Sometimes multiple needs coincide to offer solutions to one another. I suggest that the contemporary church faces just such a confluence of opportunities masquerading as problems. The church needs help; resources are available.
The church needs ministers. According to a study conducted jointly by the Barna Group and Pepperdine University entitled “The State of Pastors: Leading in Complexity” (https://www.barna.com/research/aging-americas-pastors/; released January 26, 2017; accessed 3/21/2017) the Protestant clergy is aging. The chart below compares findings by a 1968 Barna study, a 1992 Barna study entitled “Today’s Pastor” and the most recent study, all concerning the age of Protestant pastors.
1968 1992 2017
Median age 44 54
Under 40 33% 14%
Under 45 55% 22%
Over 55 25% 50%
Over 65 6% 17%
The “bottom line” reveals that, in comparison to 1968 when over half of those in the pastorate aged 45 and under, today over half of the same population is over 55. Correspondingly, the median age of pastors has increased ten years just since 1992.
The Barna study did not examine the factors influencing this “aging” of the clergy, but commentators have speculated that two factors contribute to the shift. First, probably for financial reasons (damage done to clergy IRA’s in the financial crisis of the early 2000’s, for example), clergy in significant numbers have delayed retirement. Second, and more significant for the structure of the pastorate, young people have not entered the ministry in numbers sufficient to maintain a more healthy generation balance in the pulpit. Reasons for this circumstance, in turn, seem varied: the ratio of the costs of a seminary education (read “student debt”) and beginning clergy income, the diminishment in the prestige contemporary culture grants ministry (and many other “helping” professions, teaching, for example), and the much-discussed disillusionment with the church experienced by many “millennials,” to name but the most prominent.
If the only factor were “oldsters” postponing retirement, one could expect their ranks to be easily replenished by an oversupply in the pipeline. The fact that younger generations are not entering ministry in sufficient numbers points to a more troubling problem: young people are unhappy with the church. Studies as such as the May 2015 Pew Research Center’s “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/; accessed 3/22/2017) have documented the phenomenon in detail. According to it, over one-third of the millennial generation disavows affiliation with any faith (an increase of 10% in only eight years). These “nones” now constitute close to 23% of adults with disproportionate representation by millennials; for comparison, evangelicals comprise 25.4%, Catholics 21%, and mainline Protestants 14.7%.
Like many, I have been pondering this situation for some time, unscientifically surveying blogs, books, and social commentators in an attempt to understand why younger generations have lost confidence in the church. My conclusions, to this point, are that I share many of their concerns; in fact, for me, these concerns date to the beginning of my own ministry. In those days (and since), I have argued that the church must both return to its roots in a vigorous Jewish Christianity while, at the same, engaging the modern world honestly and openly from the foundations of its faith. The Protestant church, in my long-held view, must rely less on its status as ecclesia reformata and continue, instead, its renewal as ecclesia semper reformanda.
In this sense, the church’s problems themselves already point to solutions. A few quick observations:
- Commentators frequently note that the generation now coming of age has little trust in organizations/institutions (including, but not limited to the church). I have blogged earlier about how my generation seems to have bequeathed its similar mistrust/distrust to our children (Watergate, Vietnam, etc; see “Unto the Ends of the Earth” 4/20/16; “An Easter Confession” 3/28/16; and “Outside Agitators” 1/19/16). Those familiar with the biblical roots of our faith know that Jesus called disciples, formed a community, and founded a church understood and described as “the body of Christ.” Jesus left us with the Beatitudes, not the By-laws.
- Relatedly, social observers point to the heightened sense of the individual common among young adults today – a centrifugal force. At the same time, however, involvement in social media, ad hoc political actions, and a range of acephalous movements indicate that the need for intentional community, so characteristic of basic human nature, has not skipped the millennial generation. Can the church be(come authentic) community, the body of Christ, a gathered family (again)?
- As I have observed elsewhere (“Unto the Ends of the Earth” 4/20/16; “America First or Not My Problem” 2/21/17), local churches often exhibit an insularity (frequently apparent in local church budgets and their “edifice” complexes) and a sometimes aggressive inwardness of focus that make them seem selfish, cliquish, and exclusivist. If Jesus’ statement about knowing a tree by its fruit has any bearing, such local congregations give little evidence that they have heard, let alone answered, the inclusive call of the Gospel. Can there be any wonder that young adults seek settings outside the church in which egalitarianism finds authentic expression? This inward focus often resembles or excuses hypocrisy. Churches responding to the call of the Gospel will actively extend welcome and grace to the poor, those of another race, political opponents, young and old, male and female. It has taken far too long for some in the church to acknowledge that the church’s resistance to advances in civil rights, for example, branded the church as, in fact, a sometime opponent of the principles of justice and love for neighbor at the heart of the Gospel message.
- Arguably, perhaps the most important deficit in the life of the church can be considered an umbrella category for the issues mentioned above. It involves the need for the church to cease its reactive responses against culture and turn toward engagement with it. The church can no longer afford to refrain from dealing with the hard topics of the day that require intellectual honesty, rigorous examination, and a spirit of humility. The younger generation tends toward non-conformity. Its members will no longer be satisfied with “because that’s what we believe.” The attempt of major segments of the church to banish the problems raised by modern science, for example, by ignoring them altogether has only made the church, indeed Christianity, seem incapable of dealing with the real world. It seems, sometimes, that the church thinks that by enforcing a scientific naiveté the challenges of integrating Christian faith and a modern world-view will simply fade away.
How do these problems converge to produce a solution? The church desperately needs a cadre of talented, well-educated, young leaders. Leaders who both know the tradition at depth and understand the world as it is instead of longing for a simpler time. They must understand the Bible in order to recognize its continued relevance and in order to interpret it as a complex text with specific, but limited, purposes. They must know the history of the church in order to avoid historic pitfalls. They must take science and sociology seriously while affirming that faith answers questions and needs for which science is entirely unsuited and announcing that God calls human society to a better way. They must know the difference between Hinduism and Buddhism, between Shi`ah and Sunni Islam, and between Gnosticism and Christianity. Otherwise, the church cannot navigate the complexities of contemporary pluralism without alienating those to whom it would bear witness, on the one hand, while maintaining its identity, on the other. They must lead the church to prophetic engagement with culture and politics while reminding it that the will of God can be achieved fully only in the Kingdom of God.
This is my appeal to a new generation. It is also my prayer to God.