Youth-inizing The Vineyard

Front row worship in Boise

Something has been happening in the youth ministries here in Boise. Our young people are experiencing a kind of life with God that is new and outwardly noticeable. Not only are they engaging with God in a deeper way through worship, but they are evangelizing their friends and voluntarily praying for people on our city streets. Every Sunday morning they fill the front of our auditorium demonstrably worshipping their hearts out. Honestly they have become a source of encouragement for the entire congregation. We have given credit to our worship and youth pastor, Andy Hendley, for building this new momentum because of his commitment to our youth. We watched these positive changes without comment for a while – perhaps because we feared it would be another short-lived serge of zealousness. I can’t express how blessed and encouraged we have been that over time this move towards God in our youth has been consistent and continues to grow in intensity.

The actual word euthanasia comes from a Greek root meaning “good death”. It is defined as the act of allowing something to die without interruption or putting something to death painlessly. It is therefore my thinking that youth-inizing a church or a church movement will require a kind of willful, purposeful, merciful death. In the natural course of life something must die if there is to be new life. This is how renewal happens. Like Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:23) It does bring to mind the question – what seed must die if new young life is to arise.

Before I attempt to answer that question I’d like to share a few revealing statistics from a recent Barna report. Instead of paraphrasing the report I think it may be more advantageous to include a few paragraphs from the report itself as it addresses the subject of aging church movements and the dilemma of non retiring Baby Boomer pastors. (I’ll include some links for further reading.) In one article the Barna study revealed that not only are Christian congregations growing older across the American but not surprisingly pastors and lay leaders are aging as well. One study reports that, “a decade ago the median age of mainline Senior Pastors was 48; today it is 55. That represents a shockingly fast increase, representing a combination of too few young pastors entering the ranks and a large share of older pastors not retiring. Another study by Barna found that an unusually high share of Boomer pastors are refusing to retire or plan to retire in their mid-sixties, and that succession planning is a glaring weakness in most Protestant churches.” [For a link click here]

Even within the local church, Boomers rule the roost. Today, 61% of Protestant Senior Pastors are from our generation. Among the current lay leaders, 58% are Boomers. And if money talks, then we have the floor: 50% of the money given to churches last year came out of the pockets of Boomers. (That’s more than double the amount given by any other generation.)

Unfortunately, we are not good at sharing. If we are the richest generation the world has ever encountered, we are also its most selfish. And we are driven by the one value that defines us and on which we are willing to squander our money: power. We believe so deeply in our decision-making capacity, and we enjoy the control and perks of calling the shots so much, that we have no intention of relinquishing that power, regardless of traditions, expectations, reason or future interests. Except taken from – “Gracefully Passing the Baton” by George Barna. [For link click here]

First of all let me say that in my opinion the functional presence of Baby Boomers in the church is crucial. I am convinced that the church of today must be multigenerational. It is obviously unnecessary for us Boomers to die before God can rise up a new generation of leaders. Yet, as Barna suggested, we must intentionally relinquish power, regardless of our fears for the sake of future interests. The idea of this can be frightening – I’m a Baby Boomer and I know what it feels like to enter the golden years. I have all kinds of fears of my own. Trying to retire in an economy that is failing is scary. As aging leaders we fear that after years of hard work building thriving ministries, leadership teams and facilities, our predecessors might not be willing to work as hard as we have. They may make mistakes due to lack of experience; they may not be able to handle the kinds of pressures that kept us up night after night. We fear that the people who have esteemed and valued our leadership through the years may turn their eyes to another, leaving us feeling empty and devalued. I could go on and on about the reality of our humanness, but the truth is we started this journey on faith and we need to press on with the same heart. There is one thing that is certain even in these times of uncertainty – an offering of a life of service made with a righteous heart will always have the certainty that God is faithful to provide plenty to do, and may even provide an income to do it. The point is – if we Baby Boomers are willing to give up our entrenched positions of authority he will not put us out to pasture.

Passionate youthful leaders are emerging

Five and a half years ago Nancy and I made the decision to embrace a seven year plan to hand off our senior pastoral role to a qualified successor. It was an emotional decision for three reasons: first, we didn’t feel old or ready to retire; second, we truly loved our church and our work; and finally, we honestly had no idea how we would sustain ourselves financially. In addition to these reasons the only senior pastor transitions I had previously witnessed were for the most part full of conflict and sorrow. My desire was to do this in such a way that I wouldn’t have to leave the church in order not to impose a threat to the new pastor. Our family has four generations attending Vineyard Boise and nearly every meaningful friendship is part of the church as well. We knew we would need a strategic plan to make this transition succeed; and that it would take time so as not to interrupt our culture or momentum in a church our size. My heart was that when my successor took over the congregation would have already accepted their new pastor and trust that I would not be jumping ship. Obviously the first step was to choose the right couple. I wasn’t looking for a clone of myself, but certainly someone who shared my heart to make authentic Christian disciples. Nancy and I found that couple in Trevor and Andrea Estes, who first started attending the church as young singles shortly after Vineyard Boise was planted in 1989. Telling the story of this methodical transition with the Estes couple is worth a paper of its own – perhaps “Youth-inizing the Vineyard – Part II”. For now, however, my only point is that if we are to youth-inize the Vineyard something must die.

Change is scary. Change threatens people. Many leaders avoid real change simply to avoid conflict. Tweaking an organization can’t fix things that are really broken; it requires true change. It is only change that can kick-start the kind of momentum many Vineyards are presently longing for. [An excellent podcast on this subject by Andy Stanley is called “Gaining and Sustaining Momentum”.] [For link click here]

I can’t say for sure, but I think it just might be our conviction to keep the church young, and our serious commitment to turn over the senior role to a younger couple, that has stimulated the new youthful serge of life we are now experiencing. As our youth group continues to grow and the Sunday school fills with the small children of new young families, it has caused me to wonder if God is honoring our sincere effort. I don’t question that our young people love both Nancy and me, but I think they see us more as grandparents now than those they can directly relate to. When I speak of the Jesus Movement or tell stories that took place in the 90’s their eyes glaze over as they wonder if I’m really from the same planet. As much as I try I can’t understand their culture. They’re amused at my ineptness when it comes to technology, and can’t believe my lack of desire to be on Facebook. They laugh with endearment at my jokes and quirkiness, but they really get Trevor’s humor much better. He speaks their language and understands what it’s like to raise young children in an uncertain and changing world. They respect my life experience, and the wisdom and compassion it has cultivated. Thankfully that part will never change. But, more and more I think I am being perceived as an aging grandparent. The church needs Boomers because the world needs grandparents – but grandparents are not meant to demand the primary position of authority in the family. Parents do that. As grandparents, however, we have earned not only the right to be respected but the freedom to do less of what drains us and more of what we feel impassioned to do. It’s the parents’ job to be the disciplinarian and to be on call 24 / 7. It’s the grandparents’ privilege to love the grandkids, but not every minute of every day.

To youth-inize the church, Baby Boomer senior leaders must be not only willing to die to their primary positions of security and authority but must relish the anticipation of new horizons. They must reinvent themselves much as a healthy grandparent should take pleasure in their changing role in the extended family. It’s a crucial moment in the American church and a crucial moment in the Vineyard. It is time for our generation to be as courageous and radical as we once were in the days that we first signed up for this movement. The question remains and must be asked: can we do it or maybe more importantly, are we willing to do it?


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