“I have to ask—I hope none of you will be offended.” The young pastoral candidate’s cautious words were followed by an anxious, awkward pause.
“How did you get a church filled with college students and young adults, …” he continued, hesitating, “when your senior staff leaders are, well, I hate to say it, really old?”
The question prompted smiles and laughter, not offense. Our senior pastoral team at the time consisted of one 40-something (who was absent from the meeting) and four others ranging from early 50s to mid-60s. To the young pastor, we were a gray-haired (or bald), well-worn collection of antiques. And yet, to his great wonderment, we were also leading a church largely composed of millennials.
How did we get there? How does a “really old” team find itself leading a “really young” church? To fully answer these questions, I have to begin with how I, a 55-year-old lead pastor, got here.
My arrogant, ambitious self
Twenty years ago, I joined the popular trend of writing a personal vision statement. Mine read: “to prepare and equip leadership for the 21st-century Church.”
If I am honest, I expected to become the 21st-century church expert who showed others the way. It never occurred to my arrogant, ambitious self that I would not be the one to create the church not yet imagined. When I eventually realized that it was not to be, I was disappointed. I felt outdated, obsolete, irrelevant. Like a Blockbuster Video membership card.
Then I read David’s response to not being chosen to build the Lord’s temple (2 Samuel 7:1-18). Although God had hand-chosen David to lead when he was still young, this time—some five decades later—God was calling David to be the “set-up man.” David was to gather resources, cast vision and prepare the way for Solomon. A next-generation leader would build the temple.1
David, with a heart of deep gratitude, replied, “Who am I, Sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?”
Likewise, who are we, fellow seasoned veterans, that we get to gather resources, cast vision and prepare the way for the leadership of the church not yet imagined? Who are we to be the spiritual fathers and mothers of a generation that will raise up the 21st-century Church? Who are we to be given this honor—all with the motive of God’s eternal glory rather than the fleeting personal glory of our “ministry success”?
“Let me set you up for success”
When the idealistic pastoral candidate posed his awkward question, I truly had no formulaic list of steps to offer. As I have repeatedly communicated to our young staff and leaders: “This is your church to lead, in submission to Christ and in stewardship of the gospel. I am a 20th-century pastor who will, over time, intentionally transfer leadership to you, and the Holy Spirit will lead you in creating the 21st-century church we are called to become. I am here to set you up for success.”
As Fellowship Church (EFCA), we believe that we have been called to risk the entire present and future of our church on two specific foundational convictions.
First, we believe that our generation of church leaders—and every generation—is called, by Christ and Scripture, to be thoroughly faithful to entrust the gospel to the next generation, by His grace and for His glory.
Second, we believe that our “scoreboard” has nothing to do with the numbers who attend or the ministries we build. Our “scoreboard” is simply, solely, faithfulness to the gospel. We measure our effectiveness by obedience, not outcomes.
These two convictions have led to several critical leadership commitments by our elders, pastors and lay ministry leaders:
We will value the gospel as greater than any other commitment. Period. In 1 Corinthians 9:6, Paul writes, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” Reaching and empowering a generation that’s growing up in social, moral, political and spiritual chaos demands that the church, including its pastor, be fully eclipsed by the person of Jesus. Woe to us, if we, even with good church intentions, fail to offer the gospel of Jesus to this generation. Unless the gospel eclipses everything in the church, millennials will choose anything but the church in their search for meaning and hope.
Practically, this means that we have fewer programs and “churchy experiences,” and that we pay less attention to whether our church “is working.” It also means that, in our large gatherings, we have multi- and multiple everything: multiple teachers, multiple worship leaders, multiple and diverse stories of the gospel at work in our people’s lives, and an emphasis on multi-generational expressions of the gospel in teaching, storytelling, music and art.
All of these are designed to minimize attention to and attraction to individual personalities and/or styles. It is not uncommon for someone new to our church to take several months to figure out that I am the lead pastor. No one and no one’s preferences are allowed to be front and center. We jealously guard that spot for Christ and His gospel.
We will value the multiplication of disciplemakers as greater than the consolidation of church people. My generation watched America super-size itself. Malls. Stadiums. Fast-food portions. Superstores. Mega-churches. “Bigger is better” we learned—but not when it comes to entrusting the gospel to the next generation. Disciplemaking is never mass production; it’s relationship, over time and across generations.
