An Introduction by Gordon
The ICOC family of churches is facing a crisis of which too many are unaware. It is an age crisis in leadership. It is an issue all movements inevitably must figure out, and their ability to do so defines their ongoing impact. Early in this century we went through a serious upheaval, during which we all but lost a generation of young leaders. Many were taken off the ministry staff simply because our contributions dropped, producing a financial crisis. We couldn’t afford to keep everyone on staff, and as expected it was “last on, first off.” More sadly, many chose to get out of the ministry because of being seriously criticized for things we older leaders had done but most of them had not. It was a confusing time for everyone, and although much clearer now in retrospect, the damage was done to our pool of younger leaders.
Since then, in my opinion, we have not made the concentrated efforts needed to raise up younger leaders. Some good efforts have been made, but too many have not been made wisely or intentionally, failing to take into account what our younger members in general are thinking about how we do church. We tend to be far more traditional than we think and can be far too comfortable with the current status quo. While many of our older members have become satisfied with a less radical, more comfortable version of Christianity, our younger members have not. Just doing church is not what they are looking for – they are looking for ways to change the messed-up world of which they are a part. They want their lives to make a difference in their world and in eternity – a big difference!
In discussing these concerns recently with my good friend, Daren Overstreet, the congregational evangelist of our Seattle church, he shared some thoughts with me that I think deserve a wider audience. Thus, I asked him to write an article to post on my teaching ministry website (gordonferguson.org), which he has now done. He has at least two more articles in mind on the subject that he would like to write also, which I highly encourage. Most of the articles on my website are my own, but when someone else writes on a topic that I see as critically needed, I am anxious to publish it. Daren’s article is one of those. Please read it carefully and prayerfully.
Daren Overstreet’s Article
We just returned from the Delegates meeting and the International Leadership Conference in Panama. It was a productive week, full of conversations about how we as a fellowship organize ourselves, stay connected to each other, and most importantly, how we collectively keep a hurting world on our hearts. Ultimately, the most significant thing we are doing together as church builders is helping lost souls find their place in God’s amazing story. An enormous part of that task is intentionally passing the torch on to the next generation. Our movement is nearly 40 years old, and I know we talk a lot about empowering those behind us, but are we intentionally doing it? Further, are we sure we’re teaching and modeling the things they feel are important? I’m talking to my fellow leaders and ministers who have been around awhile. We are building a church that can be a beacon of light right now, but unless we are intentional about thinking through what the next generation needs from us in order to lead into the future, our hard work now will be sadly short-sighted and struggle to endure.
The Seattle church belongs to the Northwest family of churches, and like all other regional families, we have strengths, weaknesses, and areas/opportunities for growth. A topic we’ve been talking about for the last couple of years is getting younger! And not just getting younger, but purposely raising up the young leaders required for us to see our churches not only thrive now but endure long after we’ve moved on. At a meeting a few years ago, we were all shocked when we looked around and saw mostly older, seasoned veterans in the room! The room contained quite a bit of wisdom, but not even close to enough engagement with the next generation. We have committed to making this different and have all been working hard to invest in young leaders, which includes having a much more inspiring vision for church planting and growth. We simply must have places to send them and their evangelistic dreams. Having said that, I was surprised and inspired to hear what THEY think is important as they watch us do ministry and hope for their chance. Let me explain…
This last July we had a Northwest leaders meeting in Spokane, Washington. During one session, I split the group up into 2 rooms: the younger people in one, the older leaders in another. We asked each group a series of questions. One question we asked the younger group was this: What do you want to see MORE OF in us as we pass the torch on to you? Of course they talked about more and better opportunities for training and leading, but a few of their answers jumped out at me, especially as one of the veteran leaders in the group. These answers spoke to the quality of the relationships and spirituality they see in us. There are three specifically I hope we all think about:
Be More Unified
In other words, they would like us to show them a much more inspiring picture of unity. Ouch. I just returned from the Delegates meeting, and I think we would all agree, the older generation has strong opinions about how things should be! The younger generation also has strong opinions, but here’s the thing – we happen to be in charge and do most of the talking, so we are the ceiling, and the model for how to cooperate. That’s an incredible responsibility and an opportunity I hope we don’t miss. They are asking us to show them how to maintain biblical unity even when the room is loaded with strong, differing opinions.
