We often disregard the important assets that adults under forty can offer us. In the denominational church, leadership positions are given to people who prove themselves in some way. Usually they’re people who have a great deal of influence, time, or money. This makes sense. As a church builds its leadership, as pastors and committees search congregations for elders and deacons, they look for the strongest possible links to make up that leadership chain, and if that person has established themselves in a community by gaining power, donating time, or giving money, then it’s likely that they will be a solid leader in the church. They will use their influence positively, put in the valuable hours, and devote their resources to the work and mission of the church. Every congregation needs these important commodities to minister effectively.
The problem is that young people usually do not have power, time, or money. But they have other things: potential, creativity, imagination, vision, and ideas. As the modern philosopher Hannah Arendt explains in The Life of the Mind, if we look at a person’s lifespan in a linear fashion, we can see that a person at the beginning of the line looks forward, while a person at the end of the line looks backward. Younger people have a natural orientation toward planning while older people have an inclination to reminisce.
If we follow Hannah Arendt’s logic as a general rule—a rule that has many, many exceptions—we might understand that young people are planners, while older people are historians. Since our denominational churches have so many older people in leadership, we become trapped in a pattern where we desire the past: conservatives pine away for the 1950s and liberals long for the 1960s.
This becomes clear in the photographs we display in our fellowship hall. We place the black and white photos on our walls, and look at how our congregations used to be, with hundreds of people lined up in front of the doors of the church, with all of the young families and children, hands to their sides, hair neatly combed, and leather shoes shining. It’s wonderful to learn about these important periods in our history. But if the energy, vision, and wall space of the church focuses on recreating a time when the congregation’s present young people were not even alive, trying to be part of a church becomes understandably frustrating for those in their twenties and thirties.
I remember being in seminary, constantly hearing about the days of mainline denominational glory, when prominent Protestant theologians made it on to the cover of Time magazine. I heard so many stories about the civil rights movement that I felt like I was sinking in the midst of this institutional longing for the past. A popular song by Jesus Jones was getting a lot of air time on the radio, and although Jesus Jones isn’t one of my favorite artists, each time this particular song played, I turned up my stereo as loud as I could bear it and would belt out the chorus:
Right here, right now, there is no other place I’d rather be.
Right here, right now, watching the world wake up from history.
You see, I wanted to enjoy my youth while I was still living it. I didn’t want to spend my time yearning for someone else’s glory days, and I was certainly not interested in going through an institutional midlife crisis in my twenties.
A leadership crisis exists, but it’s not because of a lack of talent and resources from younger generations, it’s because the church can get so caught up in trying to recreate those Norman Rockwell days that we forget to look at where we are—right here, right now.
Excerpted from Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation , copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation by Carol Howard Merritt
Outlining the financial, social, and familial situations that affect many young adults today, Carol Howard Merritt describes how churches can provide a safe, supportive place for young adults that both nurtures relationships and fosters spiritual growth. There are few places left in society that allow for real intergenerational connections to be made, yet these connections are vital for any church that seeks to reflect the fullness of the body of Christ.
Lending Your Leadership: How Pastors Are Redefining Their Role in Community Life by Nelson Granade
Drawing on his own and other pastors’ work as community leaders, Granade shows that clergy possess invaluable resources for working with people, are trained to look for God’s bigger view and patient working, and understand that asking the right questions is as important as finding the right answers. He offers numerous models for clergy involvement in their broader communities and encourages clergy to reclaim their unique leadership role.