Practically speaking, we have adopted Paul’s four-generational vision for disciplemaking (2 Timothy 2:2). We are therefore investing increasingly larger amounts of money and time (the true test of what we value) in delivering disciplemakers into the world rather than inviting the world to our events and programs.
As one of our young pastoral staff members observed, “The church has to become more like a food truck than a restaurant.”
We will value innovation as greater than preservation. Blockbuster or Netflix? CDs or Apple Music? Walmart or Amazon? The world has moved—not is moving, but has already moved—to streaming movies, downloading books through apps, and delivering goods and groceries to your door. The present and future of all manner of commerce and service now belong to creative risk-takers who fear the certainty of stagnation more than the uncertainty of innovation.2
Acts 11:19 reports that the church scattered after Stephen’s stoning. The gospel was thus carried into the world. The Jewish world that is. Then, in Acts 11:20, some crazy rogue guys, who evidently did not know any better, started sharing Jesus with Greek-speaking non-Jews. Pretty soon, all heaven broke loose.
Paul and Barnabas set up a one-year seminary experience. The disciples became known as “Christians.” Missionaries were launched, Gentiles were saved, and the church distributed grace and truth to the whole world in the centuries that followed. The church once locked up in Jerusalem was now on the move, personally “streaming the gospel” to Gentiles in Antioch—and beyond.
Note, however, that it was not the original disciples or Barnabas or Paul who initiated the move. It was a group of anonymous Christ-followers who were in no way tethered to preserving the status quo.
Twenty centuries later, if the church is to be similarly on the move, it will be led by millennials unencumbered by ties to the status quo.
Streaming the gospel
In 2009 we presented our church with this challenge: “To reach a world not yet seen, we must become a church not yet imagined.” Millennial disciplemakers will be the key leaders of that “not yet imagined” vision. The Spirit will lead them to become disciplemakers who relationally “stream the gospel” into the 21st-century world.
Practically speaking, we have therefore begun partnering with millennials to engage the world with gospel-inspired and gospel-grounded innovation. We empower them with love, wisdom, prayer and financial resources.
Young leaders on our campuses, for instance, are asked to not recreate the forms of disciplemaking and church they inherited from my generation. Rather, they are challenged to innovate and co-create with the Spirit of God as if they were missionaries in a distant culture—because they are!
We imagine their innovative churches will be more agile, more adaptive, more decentralized, more intimately engaged in their communities, less expensive and less professionalized than the 20th-century model we once deemed “successful.”
The successful church model that was presented to my generation was one where a super-talented or super-cool teacher/leader drew and built a crowd. That’s why my generation is so reliant on big churches and video venues—you have to use the big guns to get the job done. But that begs the question, “What is the job?” My generation’s consistent answer (in practice if not in theology) was: getting people to church so they can know Jesus.
But here is the truth, like it or not: Millennials are not coming back to the church, at least not the church as we know it. So let’s empower and equip millennials who know Him to carry the gospel of the Church outward without carrying all the external success baggage of 20th-century models.
I ask you, my baby-boomer generation peers, who are we, ministry relics like you and me, that we get to do this? May we be faithful to this gift of grace given to us to set up the millennial leadership of the 21st-century church. Moreover, may future leaders say of us what Psalm 78:72 said of David, shepherd-king: “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.”
1 Referencing David and Solomon in this context is a messy choice. David was denied the opportunity of building the temple because, in God’s words, he had “shed too much blood in My sight” (1 Chronicles 22:8). Solomon was the very definition of a “mess” as a leader, although he was gloriously successful in the building of the temple. David rejoiced in God’s favor in allowing himself, a flawed king, to prepare for his son’s success. That joy provides a vision of the joy that I and others of my generation are experiencing as we prepare the way for millennial leadership of the church. (Which, by the way, is likely to be messy.) ↩
2 This balancing of certainty and uncertainty is a common discussion in entrepreneurial circles and a present-day, exciting challenge for the church. ↩
Dr. Rick Dunn, 55, is lead pastor of Fellowship Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the co-founder and president of Sequoia Leadership Concepts Youth Development/Tennessee Fury, which uses competitive sports to develop young leaders. Rick’s favorite ministry partner is his wife, Teresa. His favorite millennials are his three adult children and his son-in-law. And his leadership heroes are the men and women who, in the ways of His Savior, have come to serve rather than be served by the millennial generation of Christ’s Church.