By Rex Deckard
In the United Pentecostal Church there are a little over 400 men and women under the age of thirty who currently hold ministerial credentials. While numerically this may be comparable to the statistics of a generation ago, as a percentage of the total constituency, this is a significant decline. Anecdotal accounts tell us that on average, fewer and fewer young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five are applying for license than ever before. Most license applicants are entering the ministry at an older age. While this delay may possibly result in better retention in the long run, it may also indicate that ministry is being bypassed for other career paths by young people, who in turn may never again feel the searing hot call of God drawing them the way they experienced it during their teen years. In the interval, it is likely they will have made life choices that will have an influence in a later response to the call of ministry.
This phenomenon is the result of several factors, some of which should be understood, and others which must be addressed.
The Delay Of The Onset Of Adulthood
In Western society today childhood ends sooner than ever before, and adolescence is lasting longer than ever before. In the agrarian ago, children experienced a long childhood, brief adolescence, married young, and had a long adulthood.
During the industrial age there was a shorter childhood, slightly longer adolescence that included increased labor and education and that led to marriage and adult responsibilities, followed by a long adulthood beginning around seventeen years old.
This has drastically changed in modern society. In the information age there is a brief childhood in which children are given increasingly adult-like attributes (consider Barbie dolls and children’s television), followed by a very long adolescence with more free time and little responsibility, and an adulthood reached later than in any previous generation. Marriage, career, and families are all things that can wait. Popular television sitcoms commonly present as the norm men and women in their late 20s and 30s who have few responsibilities, no family or long term career, and with a lifestyle that imitates an irresponsible adolescent.
As a result of the lengthening of adolescence, peer and media influence are much greater than ever before. Youth have fewer responsibilities, delayed marriages, redefined relationships within the family, and have become a huge market for entertainment and media consumption. In the midst of this, many young people struggle with loneliness, feelings of worthlessness, relativistic confusions, anger, hurt, meaninglessness, indifference, and unmet needs.
In short, Christian service is not even on the radar screen of most youth in society or in the media. For youth in the church to take this path, they venture into waters that none of their friends on MySpace or at the mall have even considered.
The Silence Of Pulpits Regarding The Call To Preach
Preaching about sacrifice, servant-hood, and the divine call of God to serve selflessly has never been preached less than in American churches today. The mantra of marketing is WIIFM (What’s In It For Me). As a result, too many enter ministry with unrealistic expectations of success and an un-willingness to face the suffering that has always been characteristic of Christian ministry. Some enter ministry seeking the limelight, but find out instead that it is hard, demanding, and often underappreciated work.
Ministry is not just a vocation; it is a call from heaven. Jesus did not call the disciples and die on a cross to create a job opportunity. The Son of Man came to seek and to serve. As one old preacher observed, “You generally get what you preach.” Carlton Coon often says, “what is celebrated is repeated.” There must be preaching about the call of God to ministry and service, and this preaching must occur consistently at the local assembly, not just in large conferences.
The Decline Of Active Church Involvement Among Youth In Society
Around 3,000 churches close each year in America, with only 1,500 new churches opening. This decline is particularly keen among rural churches and small inner city churches that simply cannot afford to keep the doors open.
There was a time in the not-too-distant past in which almost all of the classmates in a young person’s school went to a church of some kind, and becoming involved in Christian service was not unusual. Times have changed. Only 12% of people under eighteen are attending church in America. Even worse, only 10% of these people continue going to church when they are adults. Of America’s more than 30 million teenagers 88% are un-churched. Of the 12% who currently attend church, 80% will stop attending before they graduate from high school.
Other surveys reveal that 90% of people who give their lives to Christ do so before age thirty. These statistics all have a profound influence on the number of young people choosing to hear the call of God to ministry.
The Competition Of Other Paths Which Appear Far More Attractive Than The Role Of Clergy
Youth are affected by the need for prestige, for respect, and to be valued by others. The media’s coverage of scandals by television preachers and pedophile priests, along with a general mocking of the church and clergy by a hostile Hollywood, has caused a lack of respect for the ministry in the general community. This influence of the media has been most profound among youth.
Youth who are exposed to the life of a minister observe the stress of being on call twenty-four hours a day, dealing with IRS regulations, managing facilities, working with ransient congregations, handling volunteer staffing issues, and living with poor congregational commitment-often doing this on a part-time salary.
The Need Fro Mentoring And Support For Youth Who Pursue The Call
One frustrated young minister confided, Kids today feel they have to be perfect to be in ministry, and that leads to the perception that they’ll never make the cut… I myself have fought this as a growing minister. I feel I am expected to live up to the standard, but yet I am not given any mentoring and support from seasoned veterans to help me. We spend millions of dollars making a kid into a fighter pilot, but we won’t spend a sixty-minute phone call to a younger aspiring minister asking him how he is doing with his relationship with God? Does he have any questions? Is he struggling with anything? And letting him know that he can share anything in confidence without a fear of backlash.
Moving Toward A Solution
The local pastor, church leaders, parents, sectional and district officials, and to a lesser extent our national fellowship must all address the problem of recruiting youth to ministry, and then giving them intensive support and guidance. This should not be done with a haphazard, as-needed approach, but rather in a consistent, systematic way. Districts and sections should have active youth advisory councils to inform officials of the needs of the youth in their area.
In the local church, ministry and Christian service must be presented from an early age as a viable choice every young person should consider.
Young people should be given ownership in the life of the church in meaningful ways. They should be included in meaningful decision making and given responsible roles in the local assembly. Youth could be asked to write and perform an Easter drama or a live outdoor Christmas nativity. They can be assigned a role as Webmaster, be incorporated into the ushering staff, teach a class in vacation Bible school, or lead a worship service.
Youth who feel a call or desire to work for God should have opportunities for training hosted by the local church, or sponsored to attend good quality conferences. Equipping youth for service should be a top priority of every church and district.
Nationally, more scholarship funds should be pursued for students desiring to pursue ministry through a Bible college track. Additionally, intensive leadership training programs must be developed that focus on equipping eighteen- to twenty-five-year-old workers who do not choose a Bible college education. Mentoring at the local and district levels must be a top priority for districts at both pre- and post-license levels.
The cost may be great, but the stakes are high. The cost of doing too little will be the forfeiture of our future. May we never join King Hezekiah, who when being told of the coming disasters responded joyfully, “At least it won’t come in my generation!”
This article “Youth And Ministry: Where Have All The Young Men Gone?” written by Rex Deckard is excerpted from Forward Magazine a July/August 2007 edition.