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.
The equilibrium curve tracking the supply and demand for pastors is way out of whack:
Christian churches are dying/closing left and right; six in my town in the last ten years.
Surviving church search committees are generally overwhelmed with candidates for any opening; it’s a buyer’s market.
Older pastors are hanging on and filling in much more often, in this less than robust economic cycle.
Those are the realities of a very real material world.
Praise God, for our dual citizenship in an incorruptible spiritual realm.
Praise God, skinny jeans and all.
Here’s a problem with the skinny jeans generation and why they aren’t pursuing pastoring vocationally: selfishness. They are a bunch of egoistic brats.
Dear brother, please excuse this tearful (literally) view. It is NOT a criticism of what you’ve written. This was excellent. PTL! Please forgive me. I am scared, because I don’t want to wound, but I am going to pour my heart out. I beg your forgiveness in advance. My hope is that someone will see this as a “conversation.”
This makes me cry. Especially the comments above. I ma literally tearful as I write this. Tearful for the Bride I love. As a 38-year-old man converted seven years ago to Christ, there is no place for me in modern vocational ministry in America. The song of my heart is to LEARN the Word of God, and to make disciples. I BEG men stronger in the faith to mentor me, disciple me, and teach me. They’re all too busy. Vocational ministry as unappealing? No way! The idea of spending 80 hours per week pouring over the texts, praying, meeting with young men, and staying up all night counseling the faithful is something I desire more than breath!
But there is NO mechanism for a man to transition into this life after high school. The pastors are too busy running programs to be actively asking in prayer, “Lord, whom would you raise up as my Joshua today? Into whom shall I pour? Whom are you calling out in my flock?” Even Jesus spent a whole night praying before choosing to invest his whole ministry in just 12 men! Do we ask, “God, whom would you have me impact?” Too often, we functionally ask, “God, will you bless our program”?
Your first objection will be to assume that I want to be “in charge” of something. Nope. Toilet scrubber. That’s for me! Seriously. I get all giddy like a school boy! I am not asking to be annointed King today. Heavy is the head that wears that crown! The Bible is serious about the admonition that those in that role will suffer more than the others. If God will allow, I will skip it. Plus, I would prefer what obscurity will buy me in heaven. I manage people at work, so I’m not particularly jazzed about being in charge of everyeone…when they can take my “food” away! I get jazzed putting away tables or scooping scrambled eggs. It MAKES may day! I’m simply asking – nay, BEGGING – to be discipled by a man. Aside from those I am discipling, no one pours into me in a more intimate way than a Podcast. And believe me, I am still looking. And praying.
Your next objection will be to assume that I want to do it all “my way” and you’ll think I won’t support anyone else’s ministry. That is not the case! My family and I are in the house of the Lord whenever the doors are open. When the pastors or staff ask for volunteers, we raise our hands. Our family motto is, “Be the guy that says, ‘Yes’.” My wife wishes I would say, “No” more often! I get so much joy knowing that those in my congregation KNOW they can call me and I will commit and then be there! All glory be to God; because I wasn’t that way before He saved me!
So maybe my problem is that I don’t want to study and learn? Nope. I spend as many hours a week as I can listening to preaching, using Internet resources to study Greek, e-mailing questions to professors and pastors that will respond, doing (and studying) Biblical Counseling (for what I hope may someday be a certification), and eating with the lost and the broken (“food” ministry!). I consume free Greek and Hebrew classes, OT and NT history classes, theology classes for free wherever and whenever I can get them. Praise God for the Internet age! But alas, I didn’t go the “traditional way”, so no one prioritizes regular time to be an older (in the faith?) friend and disciple me.
So I just must not be willing to go to seminary, right? Everyone automatically asks, “Where did you get your seminary degree from?” I didn’t. And, to be honest, I would LOVE to do so. I have almost clicked that “apply” button so many times. I dream about it at night. Literally. No, really. Literally. But I need to balance working to pay the bills, being a father/husband, and the ministry that we do to love families. Having anguished over this in prayer, to go to seminary with things as they are now would mean to quit my job (impossible if I want my kids to eat) or quit ministry (?). What would God have me do? Stop loving my neighbor so that I can study loving my neighbor?