In the Northwest, I happen to know what some of them are referring to. We’ve had some meetings where strong opinions were shared in the group. In some of these conversations, unity was modeled well, in others not so much. I knew we had a problem when after one of these meetings, a younger leader asked me this: “Hey, do you think that at the next meeting the young folks could get their own room? We’d love to talk about some stuff on our own.” Yikes. I may not know everything, but I DO know that if younger generation is asking for their own room, there is a problem. Do you know how your young people feel you and your fellow leaders are doing here? You may want to ask…
Humility About Weaknesses
We all know humility is the main ingredient for ministry longevity. Without humility, the next generation won’t last in ministry. But again, do they see it in us? Are we modeling biblical humility by, in Scott Green’s words, “putting our worst foot forward?” Do they see us older ministers being open to change? Do they see us being able to move off our opinions and yield to each other out of love? By the way, isn’t that what the bulk of the New Testament was all about? Do they see us working at getting better, even if we’ve been in the ministry for a long time? Believe it or not, they get inspired by that, it motivates them. In Seattle this last summer, we invited Steve Staten in to do an “appreciative inquiry” (turns out, that’s a fancy name for a survey!). We wanted to find out what we were doing well, and what we needed to grow in. It’s really helpful to regularly invite an outside perspective to take a look at your work, it really is.
After Steve presented his work to the church, I got up and responded. Among other things, I told the church that my desire for us is to be a “learning church,” which simply means I want us to be in the habit of learning what we can do better. To my surprise, of all the things I said during that service, it was that one comment that was highlighted. Why? Humility resonates with people who are trying their best to grow, and I’m telling you, seeing humility in their experienced leaders inspires the young people to want to grow more. Are we modeling what the apostle Paul felt deeply in 1 Timothy 1:15-16?
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”
I have no doubt that Paul putting his “worst foot” forward provided motivation and inspiration to the young leaders he was training. How are we doing in that area?
How to Receive Criticism and Feedback
If you lead any group over about five people, I know you receive a lot of feedback, and plenty of constructive criticism. How are you doing implementing the things people have asked you to consider changing? Young people today are flattened by criticism! In a world determined to make everyone feel great, a lot of young people simply do not know what to do with the knowledge that they may have some things to grow in. I remember a sermon recently preached by one of our ministry interns in Seattle. He’s 25 years old, and a very good preacher. Here is what he said about millennials: “We are the most educated group to ever live, the most socially connected, the most benevolent, the most empowered, the most environmentally conscious, the most ambitious, AND the most sensitive. We hate hearing criticism. We know we need it, we just need to learn how to process it correctly.”
Where do they learn that? From us. So the question is, how are we at hearing things about ourselves? When is the last time you invited input into your life? When is the last time you assembled your trusted leaders and asked them what they see in you that could make you better? When is the last time you asked your leadership group or staff, “what is it like to work with me?”
By the way, it’s not just our young leaders that need to see us working through the things that hold us back, it’s also important for our members. Admit it, as your congregation ages, which means they are increasingly confronted with how often they don’t measure up to righteousness, the sermons that resonate with them are NOT the ones filled with challenging goals and high idealism. Those are needed, but they find us truly inspiring when we’re sharing the various ways God is taking our flaws and refining us. “Perfect” preachers aren’t that inspiring, flawed ones that are using God’s word to grow more Christ-like are.
In my opinion, that is precisely what made Paul the most effective trainer of men in the New Testament. He was more competent than we’ll ever be, but deeply in touch with where his power came from, which allowed him to offer us scriptures like Philippians 3:12-15:
“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things.”
Here is what concerns me in this area. The younger generation are getting jobs for companies that have realized the power of feedback and objective criticism. They have entire systems and departments in place for receiving and implementing it. The secular world simply cannot be better at modeling this for the next generation than we are as Christian leaders. None of us have arrived, and all of us have plenty to work on as we press heavenward. Let’s show the leaders coming behind us how to find glory in the growth process.
Do any of these things surprise you? When you think of passing the torch to the next generation, are these areas you would think to spend time and energy. A common complaint from the younger generation is this: “You older folks are answering questions we’re not asking!” Let’s make sure we’re asking them what matters to them. A lot is at stake.
More to come…