Bench Warmers:  How Churches are Sidelining Their Young MVPs

Orginally published on Wednesday, February 28, 2007 at 6:02 AM
by Todd Rhoades

If you are a gifted singer or musician, a record contract could be awarded to you—at virtually any age. If you are an exceptional writer, artist or actor, you can make your way to the pinnacle of your vocation even as a young adult. If you are effective in business and management, you can rise through the corporate ranks quickly, holding positions of authority commensurate with your skill and ability. But if you are in your twenties or thirties and you want to find a challenging and meaningful role as a lay leader in your local church, well, good luck. Try again in a decade or two.

According to our research, this is the experience of millions of young adults—especially those gifted as leaders—who drop out of churches following high school and are less likely than previous generations to ever return to congregational life. These used-to-be-churched young adults traverse their most significant life decisions—education, career, marriage, relationships, the formation of their faith and values, and more—without involvement or opportunities from a local church.

In fact, just one out of every eight churchgoing Busters (the generation of Americans ages 22 to 40) have served as a lay leader in the last two years. That compares with one-quarter of Boomers (ages 41 to 59) and one-third of Elders (ages 60-plus).

And since Busters are less likely to be churchgoers at all, that further softens their leadership engagement in churches. Just one out of 25 Busters is currently serving in any leadership capacity in a local congregation, nearly three times less likely than Boomers and almost five times less common than Elders.

What makes this reality so sobering is the unfulfilled potential of Buster leaders. By failing to connect with these missing leaders, churches are leaving significant levels of time, creativity, talent, energy and passion on the table. Check out the data in the graphic: 23 percent of Busters say they “definitely” consider themselves to be a leader, which is nearly identical to the levels among Boomers (22 percent) and Elders (22 percent).

Of course, there are many ways of assessing whether or not people are gifted as leaders, and not everyone who calls himself a leader actually has the character, competencies or calling to be used in accomplishing God’s purposes. But do you see the bigger picture here? God has given each generation its share of leaders, but many of today’s youngest leaders are not being energized toward Kingdom purposes.

SOURCE:  Ministry Today Magazine.  Writer:  David Kinnaman

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  There are 13 Comments:

  • Posted by dan ohlerking

    I guess we’re bucking a trend here at hpc.  our staff (about 70 full-time, 30 part-time, and hundreds of volunteer leaders) is made up of mostly busters.

    I mean that in a good way.  we have met some “buster” busters, but that’s another story.

    there certainly are challenges in having such a young staff (avg age is about 27 or so) but it sure keeps life in things… energy, innovation, passion… not that thse aren’t traits that those of us who are older should have…

    the point is, if we don’t bring up another generation and give the experience leading now, what will the church look like in 20 years or so?  old and worn out.

    not the church I wanna be a part of.  I say let the young bucks in....  let em keep you young.  it,s contagious.... and a whole lot more fun than sitting around looking at each other, trying to keep the status quo.....

  • Posted by

    I think this is probably, generally true (something is wrong with that wording).  I guess, that the reason is the age old problem of one generation not fully trusting to one preceding it.  If the group choosing the leaders of today doesn’t have confidence in a particular age demographic, that group won’t become leaders. Until of course, they become the older group, and in turn choose leaders from among themselves, making the group behind them wait.

    What seems not to jive is this premise with another I’ve heard and read in numerous places; that the X’s and Millennials are more committed to giving back, more socially conscious, more desirous of making a difference with their lives than any group before them (of course, this doesn’t include the Busters).  If this is true, the younger group must be serving, in order to have created this perception about themselves.  Could it be that the church has even lost these younger groups, as they are forced to find places to invest their lives outside our walls?

    The article doesn’t tell us what we can do about the problem?  I don’t think it’s as simple as simply deciding to engage younger leaders.  The older gang, Boomers and Busters (and I’m one of them), aren’t likely to simply give up their spots.  Can we really create enough significant ministry leadership roles to engage another whole generation sitting on our benches without displacing current leaders?

    And would we want to displace the older leaders?  I don’t think so.  While it’s indeed vital to include younger voices in our leadership discussions and decision making, the voices of experience cannot be dismissed.


