Mar 19, 2018


The Leadership Gap and the Hope for the Future

Mitch Tidwell reflects on the decline of younger leaders in churches and how college ministry can help fill the leadership gap.

“This is our most desperate hour. Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”

These are the words of Princess Leia as she addresses the needs of the Rebellion in the movie Star Wars: A New Hope. The Galatic Empire is winning. In an effort to continue to battle against the darkness, she sends an urgent message; in hopes victory can be won.

Today I want to offer a warning much like Princess Leia: This is our most desperate hour. I want to list some current stats from Barna’s recent research of pastors and Generation Z, interpretation of the stats, and diagnostic questions for collegiate leaders.

Young People & Young Leaders are in Decline in the Church

Consider the following stats and observations from the Barna Group:

  • 3 out of every 5 young people are leaving the church permanently or for an extended period of time after the age of 15.
  • Most churches focuses on families. David Kinnaman of the Barna Group notes, “Church leaders are most comfortable working with young, married adults, especially those with children.”
  • More than half of pastors sense their calling as young adults, between ages 14 and 21.
  • Today, only 1 out of every 7 protestant pastors is under the age of 40.
  • In the last 25 years the median age of pastors has risen from 44 to 54.
  • There are now more senior pastors over the age of 64 than there are church leaders under the age of 40.

I believe Kinnaman put it well—the aging pastorate “is the most glaring challenge facing the church today.”

I often receive questions that affirm these stats:

How can our church attract young people?
How can we keep young people?
Why are less and less men being called to preach?
Why are younger people not stepping into leadership roles?

From this information we can assess that few young people are becoming a part of the church. Less and less young people are being called to ministry. There is a leadership gap in this generation of ministry leaders; hence, our pastors are getting older and older.

And very few are filling the gap.

Why are Young People & Young Leaders in Decline in the Church?

There are many possibilities to this. Barna offers nine factors to this generational disconnect. However, I want to focus on a few statistics that stood out to me, specifically as it pertains to the vacuum of young leadership in the church.

In 2017 Barna led a research project entitled 2017 State of Pastors Project. In this project they surveyed 14,000 protestant pastors. They sought a holistic look at the state of pastoring today and what the future may hold.

In part they asked what do pastors enjoy most and what do they spend the most time doing.

66% of pastors viewed preaching and teaching as their favorite task of pastoring. 57% viewed themselves as good at it.

In terms of leadership 10% of pastors viewed developing other leaders as their most enjoyable task. Only 22% of these pastors felt they put a significant emphasis on trainings and developing of next generation leaders.

Barna concluded that “The bare facts of the matter are that even the wisest of older pastors is not here indefinitely, and his wisdom will be lost to the community of faith unless it is invested with the next generation…Even more urgent, however, is the prospect of a massive leadership shortage in the coming decades.”

If these stats are true, there should be no guesswork in why young people are leaving and not leading.

In large part the church has fallen short of reaching young people and developing the ones they have into leaders. The church keeps preaching and she keeps losing young people and future ministry leaders.

Before I get misunderstood, I believe preaching is a necessary and vital work. It must happen. I think a pulpit ministry is a necessary staple and tone setter for any and every congregation. If the pulpit lacks then that sets a terrible trajectory for the congregation.

However, I do believe we have put too much of an emphasis on preaching and teaching and not enough on disciple-making, or the development of new and younger leaders.

We have to preach. We have to make disciples who make disciples who make disciples.

You are our hope.

This leadership vacuum is concerning, but thankfully the church is not an organization, a business, or a club. The church’s hope does not rest in the ingenuity of man, but in the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s the same Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the grave, and the save one saving men and women today.

The church’s confidence is not in strategy. It’s in blood. Jesus’ blood that gives confidence in the prevailing nature of the church: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Mt. 16:18b, ESV)

As collegiate leaders God has placed you in this position for “such a time as this.” In the power of the Holy Spirit you bear the influence and responsibility of changing this tide.

Who stands in the gap of unreached young people? You do.
Who has the keys of influence to the young people who will lead the next generation of churches? You do.

You are the small percentage of ministry leaders who have not forgotten about a generation of young people who need the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In the words of Brian Frye you are reaching a generation of young people that are both moldable and malleable. They are easily shaped and quick to adapt. College students are as Steve Lutz says, the most strategic mission field. They are leaders of today and of tomorrow; not only in our context, but also around the world.

It is scientifically proven that the human brain is still growing during the college years. Students are developing their worldviews, belief systems, and rhythms that will determine the trajectory of their life.

That means you are reaching a generation of men and women in the most vulnerable and influential time of their life; the time in which God most calls young people to Himself. What do we want the church to look like in 10, 20, 30 years?

How we reach and develop students now will determine what the church looks like in the next 10, 20, 30 years.

If we settle for cultivating cliques of Christians then that is what we can expect in the coming years. If we settle developing students by preaching alone, then the church can expect a generation of consumers, rather than missionaries. However, if the church reaches students, develop students, and send students, this will be the norm for the church of today and in the years to come.

Diagnostic Questions to Determine How You Are Developing Students

In what ways are students being shaped in your ministry today?

When a student walks into your ministry what is different about them when they leave? Students will be influenced through their time in your ministry. The question is how are they being influenced.

During your next staff meeting, or when you have some downtime, consider setting some time aside to develop some core characteristic or values that students have when they walk away from your ministry, whether good or bad. What is the general make-up of a student? Be honest. Consider putting together a survey for exiting seniors.

Does the general make-up of a student bode well for your ministry and future churches?

Does this person look like a consumer? They come to meetings, get what they want, and go about their everyday life. Or does this person look like a missionary? They see all aspects of life as a mission field God has sovereignly placed them in? If a church were filled with this type of person would it bear fruit?

about the author

Mitch Tidwell

Mitch serves as the Collegiate Associate at the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Mitch’s desire is to assist churches in advancing God’s kingdom on college campuses in Texas. He lives in Fort Worth, TX with his wife, Olivia.