Updated: Nov 18, 2020
This article is Part 2 of the series: Why Emerging Generations Are Leaving the Church.
Written by reKindle Contributor, Brent Sellers.
With so much recent conversation about younger generations leaving the church at an alarming rate—the verdict may still be out. But much has been studied regarding what can be done to retain and attract these generations as the Church. It’s becoming clearer that many churches that earnestly desire a resurgence of faith among these generations have a ways to grow in releasing kingdom works and influence into their care—but there’s hope. Commonly, we might say that after a person has been equipped for ministry, it’s time for them to be “released”. This assumes that it is the person themselves who needs releasing. But, I contend that the struggle for many church leaders today is not whether they are willing to release the person unto ministry, but whether they are willing to release the ministry unto the person. That may seem like squabbling over semantics, but I’ve come to see the difference as profound. As a millennial working in an environment where I am empowered and entrusted with significant kingdom tasks and influence, it is disheartening to know that the same cannot be said for many of my peers.
Micro-managed ministry endeavours; hiring under the auspice of an invitation to risk and change only later to be stymied; a pulpit held so tightly as to not be open to those with less age or experience; elders boards where age trumps character and giftedness; administration of communion or the baptizing of a believer held as exclusively for senior clergy.
Personally, during one of the most poignant but vital rebukes I received as a young pastor, a mentor told me, “You don’t really have anything to say until you’re at least 35.” This haunted me for years, until God allowed me to be free of it.
These accounts are more common than we like to admit and they highlight a real tension. Most in church leadership know the value of and even earnestly desire to see emerging generations assume a kingdom mindedness and take up the mantle of ministry leadership. Yet, at the same time, we struggle with distrust of others and self-dependence or pride and self-importance.
Further, there has been much focus on the pivotal transitional season where high school teenagers become post-secondary emerging adults. The body of research that led to the Renegotiating Faith study of 2018 identified the immense value of a church mentor who navigates local church connections with the student during this season. Students who received such help were three times more likely to connect with a new local church (Hiemstra, Dueck, & Blackaby, pp. 134-136). But this statistic primarily reflects students who have moved out of their parents home and/or moved to another city/province for their education, and, thus, has caused many—including me—to consider ways to aid students who travel for post-secondary to make those vital connections with a new local church community, and rightly so. However, the best Statistics Canada data we have to date suggests that only 10% of Canadian students cross a provincial border for their post secondary education (Postsecondary Student Information System, 2012) and only 11% choose an international education (Global Education For Canadians, 2017, p. 20).
Additionally, nearly 63% of Canadians between the ages of 20-24 are choosing to live with their parents through these years of life (Statistics Canada, 2017). What’s more, the Renegotiating Faith study showed only 42% of Evangelicals surveyed connected with a new church; the remainder was comprised of 42% who did not connect with a church and 16% who continued to attend the same church (Renegotiating Faith, p. 131). These figures strongly suggest that the bulk of our Christian post-secondary students remain well within the proximity and influence of the church of their upbringing, but we are still losing them. Yet, the recent optimistic analysis of Rick Richardson’s book, You Found Me, (American though it may be) suggests that a majority of the “unchurched” (those who have not attended church in over 6-months) still identify as Christian (Richardson, p. 39)—and—nearly 40% of unchurched millennials expect to regularly attend church in the future, with many actually doing so between the ages of 23-30 (p. 70). Consequently, it seems at least equally, if not more, pressing that local churches consider ways to continually engage their emerging adults within their own congregations during the formative early years of post-secondary and their career.
In the book Growing Young, author Kara Powell and her team explore “Essential Strategies” to draw emerging generations to the Church. Notably first on their list is “Keychain Leadership”—the concept of empowering others as opposed to centralizing authority. Powell’s research calls the church leader to: First, become more aware of the “keys” we hold—the “capabilities, power, and access of leaders that carry the potential to empower young people”; and, second, to be “intentional about entrusting and empowering all generations, including teenagers and emerging adults, with their own set of keys.” They call it a “spirit and commitment” that must be present throughout the entire church leadership structure (Powell, Mulder, & Griffin, 2016, p. 53). Their research inquired of both church leaders who were having success with young people, and those young congregants themselves. Of those, 48% of church leaders (the highest response) and 77% of congregants pointed to “church leadership” (above worship style, social justice, or technology) as the primary reason for their churches effectiveness with emerging generations (Growing Young, p. 56). Powell sums it up well: “If you are willing to entrust your keys to young people, they will trust you with their hearts, their energy, their creativity, and even their friends.” (p. 55) What keys do you hold, and are you willing to entrust them to somebody younger?
Brent Sellers is Pastor of Youth & Young Adults at RockPointe Church in Calgary, AB, Canada.
Brent has been a part of RockPointe's Next Gen ministry for nearly 15 years, serving in every capacity from volunteer to department head. He's privileged to work alongside an incredible team of leaders - both staff and volunteers - who share a deep love for the emerging generations and strive to empower young people for local church ministry and mission.
Brent has been a Jesus-follower since childhood, but really stepped into a call to ministry after his youth pastors empowered him. He's husband to Rowena, and father to their three fiery redhead daughters.
Center for International Policy Studies, University of Ottawa, and Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. (2017). Global Education For Canadians.
Hiemstra, R., Dueck, L., & Blackaby, M. (2018). Renegotiating Faith. Toronto: Faith Today Publications.
Powell, K., Mulder, J., & Griffin, B. (2016). Growing Young. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group.
Richardson, R. (2019). You Found Me. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press.
Statistics Canada. (2012). Postsecondary Student Information System.
Statistics Canada. (2017). Young Adults Living With Their Parents In Canada in 2016.