Church Life Cycles and the Failure to Pass the Baton to Our Young Adults

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Churches don’t appear out of nowhere. Someone has to start them. Starting a church requires vision, courage, and energy. It requires people who are willing to take risks for the kingdom of God. There are a lot of churches that were started 40-60 years ago that have reached a stage that makes keeping young adults around very challenging. Over time church leaders often have less vision and energy in the twilight years than they had in the infancy stages of the church. What also tends to happen is that as church leaders age, the input and influence on decision making gets held onto by those “elder statesmen” who invested their whole lives into the congregation. No one wants to challenge them out of respect for their life’s work. They don’t want to be challenged by the young people who haven’t yet invested their whole lives into the congregation as they have. The church comes to an impasse that is never communicated but exists under the surface or just by default. Rather than challenge the system and lead where there is no room or permission given to lead by those in authority, young people often go to a place where their voice will be heard and valued.

As churches age and leadership ages, it is vitally important that they give the same room to young leaders that was given to them in their early years. Because that baton has largely been failed to be passed by one generation to the next that we have lost many of our best young adults and will continue to lose them and not reach new ones. So if you are in leadership, always be looking for ways to pass the baton. Keep developing new leaders. Remember, we all get replaced eventually and we don’t want to leave the church in a spot where no one is ready to take on the next set of leadership challenges. That means equipping people in their teens and twenties.

10 Responses

  1. Excellent thoughts. One of the sentence I really keyed on was “Keep DEVELOPING new leaders”. I am one of these young people and will openly admit there is a lack of development, desire and commitment from a lot of my generation. I tend to openly wish for baton passing, but in the same sentence will clarify the need for many Young People to commit. Of course, there are nuances to “how” you develop these folks and so forth, which I would love to see you elaborate on (or point me in the direction where to go if you already have).

    1. You can get some of the from my 3 talks at the Harding Lectures last week. You can find the talk #s and link in the previous post –

      There are a few ways to develop leaders from among our young people. I am going to list a few but I really hope people will listen to all 3 sessions (which I will blog about later) because this gets us into some really deep water that will often require some healthy change if things are actually going to work. In other words, we can’t just imitate someone else’s practices without changing the underlying church/leadership culture in the areas in which it is unhealthy. Session 1 in that audio addresses that. Session 2 & 3 works through how changing church culture (to a more biblical one) impacts and drives our actual practices. Enough on that…

      A few things we have tried:
      – Have young adults mentor, teach, and hang out with the teens.
      – Provide space for intergenerational fellowship. One of our problems is the older and younger don’t know each other. That often leads to at least mild distrust. You don’t hand off leadership responsibilities to someone you don’t trust. So spend time with people of different generations.
      – Pilot programs/ministries – launch someone on a smaller scale (not congregation wide) and give them a place in the leadership of that ministry, potentially along with a few older Christians. Benefit is, the risks are low, community and service is formed/done with another generation of older Christians, trust is earned, and they get experience
      – We have actually made a few of our 20s & 30s deacons. Sometimes co-deacons with an older deacon and sometimes just stand-alone deacons over an entire area.
      – Provide them feedback. Be patient when the fail. Give them room to grow.

      There are more things but that is a start.

    2. While it may be good that you made some 20-39 years olds deacons, that sometimes adds fuel to the fire because in most churches, a deacon must be male, married, and have children. Today, that is sometimes very hard to do within a particular timeframe and given the current economic climate. Also, you leave out females, men who aren’t married, or married men who don’t have children. Why don’t you all try the committee approach which does not leave out so many people?

    3. It hasn’t added any fuel to any fire here. We have guys who are qualified and capable and so we make them deacons if and when they match a particular ministry need.

      We have tried the committee approach and mentioned it in my previous comment when I talked about using pilot projects/ministries and putting them in leadership positions with people of other ages.

  2. Matt, I think you’ve got your finger on one of the largest institutional problems Churches have. It’s incredibly difficult for us to be generationally generous. Not just our senior saints, but young adults as well. One of the more interesting dynamics of church life today is having 5 generations in our churches…how do we help such diverse ways of viewing the world/gospel/jesus/community come together?

    1. I was talking with one of our senior members a while back. He is in his late 80s and he asked what the church was going to do for his age group. Some people talk like only the young people think that way.

      I really think there is going to be a shift in thinking (that has already begun in some areas) away from age-segregated ministries to either fully age-integrated churches or a hybrid approach (which is what we do) where some ages have one environment that is for their group but then everything else they do is intergenerational. This is going to happen as people begin to see the damage that was done by disconnecting the children, teens and even young adults from the rest of the church and then wonder why they drop out later on. They develop faith in a group rather than faith in Jesus. Remove the group and they quit. So you have to get them integrated into the larger body from day 1. Then there really isn’t a big transition that they have to make because their identity is about being the body of Christ and not just in being the arm or an ear.

  3. It shows that both ends of the productive life span may feel disconnected or alienated, and therefore unproductive. So who is the assumed “middle,” from whom they feel excluded? 🙂 Sadly, it’s often another isolated group.

  4. Jennifer, They are excluded from the group in charge of running the show. That generally starts at age 55 and goes to 70 and is typically a homogenous group.

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