Christian leadership and age discrimination.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 February

If your church lacks young people in leadership, it’s gonna lose all its young people. Just you wait.

Arguably Timothy of Lystra first met Paul of Tarsus when he was a teenager; old enough to come along with the apostles on their travels, but young enough for Paul to think of him as a son. Pp 2.22 When Timothy became the leader of a church in Ephesus in the 60s of the Christian era, Paul would’ve been in his 50s and Timothy in his 30s—certainly old enough to lead, but certainly not the oldest guy in that church. Quite possibly not even the one who’d been Christian longest, since Paul had evangelized Ephesus years before he ever met up with Timothy.

In any case being in your thirties meant it was necessary for Paul to make this comment in his first letter to Timothy:

1 Timothy 4.12 KWL
Nobody gets to look down upon your youth!
Instead become the faithful Christians’ example in word, lifestyle, love, faith, and purity.

Because people will look down on your youth.

I know from experience. When I was in my thirties, I was asked to run the church’s preservice bible study. Our head pastor felt I was up to it. Others not so much, ’cause they wanted to run it. Yep, all the participants were older than me. But I had three advantages over them:

  1. I became a Christian in my childhood. The rest became Christians as adults. So set our physical ages aside: I’d been Christian about 10 years longer than most. There was only one fella who’d become Christian in 1975, same as me. Of course you can be spiritually mature at any age… but when you get so worked up over something as minor as the youngster leading the bible study, y’ain’t showing any such maturity.
  2. Trust me: When you’re leading a bible study, it helps when you can actually do bible study. I’d been to seminary, so I knew how. The others knew how to do bad word studies, and quote popular Christian authors. For all the good that does.
  3. Our pastor did after all ask me to lead the group.

Admittedly, I didn’t let their hangup bother me any. I figured if it bothered them badly enough, they’d quit the group. They didn’t, and stuck with me for a year and a half. So no, don’t get the idea I was wringing my hands over their disapproval, and constantly meditating upon 1 Timothy 4.12 to keep my spirits up. My spirits were fine. Studying to prepare the lessons was teaching me all sorts of useful stuff. Hopefully teaching them this stuff too.

But as Paul stated elsewhere in his pastoral letters, the main qualification for Christian leadership is good character. They gotta be trustworthy people. Hence his advice to Timothy: Become an example in word, lifestyle, love, faith, and purity. Be a solid Christian. Be of good character. If you’ve got that, age won’t matter to anybody but people who lack good character.

Yeah, I know. Lots of Christians lack good character. That’s why young people aren’t often put in charge of things. Either they themselves lack character, or they have plenty but the other leaders don’t.

Delaying “the Joshua generation.”

One of the dumber bits of Christianese in American culture is the term “the Joshua generation.” It refers to the next generation of leaders in the church. Meaning the current leaders are “the Moses generation,” I guess. Thing is, Moses occasionally let Joshua do stuff, like lead battles Ex 17.13 and go on scouting missions. Nu 14.6 Church leaders who like to make a big deal about “the Joshua generation” seldom give them anything to do but gruntwork.

Maybe it’s because they realize Joshua didn’t take the reins from Moses until he was 80 years old. Js 14.10 Yeah, you heard me, eighty. Moses kept ruling till he was 120. Dt 31.2 Clung to power as long as he had life in his body—though for more noble reasons than many a power-coveting Christian. The Joshua generation, they imagine, will take over for them after they die. Maybe when they retire. But certainly not before.

Because, they insist, they’re not yet ready. Not yet spiritually mature enough. Not yet knowledgeable enough. Need to take a few more years of study, internship, or working at ignoble tasks to “pay their dues.” But in holding back any up-and-coming Christians from service and leadership, what they’re really doing is the very thing Paul told Timothy not to let anyone in his church do: They’re looking down upon their youth. The youth are ready; they’ve been ready. (Sometimes they’re older than the current leaders were, when they first took charge!)

Okay yes: Sometimes young people are overzealous. I certainly was in my youth. (I still have flashes of it sometimes. I’ll admit it.) That’s why Christians need accountability systems: Every one of us has blindspots, and other Christians need to come alongside us and warn us lest we’re blindsided. Timothy was instructed to think of the older Christians in his church as spiritual mothers and fathers, 1Ti 5.1-2 which means we honor them, Ex 20.12, Dt 5.16, Mk 10.19 and heed their advice. Don’t take it when it’s evil, but definitely take it when it’s godly. And leaders of all ages, both old and young, would do well to remember they’re not leading their churches alone. It’s Jesus’s church, and the Holy Spirit has many things he’s telling it. Listen to both him Rv 2.7, 2.11, 2.17, 2.29 and the other Christians who are listening to him.

If our leaders are paying attention to this failsafe, it doesn’t matter how old they are. It matters that they’re mature enough to listen to the Spirit and their elders. It matters that they’re obedient to God and submit to one another. It matters that they’re spiritually mature. We needn’t keep track of which generation they fall into. Who cares? Demographers? Please; demographers are just trying to figure people out so they can sell ’em more stuff. God’s kingdom isn’t about that. It’s about following our Messiah.

Breaking the bad attitude.

There need to be young people in your church’s leadership. If there aren’t, your church has failed in its job to prepare them for leadership.

By “in your church’s leadership,” I really do mean in your church’s leadership. They’re not there to observe or advise: They’re in charge of stuff. They’re serving others. They have real responsibilities, real duties, real authority. Yeah they’ll need supervision, but everybody needs supervision, which is why we have an epískopos/“supervisor,” the bishop or head pastor. None of us is so mature we need no supervision. If you imagine certain people need no supervision… well, this is how evil starts to go undetected, and spreads.

Young people need to see that their fellow young people have a voice in leadership. Otherwise they’ll get the idea (and they won’t be wrong) that nobody’s looking out for them. And the instant they’re old enough to switch churches, they will. This is precisely why there are churches with no 20somethings in them: The youth left.

In my 20s, a lot of 20somethings left and started their own churches. At the time they were called “Gen X churches,” named for the label demographers used to describe people of my age range, “generation X.” Of course once the churches grew to include people of all ages—because their leadership likewise grew to include people of all ages—they adopted other labels, like “the emerging church” or “the postmodern church” or “the post-[pick your label] church.” Sometimes they’d get theologically liberal, or even heretic, ’cause the founders of the church knew bupkis about theology. (Again, ’cause their previous churches failed to equip them.) Sometimes they’d get radically conservative, ’cause the churches they left weren’t devout enough for them, and the Fundamentalists or Calvinists or legalists took charge. Frequently they’d get weird for weirdness’s sake. I’ve attended quite a few. They’re fun—deliberately so, because the churches their founders originally left, often weren’t.

You want the young people to leave your church in droves? Keep leaving ’em out of leadership. You want them to stay, or come back? Start including them. (You want young people to come back faster, put ’em in charge of the worship music. It works way better than you’d imagine. By and large, old worship leaders aren’t willing to try anything new. But God wants himself, not our music, to be our comfort.)

Those who balk at the idea of young leaders: Either they’ve bollixed the job of raising up young leaders, so of course they don’t know any who can step up; or they love their authority too much, and for this reason need to give it up and step down. God calls kids into leadership, same as adults. Samuel was a little boy. David was a teenager. Jesus’s first disciples were teenage boys. John the Baptist was a fetus. God doesn’t practice age discrimination. Neither should we.