Why we’‘re afraid to let young people lead- —and how to overcome it

Photo by Sweet Ice Cream Photography

In multigenerational church settings, it’s uncommon to see a young person in a prominent position of leadership. In my own experience, the larger the church, the less likely it is for someone in their twenties—or even thirties—to be included in shaping the church as a whole. If you look at the leadership teams of many churches, you’ll notice that few appear to be much younger than 40, and some are far older.

In short, many elders are exactly that.

And to some extent, I understand it. I would not expect an early-career employee to suddenly advance to the senior executive team (without some dire circumstances or serious strategic cartwheels). A young person, by virtue of being young, inevitably lacks the diversity of experiences a mid-career or senior-level individual might possess. She has a shorter backlog of scenarios to reference under pressure and an understandably meager track record. Her professional career is just beginning.

But accompanying these indisputable realities are also the perceptions of young people that cast us as unqualified by virtue of who we are. These are far more insidious. If any generation has been greatly disparaged for the way we were raised, it’s today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings. We’re believed to be lazy. Entitled. Ignorant, immature, fragile, and image-driven.

As a twenty-seven-year-old, these perceptions break my heart. At my church of several thousand, I host a small group of young adults who love Jesus and have so much to offer. One of them leads the microfinance arm of a large international Christian nonprofit. Another uses photography to tell stories of women and men on Skid Row in Los Angeles, individuals many of us would fear to look at, not to mention encounter up close. Yet another spends her weekdays working with children with disabilities as an occupational therapist, then helps with adults with disabilities on Sundays. These people inspire me.

And they’re all under 40.

Not all of my friends aspire to greater leadership and influence at their churches, but some of them do. And yet again and again, we run into the doubt, fear, and fixed mentality of leaders who are more convinced of our untrustworthiness than willing to consider our potential.

The true cost of resistance

Many of us believe in calling—God’s invitation for us to participate in kingdom work in a unique way. Perhaps a short-term call to show up for a friend in need. Or a long-term call to volunteer with a youth group or senior support group. Or a lifetime vocation in an industry where we can make an impact.

When a friend shares a sense of conviction or calling, we usually feel compelled to encourage him to move forward in obedience. We offer to pray. We propose ways to help. We tap into our best resources so he can be courageous and faithful.

But what if a young person feels called to leadership? Do we offer the same kind of support and enthusiasm?

Or what if a young person is already recognized as a leader in almost every context except at church? What does that say about us?

The challenge isn’t the rare nature of this situation, but rather its ubiquity. If a young person feels compelled to spiritual leadership, he or she can all too easily find peers in the Old and New Testaments, not to mention current-day peers who’ve experienced those same terrifying feelings of conviction. In many cases, God builds his people to lead and to serve despite naysayers, doubters, and skeptics.

Acknowledging the potential validity of God’s call on a young person to lead, would we stand in the way? Would we keep her from responding to God’s invitation?

Or would we instead be willing to unleash her to pursue that call?

Asking important questions – faithfully

Still, even when you’re open to more young people in prominent positions of leadership at your church, you might have lingering questions about the value they bring. Those questions are valid—any responsible leader might ask them.

So perhaps what we need is a better response to the uncertainties inherent to involving young people. And sometimes it’s simply a perspective shift in the question itself.

Objection: Young people “lack life experience.”

A better question: What experiences does this young person bring? Perhaps they haven’t raised a family or earned an advanced degree (yet), but they’re intentional with their friendships or deeply involved in the community. Look for surprising areas of strength, rather than a checklist of traditional milestones.

Objection: Young people “aren’t settled.”

A better question: How might leadership be a part of this young person’s present and future? Think of the opportunities you had in your younger years to explore your strengths and passions. Consider the ways those opportunities affected your character, your perspective, or your vocation. Even if transition is inevitable for young people today, early leadership opportunities can bear fruit for years to come.

Objection: Young people “make risky decisions.”

A better question: What do I stand to lose if I don’t take the risk to elevate this young person? Every leader must calculate risk, but sometimes we need to reframe that calculation. Rather than wondering if a willing young person is too risky to task with important responsibilities, consider the risk of not giving her a chance. Will your church miss out on her service? Will she miss a door God is opening? And if your church can’t take this risk, who will?

Objection: Young people “may not be able to handle it.”

A better question: What support would help this young person navigate the challenging dynamics at our church? Rather than deferring to the most “low-maintenance” volunteer, ask whether your church is willing to provide emotional support as young leaders face challenging situations. Can you offer hope when they despair? Can you offer comfort when they fail? Can you offer perspective when they’re criticized?

Objection: Young people “will make me irrelevant.”

A better question: How will my partnership with this young person accomplish more than we could ever accomplish alone? Some of us are told on our wedding day that the sum of a marriage is more than its parts. In other words, when we come together, God blesses our partnership and multiplies our impact. The same can be true for leaders of different ages who come together willing to truly collaborate. So rather than making this a competition of relevance, consider the ways young people can enhance your leadership, and you can enhance theirs.

Objection: Young people “aren’t stepping up.”

A better question: Is our current leadership structure preventing young people from offering their gifts? Perhaps they don’t sense an invitation or that they are truly needed. Perhaps they feel awkward asking for opportunities when others at your church seem to have everything handled. And just because an announcement was made from the pulpit does not mean people feel invited to serve; get to know young people at your church and the unique ways in which they can contribute. 

As you begin to involve more young people in significant conversations and culture-shaping decisions, I pray these fears will abate. And as your church grows young, it will become a place where everyone feels invited—and convicted—to step up together.