  • Posted by

    I agree totally with this.  Look are your church boards are there a varitey of different ages?  Probably not and yet the older generation says we can’t get leaders.  We are not letting younger generation leaders actually lead.  Their opinions and thoughts are squashed because we know more than them attitude.  Or may favorite you will know will get older.  Instead of squashing the passion why don’t we fertlize and guide it?  Where is the mentoring?  Who is passing the torch so to speak?

  • Posted by

    Our church board has MAYBE one person under 40 on it… That has to change…

    We MUST bring these young people along as leaders if we want to remain relevant to their age group in a VERY rapidly changing culture.

  • Posted by

    Amen and Amen!!!  I am a “buster” (age 36) currently serving in a church that the next youngest person working at the church is in her late 40’s.  This worries me about the next generation because they think of me as “the kid”.  Interesting article.

  • Posted by Jan

    We just had a big leadership switch from those in retirement mode to busters and even younger.  It was a bit uncomfortable for those who resigned to go fishing, then turned around and realized the new leaders coming behind were younger.

    One couple left saying “They just don’t fit in here anymore”.  Another stirred up conflict and left for that reason, but I think for much of the same reasons as the first.

    It’s easy to say we need to pass the torch but not so easy to let go.  And as our leadership as gotten younger, so is our congregation.

  • Posted by master pat

    I agree that the current status of our twenty - thirty somethings is in big trouble.
    Todd, do you have any suggestions regarding how to trust the busters (i am a buster btw, i’m 27) when so often, they commit for a few months and then seem to fall off the map?

    We have a young staff, young volunteers, but a lot of turnover.

    Any help?

  • Posted by Todd Rhoades

    Good question, Master Pat.  I wish I had all the answers.  Anyone out there have some great examples of churches who are doing a good job at including leaders from this generation?

    One I know of is HealingPlace Church (HealingPlaceChurch.org).  I was just down in Baton Rouge last week, and much of their staff and leadership is very young.  They really are building a church of tomorrow…


  • Posted by

    I am now on the other side of the great age divide.  At 44 I’m going back to seminary.  After over ten years of ministry, I realized there was a lot still to learn, that youth and the latest website could not teach me. 

    We definitely need to mentor and disciple potential young leaders.  It takes more than talent and passion to lead others effectively in ministry.  It takes time and study and modeling of biblical leadership.  I am fortunate to be serving in a church now that is intentional about not only modeling biblical leadership, but also training and preparing young leaders thru a mentoring program.  Churches must be proactive in training and releasing young people to serve.  But young leaders should be careful not to confuse the caution of their senior leadership with a desire to “control”.

  • Posted by

    I always found it odd how my worth in the church depended not just on age but where I was. In New England I was criticized as being too young and unseasoned and yet after a five hour flight to the west coast I found that churches considered me too old and unhip. The problem is that leadership on both sides have agendas and those who are not the target audience are falling between the cracks. Younger people aren’t going to church for good reason. Most churches do not want them. Sure they want younger people but only if they look and act like adults. On the other side of the coin are churches that market themselves to younger crowds and come off as more of a Chucky Cheese than a serious place for spiritual growth.

  • Posted by yellow croaker

    I think this is probably, generally true

  • Posted by

    Funny how the priests of the tabernacle were required to give up their censors at age 50. They could start serving at 20. If it was then like it is in today’s corporate world that would have meant that one would serve an aprentice for 10 or so years to the 40 year old crowd and then at about 40 one would serve as a mentor to the 20 year old crowd.

    It has been my experiance that there are a lot of small churches that would allow these young ones lead but these young ones have to be entertained rather than be sacrificial and serve where they are wanted (in the small churches).

  • I am a young person (29 y.o.), yet I make no mistake about how much more wisdom I need to acquire in this life, before I can teach or lead others. How many more intelligent discussions to have with those who know better, how many more worthy books to read. Being young and enthusiastic is not always enough. The advantage of being young is that you take risk without much consideration. And consequently you make more mistakes. Age and wisdom - two things where you cannot skip steps here and there. Let the older and wiser lead, and teach the younger how to do that wisely, when their time comes.

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