A US report indicates only one in seven senior pastors is under the age of 40. It’s a Barna Research piece so it’s got some cred. You can read the Christianity Today report here.
The research lists nine reasons for the collapse in the younger pastor demographic, which also shows the average age for a senior pastor is 54, compared to just 44 years of age in 1992.
FWIW, here are the nine they list:
- Demographic: Not only are millennials the largest adult generation in terms of sheer numbers, they are also the most ethnically, culturally, and spiritually diverse (unlike many of our churches).
- Social: Young people are generally going through the shaping experiences of adulthood at later ages than did previous generations—yet most of our churches are designed with families in mind.
- Economic: The economic pressures on middle-class and working families are being passed on to local churches, and the financial and ministry implications are immense.
- Vocational: The landscape of work is shifting toward a gig-oriented, multi-careering, freelance terrain, and there is profound need for a robust theology of vocational discipleship.
- Institutional: People get the information they want, when they want, for the price they want to pay. “Disintermediated institutions”—including churches—are no longer the sole mediators of knowledge, and pastors no longer the chief authority.
- Legal: Particularly when it comes to holding historically orthodox beliefs about human sexuality, Christian institutions are at increasing risk of running afoul of the law.
- Digital: The “screen age” requires adaptive approaches to community and discipleship. “Digital Babylon” is an always-on, hyperlinked, immersive culture where Christians must learn to live and thrive as exiles.
- Moral: Society’s moral center is shifting away from external sources of authority (the Bible, Christian tradition) to the self: You look inside yourself to find what’s best for you.
- Spiritual: “Nones,” or the religiously unaffliated, are the fastest growing religious group in the nation. Nominal, cultural Christianity is no longer the “default position” of Americans—and this reality is challenging the Church to reevaluate faith formation.
Let me add a tenth to that – a theological reason – A Poor Ecclesiology. And it’s this tenth one that could be allowing the other nine listed above to set the agenda.
How so? Well, for the past fifteen to twenty years we have seen a plethora of books, conferences, blogs, movements etc, that have not only questioned the special nature and role of the gathered people of God, but have actively pushed against it. Go to your local Christian bookstore and you realise that when the kingdom is everything, then nothing is the kingdom. The church is no longer viewed as the locus of God’s work on earth. And where it is, it’s supposed to be completely fluid to the point that it’s hard to see where the church begins and the world ends, and vice versa.
The idea that the Kingdom can be experienced, viewed, seen, tasted in a gathered community around King Jesus called church has fallen out of fashion – and fast. Faced with a pendulum swing that located all godly endeavour around church work (secular work being only good for providing money for church to do ministry), the pendulum has swung hard the other way.
This pushback against the gathered, local church stated that kingdom work was whatever social justice endeavour you could apply yourself to. The apparent truth of this was doubled down by the increasing hostility towards the established church by the culture. So not only was there a poor ecclesiology from within, there was suspicion and animosity from without. Together these were a pincer that squeezed the desire out of many younger skinny jeans Christians (in the almost immortal words of Scott McKnight) to pursue pastoral ministry vocationally. Nowadays church based pastoral ministry has all of the allure of three-day-old smashed avocado.
Let’s face it. There were no kudos to be had in doing work for Jesus that involved preaching the Word, pastoring the flock or creating frameworks for church leaders to flourish and do evangelism. Especially no kudos for doing evangelism.
But working in a Third World setting bringing “real change”? The world loved it because it was doing it too and it didn’t involve any of that crazy proselytising that is so old fashioned, bigoted and imperial.
And the church increasingly loved it too as you stood out the front prior to your trip and narrated how you were “going to make a real difference” in the world rather than proclaiming a message that was hopelessly mired in western theological assumptions anyway. You’d be out on the frontline doing real change, while they’d be sitting in meetings, preaching increasingly irrelevant sermons and fattening already well-fed parishioners who should be giving more, who should be spending less time with their families and more time with their neighbours, and who should be ashamed of themselves more often.
And that’s not an apocryphal story. A mate working in mission overseas said that churches back home just loved hearing his stories about how he could make that real difference (i.e, not preaching gospel), and that money would flow when he talked about meeting real needs, but as soon as he started amping up the gospel talk, and reaching people with the message of King Jesus as his primary goal, interest waned.
Now let me say at this point that I do not view work “out there” as somehow a lesser thing than work “in here”. Nor do I think that the function of work is to simply line the pockets of the church to do the “real work”. No, we were created by a working Creator to work, and work is in and of itself a good thing.
Indeed I am at pains to say to our congregation that my role as their pastor is not to enable them to do my job better, but to equip them to do their jobs better as they go out to serve and love and work in Babylon. And perhaps the lack of saying that on an ongoing basis is part of the reason many under forties aren’t going in to pastoral church ministry – they simply don’t see a church leadership that values what everyone else is doing Monday to Friday.
But be that as it may, I think our enervated ecclesiology is central to the problem, and we’re experiencing the perfect storm of bad theology and hostile culture when it comes to the church.
I don’t have time to go into it here, and I have reviewed McKnight on this issue elsewhere (read my review here), but basically I am with him on this, so let me quote him again from his excellent Kingdom Conspiracy:
“The kingdom is the people who are redeemed and ruled by King Jesus in such a way that they live as a fellowship under King Jesus. That is there is a king (Jesus), a rule (by Jesus as Lord), a people (the church), a land (wherever Jesus’ kingdom people are present), and a law (following Jesus through the power of the Spirit).”
And as usual, if you want to argue with McKnight, you’ll have to do it with Scripture, cos he’ll ask for chapter and verse and context and other crazy stuff like that!
If you’ve got push back on this, then I invite you to read McKnight’s book and see what he says. Then if you think it’s right, as opposed to whether or not you like it, (those two things are different sometimes you see), then gird your skinny jeans loins and think about what it might mean to invest in local church ministry for the next thirty to forty years as the culture presses harder against you, the congregation grows increasingly frantic, and the voice of gospel proclamation falls increasingly silent. Compared to that, digging wells in Africa is easy.