevance for many years.

Relative Relevance
Searching for old software one day in my seminary office, I pulled a long-forgotten cardboard box out of a cabinet and found it packed with computer accessories. A small audience gathered as I sorted through the old gear, all of which had been in a state of suspended animation for somewhere between three and five years. The box contained a veritable Smithsonian exhibit of has-been software, a paper display case for the remains of a bygone age: the 20th century. Along with a variety of lessons, I discovered:

Earl Creps describes the importance of reverse mentoring in his book of the same name:

Reverse mentoring connects older leaders with younger teachers, opening a path for enhancing the elder’s practical relevance while the young draw from the wisdom and integrity of those who have been sustained by principle relevance for many years.

Relative Relevance
Searching for old software one day in my seminary office, I pulled a long-forgotten cardboard box out of a cabinet and found it packed with computer accessories. A small audience gathered as I sorted through the old gear, all of which had been in a state of suspended animation for somewhere between three and five years. The box contained a veritable Smithsonian exhibit of has-been software, a paper display case for the remains of a bygone age: the 20th century. Along with a variety of lessons, I discovered:

Two yellow mouse pads: one used in a national ministry promotion campaign. I had kept a second one as a backup. Lesson: beware of large media campaigns. This year’s hot promotional item easily becomes next year’s backup.

Zip disks: a clumsy and expensive way of storing five percent of what my $20 flash drive now holds. Lesson: “beta” (the testing, tryout state of new technology) is now a permanent condition, so hold on to methods loosely because most of them are transitional, just preparation for the next thing.

1997 trip mapping software: my house at the time did not even exist in 1997. Lesson: the courage to admit that things have changed is the first step to changing things.

Rubber bands: still as handy in the office as the day they shipped. Lesson: even when change is the oxygen of culture, I had better know what to hang on to.

These small examples speak to a larger concept: that practical relevance itself floats relative to the issues and the context involved. The expensive computer accessories and software that served as icons of what was called the “information age” in the 1990s were relegated to a cardboard box just a few years later, while the lowly rubber band continued its uninterrupted reign as an office necessity.

The challenge of maintaining relevance, then, defies easy explanation as simply an artifact of getting older. Eric, for example, a young church-planter friend facing a very formal meeting with a group of senior leaders, needed to appear in a suit and tie, something quite alien to his normal style. The suit represented no problem, but the necktie posed an issue: his native culture (Gen X) failed to supply the knowledge of how to tie one. So using the assets that his culture did furnish, such as turning the word Google into a verb, Eric searched several Websites that gave detailed instructions. Yet despite diligent practice, forming the correct knot proved beyond his ability, until a friendly Boomer, wise in the ways of the necktie, volunteered to tie it for him. In this setting, even the skills of the young prove irrelevant because, relative to the context, they represent something other than what produces results. The pressure comes from both directions. One young adult pastor from Seattle area told me of a friend’s lament that, when it comes to video games, “14-year-olds are kicking our butt when we play online.” This person’s skills fail to pass the test of practical relevance when confronting a teenager rampaging through a game of Halo 3.

Collapsing the Practical into the Principle

One possible response to declining relevance is the insistence that my ministry forms offer something better, even as their fruitfulness erodes. Defining change in our context as negative, I see the unchanging nature of our strategy and practice serving as proof that we still represent the lofty values of the Gospel message our society now sadly rejects. Although biblical values and the good news about Jesus are not in question here, many ministries struggle to embody them in congregation or community in a way people understand and care about. “Apathy is the New Black” appears on the album cover of a hardcore band unwittingly commenting on this situation. Many of our methods assume a ready market that stands willing to respond, if we simply supply awareness of what our churches and organizations offer. Corporations often spend millions of dollars only to discover that almost no one really cares about their product, even though they may use it occasionally. Much of the Christian church in the United States finds itself in the grip of the same phenomenon: people drop by occasionally, but an increasing share of the population searches for spirituality in other ways. Our methods no longer make sense to them.

Some leaders respond by digging in, fortifying their position by collapsing practical relevance into principle relevance. Larry, a widely experience overseer of a denominational region, for example, has frequently observed the tendency of leaders to allow their practice of ministry to become their identity over time, meaning that their call to ministry becomes so intertwined with doing ministry in a certain mode that they lost the ability to see the difference. And so, to the pastor of a very traditional church, maintaining the look and feel of the traditions can seem almost as important as the reason these patterns exist. Among these leaders, Larry has also witnessed a communication style that treats dialogue as an exercise in restating one’s views in a louder and louder voice. Although identifying these attributes with generations or cultures helps in understanding them, Larry’s experience suggests the larger human proclivity for becoming what we do. Standing with my father in his office after preachign for him in a retirement service that capped 40 years of pastoral ministry, I witnessed a man who lost more than a title. He lost himself. I also saw illustrated the temptation to treat any suggestion of the need for substantial change as an assault on that identity itself, sparking defensiveness and resistance. Feeling this pressure, leaders invent a new definition that identifies practical relevance completely with the faithfulness that characterizes principle relevance. As long as we persevere in the “truth,” the rest will take care of itself.

Excerpted from Reverse Mentoring by Earl Creps. Copyright © 2008 by Earl Creps. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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