Don’t hear me say that I am against seminary. I LONG to go to Seminary! I CRAVE to be under an authority who can help me learn the deeper things of God. If I could sit and listen to an Albert Mohler, or a Justin Taylor, or a John MacArthur (or ANY of the brilliant men of God at their institutions!), I’m not sure that wouldn’t be the closest thing to heaven on this side of Heaven! But God has not chosen to open that door just yet. I podcast, but being in the room while John Piper teaches is like being in the Holy of Holies. This isn’t worship of men. This is simply saying that there are SO many men I would love to learn from! But without a degree and a snug “fit” into the cookie-cutter, most men of God say with their actions, “I’ll invest in you when you get serious enough to invest in a degree.”
Jesus CHOSE his disciples. They didn’t choose Him. So a teen with some zeal says, “I want to go to seminary,” and we happily pray over him and give him a scholarship to go off to seminary. Having demonstrated nothing of the gifts required for pastoral leadership, either he burns our or fails to demonstrate those traits after seminary. Was he “called” or did he just “decide”? What would it be like if the Church “knew” before we “sent”? But congregations don’t seem to be praying over and imploring God, “Whom are you raising up among us to send out, Lord?” Congregations are not seeking those gifted for ministry in their midst. They’re relying on seminaries to do the hard work of “vetting” ministers. While seminaries can do an EXCELLENT job of teaching facts and basics, only God makes a Pastor. In corporate America, we say, “Hire your replacement.” Do we “disciple our Timothys”?
So I guess you should probably just conclude that I’m probably bitter. Admittedly, I am a sinner, so it is a struggle at times. I’m obviously not further along because God needs to burn of my “self”. Praise Him for this mercy! But this season of my life has been SOOO rich! God has blessed me to see Him in amazing ways! The ministry we are allowed to serve Him in lifts my soul! Even better, I learn every day that I was/am WAY too flawed yet to be effective for Him in any role, so I am am VERY content to be discipled an serve. To be honest, I would rather remain where I am at (which means God probably won’t leave me there!).
But, alas, I feel invisible in the Church, and I empahtize with the young men out there who are sitting, waiting for a disciple maker to quit making programs and love a young man (or an older lady for a younger lady). So I see the older men asking, “Where are the disciples?” and many, many younger men asking, “Huh?” I wonder if I am the only one who feels this way. What I know is this:
Jesus CAME! If we are to be the Kingdom of people that we claim to be, we will represent Him when we stop inviting people to the committee meeting and start praying, and knocking on people’s doors, and having them at our dinner tables. When I sit in more homes in a week than I do committee meetings, maybe something will begin to look different. Let us love one another as we do life. Let us “recapture” good, old-fashioned friendship. How radical would that be in today’s culture!? These are not “laws” to be followed, but I think that I only have to wait. The continuing collapse of “Churchianity” will make the Church more visible than it has ever been in our lifetimes. Praise God who burns the dross from His Bride. We weep over those who leave, but we trust that Sovereign God perfectly balanced justice and mercy for those. And we hope until it pains our souls that we will see them in eternity. I am not a prophet, but I suspect that the Church will look a lot more like the early chapters of Acts than the corporatized social clubs we see today. I wonder if “bi-vocational” will be useful in that future.
I mean this as sincerely as I can say it: God has me RIGHT where He wants me. There is so much more “me” to be burned away. It is painful, but it is glorious beyond anything I could’ve imagined before Christ! Someday, if I can just be a door-stop in heaven, what a glorious day that will be! After what I’ve done and whom I’ve hurt (and continue to hurt), the Grace of Christ is EVERYTHING to me! Bar none! Knowing Him more deeply every day brings joy that I can’t explain. Each breath is a testament to grace, and his statement, “I’m not done with you there, yet.” Praise the Lord!
I love my pastors. I love my Church. I am not worthy to darken her doors apart from the Grace of Christ alone. If people are not making disciples in our congregations, it may not be that they are “poor students”. It may be that they are excellent students. It may be that they are being discipled in exactly what we do. It may be that we have some repentance to do. I am overjoyed to pray for this revival in the Lord. Because He loves His bride, He will bring it. My prayer is that I will see it on this side of Heaven. May it be so.
When I inhabited pews I was never that keen for my own age or younger as they had little to offer other than a paraphrase of an exegesis with borrowed life experience. I smile because currently it’s all Hawaiian shirts and chinos with gut.
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