by Ross Decker Sr
Sometimes, in sports, management tries to construct a team designed for the future. They stock their roster with young, unproven players and hope for victory down the road. Others, particularly my Yankees, are built to “win now.” The American evangelical church today faces that dilemma. Do they build their church for the future or do they build a church to win now?
Today’s church feels it needs to find the magic bullet. We read that young people are not as attracted to the church as they once were. Millennials are fleeing the church. Article after article, blog after blog, moan that the church is not connecting with young people. To combat that, the American Evangelical church has decided, en masse, as though the result of some hastily called secret meeting, to change the way things have been done. Let’s, they say, become more relevant.
It seems to me that, when young preachers come through their seminaries these days, they graduate with an eye as much as for business as for shepherding. The reasons I’ve heard given for this are pretty obvious. The goal is to build a large church. Large churches offer an opportunity to connect with a larger group of people. The visibility of a large church draws in not only the physical congregation but also an ancillary crowd on Vimeo as well as possible speaking engagements. I was told by one pastor that a large church increased the chances that my mother would “get saved.”
One strategy some local churches have embraced is to give young people a chance to “do” ministry. The thought is that, if you give them something significant to do they will come to love their church. This is opposite of what used to happen. It used to be that those who loved their church clamored for the opportunity to pitch in in a significant way.
When I was a Protestant I served as a church deacon with a man even older than I. He had a doctorate in chemistry. That made him smarter than me as well as wiser. He made a great point about “raising up the next generation” even before it became today’s church mantra. He told me that he wasn’t against training young people. In fact, that was one of the church’s main responsibilities. He insisted though, that the church trained young people in a way that benefitted the young people, not the church. The church was not to train young people in the hope of getting something back in their service to the congregation. The church was to train young people because it was the duty of the church to shepherd each individual in it, regardless of their age or their skill or their ability to give back. He also pointed out that, were you training people in hopes that they would serve your congregation for a long period of time, youth was exactly the wrong demographic. Young people are apt to go away to college, they marry and move away with their spouse, they get jobs which relocate them, they have tighter schedules with the birth of their children. He pointed out that a person in their forties or fifties, even their sixties, might well be in the congregation long after the current pastor moves on. The church is more likely to benefit from the older person’s stability and get a much longer time of service from them.
But, I think it’s deeper than just hoping you are investing for the future. Today’s Evangelical church is in the “win now” mode. Today, the American church worships youth. Young people in visible roles say that this is a church with a future. The best days are ahead. Marching under the banner of “raising up the next generation”, young people have been recruited to serve in areas where they are not fully skilled. Sometimes, the result is that they are simply in over their heads.
The incessant desire to give youth an opportunity to minister in the local church easily gets dangerous. There are some things youths are simply not capable of doing. They’re young. after all! Some things require not only skill but, also, maturity. When you put anyone in a position they aren’t equipped for, there’s a pretty good chance that disaster may follow. They do their job poorly. The result there is that the job is a failure and the unequipped person carries his failure with him for a long, long time to come.
I’ve seen where a few churches have begun using young teens as the worship leaders. As a general rule, I’m against it. However, I think it’s okay in the church where my granddaughter sometimes joins the worship team. I still think it’s wrong. I just don’t object! They look great, they generally perform well and are usually energetic. But those things often have little to do with leading worship well. I’m no singer, but my understanding is that worship comes from a far deeper place than good looks and ability. It isn’t merely hitting the right notes. Worship comes from an intimate relationship with our God which develops over time. It takes an experience of trial to testify that you trust the Lord. It takes having been heartbroken to sing about being comforted. And it takes a struggle with sin to sing of restoration. I also wonder if today’s worship leaders ought to be modeled on the worship leaders of the Bible. These leaders went before the nation of Israel into the battle. They carried the banner for the community. They were the first to encounter the enemy. That’s not a fair place to put our children. Worship leaders don’t lead us into battle with warring nations these days. Today the enemy is spiritual. And battling a spiritual foe is not a lesser fight. When children lead worship they are placed in the most dangerous, vulnerable position. They are encountering spiritual weapons against them while leading the army of God into worship. It’s unfair to them and it devalues the true meaning of church worship.
I’ve always viewed worship leaders as on a par, or nearly on a par, with preachers. No one would put a teenager in their pulpit on a regular basis. The teenager is not prepared. He hasn’t encountered life’s blows. He’s not been knocked down. He doesn’t know the depth to his faith that will develop over the years. Young people are sometimes excellent, gifted leaders. That can’t be disputed. However, those young leaders excel at leading because they are specially equipped for leadership – not because they’re young.