When a young person is searching for a church, they are wanting something authentic, not religious. They want to see people living out the gospel in all they do—with transparency. The more open we are about our lives, the more willing a person from the next generation is to follow a leader whose character reflects that of Christ. Hearing stories of how older brothers and sisters in Christ struggled with things like depression, doubts, family issues, marital problems, and the normal things that life throws our way, gives us credibility. It does not take it away.
In the church landscape years ago, a pastor was almost to be looked upon as sinless. The next generation will not buy into that lie because of all the stories we have at our fingertips. We see how hard life is, and we want a leader who admits his faults and is open about them, rather than someone who sweeps them under the rug and acts sinless.
It’s hard the first time we tell people that we struggle with sin too, but it makes us real people and breaks down the wall that exists between congregant and clergy.
One time at a marriage event, three older couples shared about marriage—but only the good side. Nothing ever seemed tumultuous in any of their marriages. One guy in his early 30s was irritated. “Well this is all apple pies and roses, but have any of you guys ever come close to getting a divorce?” he asked. That question opened up a 10-minute answer from one of the couples and everyone left respecting the couple more. That wall was broken down and discipleship happened in that moment.
Change sticky processes
One sticky spot that leaders and churches sometimes get into is in their processes. Sometimes processes have been functioning so long that people do not even think about how they affect new people coming into the church. It is better to have a clear line of communication about what we are doing, rather than just hoping everything is going well.
Two simple rules of thumb to help with this: First, if we do not understand the process as a leader or congregant, open it up to change. Second, if we are making decisions based on who the person is in the church rather than the policy established, don’t do it. Policies are always developed to protect churches from abuse from sinful man. We all struggle with sin, and if we aren’t honest about that, we open ourselves to scrutiny from the next generation.
But transparency—both personally and in processes—is required for effective leadership.
One of the fastest ways to create an authentic and transparent culture in the church is by changing how leadership is done. Most churches with minimal next-gen attendance have a model where leadership is hoarded by a few people.
When we talk about changing how leadership is done, the issue is how we give away leadership. When we notice a person’s giftedness, that is the time to let them have some leadership that gives them ownership.
One of the worst things a church can do is treat the next generation as if they have nothing to offer, to say they are “the leaders of the future,” or that they simply need them to fill or work the nursery. Young leaders bring creativity to the table. They bring new ideas in a world that is constantly changing. We need this vibrant energy in our churches, but we must also be willing to let go of the reins of leadership in order to let them reach their full potential in Christ.
While in church leadership, I had a student who often attended, but she did not really seem to be part of the group. She had good character. She grew up in a Christian home, but something was not clicking. Then at a large event we held, I gave her a responsibility, along with her friend. I was shocked at how well the task was done. When their leadership potential was unlocked, they became strong leaders. Before that, it seemed they were withering, because they were not being taught how to lead.
We cannot expect the next generation to be content to wait until they are 40 or 50 to lead in church, while they can lead in the world during their teenage years. We are sucking the very vibrancy out of them when we do this.
Empower, then send
Along with giving away leadership, we must be willing to empower people and send them out. I have heard stories of people feeling called to church planting and talking to their pastor, thinking they would get some sort of support. Instead they were told they should go get an internship. They received no training from the church, and no offer to process their sense of calling in the place that was home to them. The pastor’s response was basically an invitation to go somewhere else.
This shows the heart of the leader. It says, “If you are not here to help me, you do not matter to me.” This kind of leadership drives away younger people, because they want to be a part of something larger than a man’s kingdom.
This empowerment process I’m advocating is not easy. It requires a church who is raising up disciple makers to engage people as God calls them, knowing that ultimately they will be sent out to new ministry fields.
That sounds easy at first, until we unpack the fears that haunt us. If the ones we send out are great at evangelizing, who will replace them? If they are great small group leaders, will their group members eventually leave with them? If they have irreplaceable singing voices, who will lead worship?
It is hard to lose people from our churches. It is even harder to send them out intentionally, but it is healthy. “Empowering, then sending” shows the people we care about the spread of the gospel. If we care about our people, if we care about the kingdom of God, we will be able to put ego, money, job security, and church traditions aside, and raise up leaders to help in the task of reaching the world.
Focus on mission
This leads us into the last point. If we are being transparent but miss the mission, if we are raising up leaders but miss the mission, we will still find an absence of young people in our churches.
The next generation wants to see the church using its resources and strength pushing back darkness with all things it is doing. They do not want to be entertained. They do not want the state-of-the-art audio/visual equipment if they do not see the church loving their community.
One great example of this is churches paying off medical debt of people in the community. I have seen this happen multiple times, where a church takes up an offering and finds a way to bless their community. This excites the next generation because the church is loving the community well.
Given the choice between blessing the community and building a new building, most of us would think the new building would be the greater blessing. However, the outside world sees a new building and wonders, “How is that benefiting everyone? Why are you spending so much for just eight hours of use a week?” The lost world does not think, “Wow, that is a beautiful building, I think I might go to church today to use it.”
Mission is above everything. It has to be front and center all the time.
If reaching the next generation is one of our goals, we must consider the impact of our decisions on them. And wise leaders will ask for input on how younger people will view their decisions.
This affects transparency, and it also affects leadership. They weave together to bring the next generation into our churches and to create bonds.
Transparent, authentic leadership doesn’t consider Millennials as “the next generation” but starts treating them as brothers and sisters in Christ with much to offer right now—just like everyone else.