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Embracing a Future that Jesus is a Part Of: An Interview with Rev. Jon Coyne

We have so many pastors (and spouses) who are faithfully leading and serving with little fanfare in challenging circumstances. Pastor Jon Coyne in Menlo Park, CA, is one of them. I recently sat down with Jon and asked him about doing ministry and engaging a community in the middle of tech giants Google, Facebook and Apple, and in the shadow of Stanford University.

Jock: Jon, it’s said that seven years from now what’s happening here on the West Coast will be happening in the Midwest. Would you say that the challenges you’re facing are about seven years ahead of much of the rest of the U.S.?

Jon: Yes. I think that’s true. In the previous community where I lived, it was like a mini United Nations. We had between 60 and 80 different language groups within a half-mile radius.

Jock: You’ve been a pastor in Menlo Park for 28 years! A fundamental of an adaptive leader is to listen where the “future already exists.”

Jon: I would say to people who want to listen: Don’t long for a past that no longer exists.

Embrace a future that Jesus is a part of. I know it will look different than I expect. The church will be different. People coming from Asia, Africa, South America. What an opportunity for those of us that have been in the church a long time to embrace them and walk closely with them!

Jock: You’ve done that with the young adult residence program (SOYL) that a number of you have created.

Jon: It’s incredible! It didn’t turn out like we thought. We didn’t reach the people that we thought we would. We created a residential program to disciple young men and women. We started locally about the same time that 1,000 Young Leaders started at PLI.

We’ve had 28 of them come through, most of Polynesian decent. Thirteen of them are in 1,000 young leaders now. They’re gaining more skills for sharing their faith. Building relationships. Inviting people into community. Leading!

What we’ve experienced is just amazing. The Gospel just changes lives! Its powerful!

Jock: So why is the Gospel so powerful in the lives of these young men and women?

Jon: I think most of them were raised in a very law-oriented faith. A clear instruction of what you should be and do but also a reminder that you could never achieve it. So, when they started learning about Jesus—that He completed the sacrifice for their sins with His life, death and resurrection; and they didn’t have to achieve anything and could experience grace; It was done for them—it just exploded. And they exploded.

Jock: So, Jon, the West Coast is a difficult place to minister as a Christian pastor.

Jon: It’s a different world. I do a lot of listening. We have a great congregation. I had a seminary professor way back when. He used a simple illustration that I’ve never forgotten. He drew a circle in the middle of the board. He said: This is the Gospel. It never changes. Then he drew a much bigger circle around the Gospel circle, and said: This is the world. It’s always changing. The Gospel is your home. But you need to live in the world with the Gospel in such a way that it changes the world.

One thing is for sure. It has to start with listening. If you’re not listening to people’s lives, people’s stories, you’ll never have a chance for the never-changing Gospel to change people’s lives. That’s what I love about 1,000 Young Leaders (and Multipli’s Genesis Leader). Participants learn how to be comfortable listening to people, understanding, learning where the Gospel can change lives.

And yes, it’s difficult here. We have congregations where no one is under the age of 50 or 60. Small churches. Fewer than 25 people. Members get tired. They’ve been faithfully leading for decades. There’s no one to pass the responsibilities to.

We have churches that employ what I call “magical thinking.” “If we just get a young pastor in our church, it will solve everything. We can do what we’ve always done and it will start to work again.” But it just doesn’t work that way.

Jock: I’ve said sometimes that in our own denomination we have 6,000 congregations thinking they just need “one better pastor than the one they have” who will solve all of their problems.

Jon: And nobody realizes that we’re setting our pastors up to fail. There’s no way they can lead us back to a world that no longer exists.

Jock: So, why do you stay? Being a pastor is challenging anywhere these days… but it could certainly be less challenging.

Jon: I joke that I stay because I have a rare form of cancer and my treatment is at Stanford. But, seriously, I’ve pledged to our congregation that as long as they’re willing to take risks and stretch for the sake of the Gospel that can transform our changing world, I want to stay and be a part of it.

So what you think? If we can’t lead ourselves back to a reality that no longer exists, what would it look like to embrace the future with Jesus? What does this look like in your context? Share your thoughts in the comments, and check back next week for the conclusion of my interview with Jon.

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