By Sam S. Rainer III
They are America’s most educated generation. They are America’s most diverse generation. They are America’s largest generation. They are the Millennials, born between 1980 and 2000. And they are beginning to get married, enter the workforce, and lead the world. The next generation is hopeful. In fact, 96 percent of them agree with the simple statement, “I believe I can do something great.” The church is in a unique position to capture the hearts of this generation.
Ironically, however, the hopeful generation lacks solid ground in which to root their hopes. As few as one in four attend church weekly. Nearly two-thirds of them never attend religious services. While the opportunity exists, church leaders face unique challenges in reaching the next generation.
What the younger generation desires is a pastor, elder or leader who equips them without constant reminders of who is in charge. What do leaders owe this generation? And how can a church leader balance serving people while also maintaining authority over them?
The debt of authority. Authority comes with a debt. To lead is to owe. Since leaders do not exist without followers, the position of authority comes with a corresponding responsibility. Authority should not be used to create places of comfort for the leader. Rather, the leader should assume the responsibility to enhance the lives of followers. Unfortunately, leaders too often abuse authority for personal gain. They act as if followers owe them. The reality is leaders owe followers. The debt of authority is the responsibility to sacrifice for followers.
With Christ as the model, church leaders should be the most sacrificial people in the body. Since a local church does not survive without the next generation, leading them requires an attitude of indebtedness to them.
Balancing unity and empowerment. In the ideal church (unfortunately, it does not exist), members would work together collectively for a common purpose. In this setting, each person is empowered to use individual gifts within the unity of the entire body. The younger generation desires both — individual empowerment and corporate unity. When individuals are empowered, however, sometimes they will work outside the bounds of unity. In other words, lengthen the leash too long and some will do their own thing.
From a generational perspective, this balance is especially true. Younger generations often clash with older generations when too much empowerment challenges corporate unity. For instance, deacon rotations became popular in some denominations following World War II. The reason was the “old guard” would not give up authority to the “new guard” of returning boys who quickly became men out of wartime necessity. Therefore, churches instituted rules of rotating active and inactive deacons to allow the younger generation a chance at leadership.
The church today needs to find creative ways to incorporate younger leaders into a cross-generational mix of congregational servants. Leaders owe the next generation a chance to be empowered individually without sacrificing the corporate unity of the body. Attempting to preserve the traditions of the older generation at the expense of winning younger people is not an option. It is also not an option to trash the existing older generation just to reach a younger segment of the population. The most successful church leaders will find ways to strike a balance between empowering the younger generation and maintaining corporate unity of all generations.
Balancing opportunity and accountability. Most Millennials do not want to sit on the sidelines; they want to be part of the action. A church without opportunities for the next generation is boring at best and disobedient at worst. Church leaders owe the next generation an opportunity to be on mission. Forcing them into a holding pattern means they will land somewhere outside the church. They will take their hopeful energy and pour it into another place where they can make a meaningful contribution.
With opportunity, however, comes accountability. Encouragingly, many Millennials want to be corrected by leaders when they miss the mark. In fact, one way to confuse the next generation is to set high expectations with a grand mission and then hold no one accountable. Church leaders owe the next generation an opportunity to be on mission, and they also owe this generation a corresponding level of accountability.
Church leaders owe the next generation.
They must reach outward without selling to the Millennials.
They must inspire an older generation entrenched in modernity to meet a postmodern generation where they are.
These leaders must be authoritative without being authoritarian.
This next generation desires to be led. They are willing to follow if given a chance to make a meaningful difference.
Some will become the next generation of leaders in the church. Empower them. Give them an opportunity. Unify them with other generations. And hold them accountable.
Sam S. Rainer III serves as president of Rainer Research (rainerresearch.com), a firm dedicated to providing answers for better church health. He also is the senior pastor at Stevens Street Baptist Church in Cookeville, TN. He writes, speaks, and consults on church health issues. You can connect with Sam at @samrainer or at his blog, samrainer.wordpress.com.