‘Here come the young’ is a song by Welsh singer, Martyn Joseph, that popped up in my Spotify feed recently. I love Joseph’s gritty songwriting and this is no exception. In it Joseph describes an emerging generation who are discontent with the world they live in and are wanting to make a difference.
In some ways its a protest song, while in others it is an anthem speaking to those of us who occupy the positions of influence, effectively saying ‘best get out of the way… Here come the young.’
A few years back when I was ruminating on stepping back from my pastoral team leader roles I had an experience much like Joseph sings about. I would sit in team meetings with the emerging leaders in our church and I would feel their energy, passion and desire to serve and I became aware of a voice in the back of my mind quietly saying ‘get out of the way… get out of the way...’ And it wasn’t a threatening or hostile voice – it was an invitation to step aside and trust that the Spirit of God is able to take hold of a new generation of leaders and empower them to step up and lead the church in directions that are fit for this time in history.
Next year I turn 60 and I know I bring some valuable wisdom and experience to any leadership crew I am part of, but I simply can’t help but see the world thru 60 year old eyes. It’s who I am. I feel energetic, passionate and keen to keep contributing, but I am willing to no longer be a primary voice. I really want to release the emerging generation to do things how they see fit – realising that it may not be how I see it. And I want to be ok with that – even if at times I don’t feel ok with it.
I sense this is something the broader ‘we’ ought to do. We – as the church – are predominantly led by middle-aged to ‘aging’ pastors who are often good and faithful, but we can only be who we are. I feel we may need to intentionally, purposefully move aside in some ways to allow younger people space to lead – and really lead. Right now I don’t sense many of them are stepping up to leadership, but I wonder if that is partly because we haven’t opened doors that genuinely invite them in and seeks their contribution and co-leadership rather than just their assistance with smaller tasks.
In one of his recent podcasts Patrick Lencioni addresses the ‘E Word’ – empowerment – and how we often fail to realise what it is we are actually saying and doing when we say we ’empower’. In essence (he says) we are giving away power to another. We are trusting that person to make decisions and to lead. How do you feel giving away your power to someone half your age – or younger?
If I’m honest I sometimes feel that people half my age are inexperienced, untested and may blow things up. But I also know that I feel that because I have been doing it for 31 years. I remember how I felt at 26 as I launched into a life of ministry. I always deferred to older people and to what I assumed was wisdom – even though I now know that sometimes it was prejudice and fear. There were a few who empowered, but also many who resisted a 26 year old approach to mission and ministry. I remember writing what I still believe was an excellent article for the local community newspaper about our church’s guest services (quite an innovation for 1991) and being castigated by one of our elders because the story didn’t mention the Bible. I remember older people literally walking out of services led by youth because they were playing drums. I remember bering reprimanded by an older woman for calling the disciples ‘guys’ in my sermon when they are ‘men’. Fortunately I am fairly tough and I came away disappointed and angry from these encounters rather than ruined by them. But the tendency to squash what we do not presently understand is in all of us. I feel like we have to trust that the Spirit is able to work in younger people in the way that he wants to.
Plenty of us older leaders have been found wanting lately with moral and relational failures so we certainly can’t hold any high ground. I want to suggest that one of the best things we can do to contribute to the future of the Christian church in the western world is to genuinely ‘get out of the way’ and identify, encourage and empower the leaders who God will raise up.
Joseph sings ‘Here come the young‘, but if we are honest they aren’t ‘coming’ in church land. We aren’t seeing high quality leaders chaffing at the bit to make their contribution.
Why is this?…
Maybe because they have heard that we don’t need them or want them. Maybe because they sense that we aren’t willing to release them to choose the path they feel will best serve the future church.
If we want to see the church flourish in 40-50 years time then I sense it won’t be because a bunch of us held the fort faithfully right to the end. I sense it will happen as we genuinely identify and empower 20-30 year olds to form a significant, core part of our leadership, as we step away from positions of power and as we invite them into those spaces to lead us and help us connect with a changing world.
I am not for a moment saying that those of us who are older have reached our use by date. I hope the next 20 years of my life are spent empowering and cheering on young people. I hope that I can hold my nerve and not freak out at ideas that don’t compute with my way of seeing the world. I hope I can allow them to both succeed and fall and that I won’t stand in the way of their ideas that I can’t make sense of. I hope that as I am present to support, that my voice and experience may prove valuable at some stage in their journey.
I remember as an 18 year old feeling I had a contribution to make to church leadership – feeling disappointed with the general lack of vision and ability to connect with the culture I observed in the broader church. I had plenty of opinions and some of them were poorly informed, but I am grateful for the older men who recognised the good in me – who encouraged me, guided me, corrected me and ultimately created space for me to lead effectively in the Christian church. From John Thornhill, to Peter Birt and John Randell to Garth Wootton and then Steve Smith – a group of older men created space for me to become the person I needed to be – not the person who simply fitted the mould.
This week I sat in a room focused on strategic planning for our denomination and while I was surrounded by many good and faithful people, the faces absent were ‘the young’. I can’t help but feel that a process akin to what we engaged with on that day would be valuable to repeat with an under 35 set. I wonder what insights we would unearth and I wonder if we may find a way to genuinely create space for their voice to shape the future of our churches.
Whatever the demographic information may convey (good or bad) about millennials and Gen Z the simple reality is that one day quite soon my generation will be dead and we will be relying on these people to lead the church. If we have so conditioned them to only lead in our way and if we stand guard against new thinking then we will find ourselves again 2 steps behind the culture and wondering where we have gone wrong.
Perhaps if we ‘got out of the way’ now and courageously invited younger voices into spaces of power and influence then maybe we will see a church unlike the one we are familiar with, but that is effective in ways we have never been.
Just a thought…