Are We the Church Infatuated With Youthfulness?

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I always feel cautious about offering observations on church life. I continue to believe that despite the churches exposure to human vulnerability, it has the potential to be amazing. I myself have probably contributed to one misstep after another in the eyes of those who don’t share my personal belief in the life of Jesus. I think this most recent season of public anger towards the church may not be the for the reason we think it is. That is, have we the church interpreted the public angst as persecution for our moral stance  and see it as the cross we bear for choosing a noble pathway in Jesus name? Some of us Christians may even see the publics anger as a badge of honour.

It is possible the public angst is not the sandpaper effect we would like to think we are having, but rather, the public intolerance of our self righteous drive to be the moral compass of the world despite our own failings? This inevitably prompts the natural response from the average person, “who are you to lecture me on what is right or wrong?” Whether Christians like this or not, we have to earn our right to be heard in the eyes of many. I am reminded of that famous quote from St Francis of Assisi, “preach the gospel at all times, and when all else fails, use words.”

Some things we do stir the public to exasperation, like the vicious drill bit focus on the gay community whilst dismissing the tragic outcome of child abuse scandals. But there maybe other dysfunctional practices going on that are a little more subtle and not quite as explosive – things like ‘selective diversity’.

Are we infatuated with youthfulness? This is a question I have found myself pondering as the natural transition of leadership happens in church life from Baby Boomers and GenXers to GenY’s. By the way I am a GenXer and a reasonably happy one!

More often now I am witnessing friends in many churches across the globe who belong to the so called ‘old guard’ told their services are no longer needed. The kinds of explanations they are hearing are, “you are not the future,” “your sound is dated,” “you need to make way for the youth” etc… Some of these observations will inevitably have some truth to it and I personally have been an advocate for showing generational diversity – or any kind of diversity for that matter.

When I first heard the term ‘young down’ it sounded like a cool buzz word that kind of made sense to me. But… I didn’t fully appreciate the implications and the ruthlessness by which some churches would practise the idea. This is most apparent in the creative arts. Preachers are allowed to grow old gracefully but if you are a creative staff member with a guitar strapped around your neck and over 35, you could be perilously close to the exit door.

Church is the one place where you hope to see diversity in all things, age, gender, ethnicity; but I fear based on the growing frequency of unemployed artists who once worked at a church joining the growing line of the disillusioned, there is an imbalance beginning to take place. Leaders of churches are embracing the idea of ethnic diversity but dismissing the idea of age diversity with profound implications. It maybe just as painful to be told you are not welcome because of age as being told you are not welcome because of ethnicity – both say you don’t belong.

The interesting thing is GenY’s in church aren’t looking for the brightest light shows and the most trendy clothes worn by beautiful people. If you spend 5 minutes with a GenY you will hear words like ‘authenticity, real, honest, contemplative, family, tribe, meaning, unplugged and even liturgical. It could be said that the church is lagging behind the trends once again by responding to a felt need of 15 years ago to be creatively contemporary by using excellence or the wow factor as a tool to communicate. What I hear most from people is the desire for something real, not the plastic faces and perfect bodies that adorn the pages of magazines. Church should be a relief valve from the weekly grinding message from the world which is we don’t measure up unless we ‘are or have’.

Pastors who choose to ‘young down’ their churches may be succumbing to the shallow intoxication of youthfulness in an attempt to be contemporary. In a world where generations are more divided than ever the one thing we may need to focus on is how multi generations can share a common theme celebrating and learning from each other.

Sure, once you reach a certain age I think it is good for your focus to be about sharing your skills with the younger generation rather than 100% attention spent on developing yourself. In the same way the younger generation need to see value in the wisdom learnt by people who have been around the block a few times. It is powerful moment when a GenY hears a GenX or Baby Boomer, who are the age of their parents, share openly and vulnerably through the arts. The same would be true of older generations hearing the heart of the young through the arts. Ironically some Christian leaders would prefer to dismiss that kind of tribal sharing in exchange for a one generation influence

To get this balance right we have to be in close community celebrating diversity and pull down divisional walls that masquerade as an ideal future – losing a whole generation in exchange for youthfulness seems crazy. I work in a corporate environment at the moment and there is more diversity in age, ethnicity and gender than any church I know. Choosing one hip generation (or old generation) to reflect all groups cannot do us any good. A church leader should be keen to use all types to reflect all groups with the hope of promoting the dying discipline of tolerance and appreciation.

