Recently I witnessed the leadership transition of a few churches in Malaysia. These transitions happened because some pastors reached retirement age, while some left their roles abruptly due to health conditions. In many cases, the transition was unprepared for, and there was no younger leader to succeed in the role. Have we not paid attention to Psalm 145:4 to commend the works of God to another generation? Have we failed to raise our next generations to fulfil the Great Commission? I do not think so. We find vibrant youth ministries across the globe. Many resources have been developed to train and educate the younger generations. Yet there seems to be a lack of engagement with young people in church ministry.
There seems to be a lack of engagement with young people in church ministry. How should church leaders engage with them?
In the report ‘Analysis of Lausanne 4 Listening Calls’ by the Global Listening Team, ‘reaching the younger generations’ is identified as one of the most significant gaps in the fulfilment of the Great Commission. When asked about where further research is needed, the topic ‘Gen Z and younger generations’ is highlighted. The report consistently emphasises that the global church has not engaged the younger generations sufficiently. There is an urgent need to evangelise and disciple young people as well as to involve younger generations in leadership conversations.
This article aims to reflect on getting young people into ministry and leadership. How should church leaders engage with them? What is causing the disconnection between the generations? I hope to provide a preliminary answer to these questions. For the sake of clarity, the ‘younger generations’ in this article refer to the millennials (born between 1984 and 1998) and Generation Z (born between 1999 and 2015).
In 2019 the Barna Group and World Vision conducted a global survey of 15,369 respondents across 25 countries. They produced a global report entitled, ‘The Connected Generation: How Christian Leaders Around the World Can Strengthen Faith & Well-Being Among 18-35-Year-Olds’. Here are some interesting findings from the report:
The report shows that the younger generations are more willing to contribute to the needs of society than what has been wrongly presumed as selfish, lazy, and entitled. It also points out that the development in network technology and globalisation play an important role in shaping the worldview of the younger generations. If the younger generations want to bring positive changes to the world, the global church needs to affirm them. Why are we not seeing the intergenerational engagement we hope for? This leads to my observations in my local context.
As a millennial serving as a national Christian leader, I have the opportunity to interact with the senior and the younger generations in Malaysian churches and Christian organisations. I observe that there are three disconnections between the generations:
There are disconnected expectations between senior leaders and younger people, and vice versa.
There are disconnected expectations between senior leaders and younger people, and vice versa. Senior leaders would like to see the younger people serve with tenacity, loyalty, and a desire to expand their leadership capacity through hard work. The younger people, on the other hand, hope senior leaders will give them space to fail, try new things, and maintain a healthy work-life balance. While some senior church leaders are hoping their young leaders will ‘take over’ their positions eventually, the young leaders are hoping their senior leadership would release them to new and creative ministries. Many senior church leaders aspire to build strong, big, and influential organisations. Many younger leaders prefer to build small, intimate, radical organisations.
The differences in expectations are related to the differences in value systems. Senior leaders who have been through the Industrial Age, influenced by capitalism and the free market, may highly value stability, competitiveness, productivity, and materialism. The younger generations who grew up with the blessings of peace, technology, and higher education would ascribe more value to creativity, innovation, comfort, and digital assets. The younger generations generally do not value ‘delayed gratification’. They would rather move quickly to another job with better pay than take time to establish themselves in a particular job. The seniors usually find it incomprehensible for an adult not to have a permanent job.
The differences between senior and younger generations become more evident in their language. Whereas senior leaders commonly talk about success, family, financial independence, and commitment, younger leaders tend to talk about personal space, work-life balance, collaboration, and season in life. While senior leaders prefer to write emails, younger leaders like to tweet or send short messages with acronyms.
These differences lead me to consider the possible solution to the issue.
Have we lost our younger generations? In 2019 I presented a survey at the General Assembly of the Asia Theological Association. More than 64 percent of theological institutions that responded to the survey indicated a growing trend of millennials joining their institutions. The younger generations remain a vital workforce in society and also in the church. There is hope in engaging with the younger generations.
