Church, Make Room for Young Leaders

What some aging Christians need from the younger generation is an invitation to lean into the local church, and not retreat or retire.

But others from the older generation need a different challenge — a summons to lay aside suspicion of everyone young enough to be your child, a charge to dispose of a derogatory view of the real-live specimen of the next generation. And, in particular, some older leaders need to hear a plea not to get off the bus, but to aggressively make room for young leaders at the front.

Do Not Despise the Young

It was a two-part charge the aging apostle gave to his younger-generation protégé in 1 Timothy 4:12: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” One part goes to the Millennials (born 1980–2000), along with Gen X (1965–1979): By exhibiting model Christian posture in word and deed, give the older generation no good cause for despising your youth.

But the second part is for the Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964), and those before them, who overhear the directive like the Ephesian church reading Paul’s letter over Timothy’s shoulder: By exuding a model Christian disposition toward brothers and sisters in Christ, give the younger generation the benefit of the doubt. Don’t expect the worst of fellow believers, regardless of their age. Let the gospel go to work on your subtle age-prejudice.

Create Space for New Leadership

Larry Osborne is one pastor and author pioneering the way forward on the massive leadership transition that is just under way between the Baby Boomers and their Millennial progeny. Whether in business, government, or the church, many are already feeling the tensions, as what was America’s largest generation now awkwardly gives way to its more numerous offspring.

Osborne makes the observation that on the high school and college campus, it seems “the freshmen always get smaller.” As we age, each year’s crop of incoming students seems less impressive than the class before. If that’s true of just four years on the campus, what about the long arc of adult life? In the church, says Osborne,

The seniors never graduate (at least not until they’ve become literal seniors and start dying off). They hog the leadership table, shutting out the next generation. It’s one of the main reasons that most churches stop growing and lose their evangelistic touch (and cultural relevance) around the twenty-year mark. (Sticky Teams, 114)

Let Young Eagles Fly

The Christian vision for leadership is not a tenure model in which whoever’s been around longest occupies the seats of privilege and prominence as long as they want. Rather, it’s about laboring pro-actively and assertively to raise up younger leaders to fill our slot, and do our job better than we did. Which gets at the Great Commission essence of making disciples (Matthew 28:19) and applies it to church leadership.

But such a vision of leadership is costly. There’s a price to pay, says Osborne.

Leadership is a zero-sum game. One person’s emerging influence is always another person’s waning influence. That’s why making room for the young eagles is a hard sell, especially to those who already have a seat at the table. (114)

Such a deferential and self-humbling dream for raising up new leaders may seem farfetched in government and business, but shouldn’t it have its best chance in the church, where we follow one who came not to be served, but to serve (Mark 10:45)? Do we not believe that true greatness is in service, not in lording it over and exercising authority (Mark 10:42)? We aim “in humility [to] count others more significant” and “look not only to [our] own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3–4).

But are we not, then, compromising wisdom in church leadership by replacing some qualified members of the older generation with those from the younger?

Let the Young Speak

A generation ago, on Sunday morning, August 29, 1982 — with the first of the Millennials still in diapers — 36-year-old Baby Boomer John Piper took up Job 32:7–11 and preached on the young man Elihu. The sermon title was “Let the Young Speak.” That night the church would be ordaining 27-year-old Tom Steller, and Piper wanted to prepare his congregation of gray heads for laying hands on such a spring chicken. The key verses were Job 32:8–9: “It is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand. It is not the old who are wise, nor the aged who understand what is right.” Said Piper,

The lesson Elihu teaches us here is that it is not age that brings wisdom but the Spirit of God. There is no necessary correlation between gray hair and good theology. There is no necessary connection between a wizened face and a wise heart. . . .

Of course, there is, then, no necessary connection between youth and wisdom, either. What Elihu has done is remove age as the dominant consideration in deciding who is wise and understanding. He teaches us that there may be folly in the old and folly in the young; wisdom in the young and wisdom in the old. When we search for a source of wisdom, we do not end our search with the question, “How old is he?” We end it with the question, “Who has the Spirit of wisdom and understanding?”

Make Room at the Table

So alongside the plea to the older generation to not abandon the younger for “retirement” is also this request: Don’t frown on us young adults, and think we’re fools, because we’re young. In Christ, and by his Spirit, be on the lookout for the best, and let us have a chance to show you that not all of us are as bad as you might expect.

And for the advance of the gospel and the good of the church tomorrow and today, don’t keep us locked out of leadership. Take the extra initiative to make room at the table for multiple younger voices, and please put in the energy to really hear us out. Before long, the younger generation will be driving the ship. Better to begin handing over the wheel sooner than later, and make the transition a tribute to the age-defying wisdom of God.