An extreme example of this selective diversity is practised in a large church in Australia where the leaders will not let anyone over 30 years of age be on the platform. There is nothing subtle about that choice. It is hardly authentic to claim a value in diversity when you only focus on ethnicity but encourage divisive behaviour by excluding whole generations.

I have only been reflecting on the creative arts in churches but maybe this applies to other departments within the church community. If you have a talent or giftedness in a certain area that can connect the fabric of the community you are in, you should be encouraged to participate no matter what your age is. Imagine a church world where respect and tolerance between all genders, ethnicity and age is practised on a Sunday service. If your local church is walking down this path of selective diversity, I encourage you to challenge the thinking. It simply isn’t true to say the church will get old if you have older people on the platform in the arts, it takes corageous contemporary leadership to intentionally demonstrate how young and old can share the same space together.

7 thoughts on “Are We the Church Infatuated With Youthfulness?

  1. Thank you for writing this. You have highlighted a very real issue which has bugged me for ages. It is the only place where you are made to feel old that I have experienced. In the workplace and Uni I feel equal with all age groups. Well done!

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  2. Thanks Jay. I have observed this phenomenon with interest and concern. Good friends with whom I shared years of creative ministry have poured out their hearts in disappointment, hurt, anger and disillusionment when they find themselves “out of a gig”. Being an early (very early) GenX’er, I feel an uncomfortable uncertainty in my own position, although for the present, I enjoy serving with a group whose age range is 16 to late 60’s. I really believe that some congregations are getting closer to true diversity, even in creative ministry, but others are on a slippery slope. I think we will see far reaching consequences, including theological, if we do not find a way to embrace true, all encompassing diversity and acceptance. We still have a long way to go.

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  3. Thanks Jay, an excellent article, well said.
    I personally know someone this happened to in a large eastern suburbs church. At age 60, after 30 years in the music ministry, they were told that they had “reached their musical ceiling”.
    This was in a church whose motto is “loving God and loving people”.

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  4. Great article Jay, well said. I couldn’t agree more.
    I personally know someone who at the age of 60, after 30 years on the worship team, was told they had “reached their musical ceiling” and asked to step down.

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  5. Thanks for the insights, Jay. As a senior pastor and long time worship leader who is wrestling with his own age issue, your words were helpful to me.

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  6. A very well written and insightful comment Jay. Well done.
    It made me reflect on when I first ever served in our little country church as a 16 year old by playing the organ. I guess I did a reasonable job (although I was terribly nervous) but what I remember most was afterwards an old guy came up and shook my hand and thanked me for my efforts. Old Bert was about 70 years older than me and we had nothing in common but a connection to Jesus and a desire to serve our church. Each time I ever played in that church he would thank me. It was great privilege and a joy to play those old hymns for him one last time at his funeral. I didn’t read the music that day, I knew the old Methodist hymn book pretty well by then and in any case I couldn’t see the music for the tears.

    Now more than 40 years later and in another fellowship I’m the old bloke. (well one of them anyway). Last week we had a country gospel band playing for worship with a 60 year old multi instrumentalist, a brilliant piano player/songwriter in his mid 30s , a born again drummer from one of Australia’s more successful rock bands of the late 1970s, yours truly with his trusty Maton and a couple young 16 year old twins on bass and mandolin.
    What do we have in common? A connection to Jesus and a desire to serve our church with our abilities.
    Nothing’s changed. Age doesn’t come into it. It never did.
    When you get down to what it’s really all about, it never will.

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  7. Pingback: When a Church Volunteer or Staff Member Burns Out, Who is Responsible? | Jay McNeill – Growing Sideways

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