For the generations to engage with one another, there is a need for cross-cultural practice. Younger generations generally spend about three hours per day on social media. They identify themselves as ‘netizens’. Although the senior and younger generations share a common living space, they are virtually in different worlds. Senior leaders must develop ‘cultural intelligence’ when engaging with younger generations.
Mai Moua, in her book Culturally Intelligent Leadership: Leading Through Intercultural Interactions, helpfully highlights five areas that leaders must learn to overcome cultural differences. I will use her pointers to reflect on how senior leaders engage with younger generations.
Leaders take the initiative to understand that the younger generations are formed in a different socio-culture context. Awareness of the differences is the first step toward engagement.
Leaders look for opportunities to learn about the culture of the younger generations. They share what they have learned with others to gain clarity about their cultural differences.
Leaders reflect on their preconceived assumptions and biases against the younger generations. Identifying incorrect presumptions helps leaders overcome prejudice and unnecessary hindrances in building relationships.
It is challenging to deal with cultural conflicts, but it is not impossible to overcome them. It requires the willingness and commitment of both the senior and younger generations.
Senior leaders who are willing to adapt to and accommodate the culture of younger generations will have a higher chance of success in engaging them. Younger leaders appreciate senior leaders who are willing to work out cultural differences by crossing the boundaries of hierarchy.
Pastor Kenneth Chin, the founder of Acts Church, has established a ministry that is known for its engagement with younger ministers. At the age of 50, he successfully transitioned the executive leadership of the church to a younger minister. These are some of the models and practices that have helped him to engage with the younger generations:
Some of the models and practices that have helped him to engage with the younger generations.
Pastor Chin finds that the senior generation is used to monologue, but the younger generations preferred dialogue in communication. He spends a huge amount of time over meals with younger ministers in small groups. In his conversation with them, Pastor Chin stresses the heartfelt concerns of the ministers, rather than just focusing on the practical works of the ministry.
Pastor Chin started the church with a group of young Christians. As they grew older, he learned to adjust his expectations and style of communication according to their age. Having said that, he affirms that every believer should keep serving despite the transition into a different stage of life.
Pastor Chin develops a mentoring system using an American football terminology, the ‘huddle’. In American football, the team ‘huddles’ together in a tight circle to strategise, cheer, and/or celebrate. He personally mentored 12 leaders in his ‘huddle’. He makes efforts to understand their needs, motivate them in ministry, and provide spiritual support to them. Through the system, one generation will mentor another generation. Pastor Chin does not directly mentor the younger generations; he expects the leaders from his ‘huddle’ to do so. However, he keeps an open door to all age groups, whenever someone needs his personal guidance.
Pastor Chin considers ministry to be a relay race, not a marathon. There is a ‘20-metre space’ for the runner to pass the baton to the next runner. The senior leaders need to discern the time for the transition of leadership. When senior leaders miss the window of transition by either passing the baton too early or too late, younger leaders will move on to another opportunity elsewhere. Pastor Chin affirms that the younger generations have the desire to take up leadership, and they wish to do so respectfully to their senior leaders. However, when senior leaders do not respond to younger ministers, respect from the young ones will eventually wane. When the transition is done well, the senior leader can play the role of the encourager to cheer on the next leader who is now carrying the baton.
As we can see, Pastor Chin cultivates a culture of reaching the next generation by first influencing and training them to engage with subsequent generations.
The younger generations are no longer leaders of the future. Many of them have started taking up the baton of leadership in the present. Let us persevere in our efforts to engage with them and be ready to entrust the leadership mantle to them.
Victor Lee has been the president of the Bible College of Malaysia since January 2017. He is also an EXCO member of the Assemblies of God of Malaysia and a council member of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF) of Malaysia. He holds a PhD in divinity from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Currently he worships at First Assembly of God, Kuala Lumpur, with his wife Vicky Teng and two children, Wallace and Wilma.