20 June, 2024

CIY’s Vision for Raising Up Tomorrow’s Leaders

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by | 1 May, 2024 | 1 comment

By Jayson French with Eric Epperson 

I loved the church before I knew who Jesus was. My family didn’t go to church. We weren’t churchgoing types. But then we met the people who made up my local church and they won us over. Getting to know those people led us to know Jesus. They made my parents feel at home, discipled me, and eventually helped me hear the call to vocational ministry. To be honest, I see my work today as a continuation of their work.  

Who did you love before you knew who Jesus was? Whose impact on your life led you to Christ? It’d be worth your time to thank them today if possible. And when you’re done sending them a text or email, I’d ask you to consider who will carry on your work after you’re gone. You don’t have to check the calendar to know you are closer to retirement than ever. 

Have you given much thought about who will follow in your footsteps? If this concerns you, you’re not alone. The concern for the future generation of church leaders is widespread. In 2023, Christianity Today reported that 1 in 4 pastors plans to retire by 2030. Additionally, in 2022, only 16 percent of Protestant pastors are under 40, with 52 being the average age of a pastor in the United States. As we see more and more Boomers retire, and Gen Xers preparing to retire, the church faces an immense shortage of pastors. A Barna survey revealed that 75 percent of pastors find it increasingly difficult to discover mature, young Christians interested in becoming pastors.  

Wait. Did Barna say, “It’s becoming harder to find mature, young Christians who want to become pastors?” I disagree. I see them every summer. Approximately 1,600 young individuals stand up each summer at CIY events and dedicate their lives to vocational ministry. The students aren’t the issue; we adults are. We owe those students, and the future church, our best effort to find a solution.  

Our role at Christ In Youth is to serve the church. Like Paul wrote in Philippians 1:3-5, “I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel” (author’s paraphrase). We create moments that stir a desire to do kingdom work. Sometimes, that kingdom work plays out in the school cafeteria, but sometimes it meshes with a career path.  

But at CIY, we see a disconnect between the approximately 1,600 young people who make decisions every summer and the number who follow through. Intentional pastors raise the next generation of church leaders, but often the voices of young people are competing in a noisy space. Think about the amount of attention young people get from teachers and coaches when it comes to career prep. There are admissions tests and internships, co-ops, and career days. There are unrelenting expectations and pressure on our students. It’s not that the call to vocational ministry wasn’t real, it’s just that no one helped a young person put wheels on it.  

For the last couple of years, this issue has been at the forefront of our hearts at CIY. So many times, at a church or CIY event, people want to know what CIY is doing to call the next generation of pastors. We began to pray through this issue and conducted some research to listen to students who went to CIY events in recent years. We surveyed more than 400 people (all of whom graduated high school between 1992 and 2023) who made vocational ministry decisions at CIY events. The research showed that of those who made decisions to go into ministry at CIY events, 63 percent of them are still actively taking steps to fulfill that decision.  

We asked former CIY attendees who are pursuing ministry today, what their church did that helped them the most. We gave them a list and asked them to check all that apply. The leading responses were “believed in me” (66 percent), “let me start serving” (47 percent), and “mentored me for ministry” (46 percent). The data indicates that empowering relationships and opportunities to serve are monumental catalysts for launching pastors. And the good news is that those are things that every church can offer.  

We have a generation of young people who are attending our events who are looking for Christianity to be about something more than attendance. This generation is the most interactive in history. They want to create, not just observe. They desire to contribute, not merely consume. The attractional model doesn’t interest them; they seek an activation model.  

Starting this summer, we will begin a multiyear process to ensure that every decision made at a CIY event is a resourced decision. This means every student will leave their CIY event with a plan. This initiative will arm them with the necessary tools to engage with pastors, parents, and others. As we focus on preparing students for the journey ahead, I encourage you, as a church leader, to reflect on four characteristics of leaders who nurture and support the leaders of tomorrow.  

  

Leaders Who Care (Enough to Track the Data)  

In my many experiences with thoughtful leaders, one principle stands out: If it matters, we measure it. We have attendance projections, campaign goals, and program benchmarks. We track downloads and recruit volunteers. But I once asked a pastor how many students they sent into ministry last year, and he couldn’t provide an answer. This lack of awareness is a crisis, so I’d like to share one goal and one opportunity with your church’s leadership.  

First the goal. I encourage your leadership team to make praying for harvest workers a part of every meeting of elders. I encourage you to set a tangible number you measure of how many vocational ministry leaders you’d like to see your church produce every year. I’d like you to become the biggest champions of your youth ministry and lavishly reward the results you’d like to see.  

Now the opportunity. CIY is investing time, energy, and money into creating resources for students who will make ministry commitments. I invite you to work with us through using these resources in your ministry and/or underwriting their creation. We would be honored to have a conversation with your missions committee about how we can work together to equip 1,600 young people every year to follow through with what God has called them to do.  

  

Leaders Who Share (Ministry Opportunities Today)  

After 14 years working in the church and 22 years at CIY, my perspective on the need for vocational ministers continues to increase. CIY is dedicated to serving the church because we believe God reaches the world through her. However, we’re concerned we’re measuring the wrong things.  

Churches should be places of worship and learning. At a recent roundtable, church leaders told us that meaningful service opportunities were the No. 1 way they kept teens engaged in pursuing vocational ministry. This is why Mike Branton at Sun Valley Community Church (Gilbert, Arizona) actively tracks how many of his students serve each week. That percentage is a tangible marker for determining ongoing discipleship.  

This is why Daniel Rankin at Crossings Community (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), and his youth ministry staff, meet monthly with a group of students who made ministry commitments. The cohort goes through a curriculum and meets with various church leaders, but they also work toward leading out in a service in some way. As a result, nearly half of the high schoolers in the program spend at least one year at Bible college.  

It’s why at Southeast Christian Church (Louisville, Kentucky), Ben Cross and Cathy Cook have launched a ministry called Prepare. They work with students who have made a commitment to vocational ministry to keep them on track and help resource their decision.  

Share leadership. Let students handle your social media, production, preschool ministry. Quality is crucial, but if a student can do something half as well as you, empower them. This is about return on investment. If a young person plays a vital role in your church, you have a leader for decades. Invest in young leaders, ensuring that the impact continues long after your retirement.  

  

Leaders Who Bear (the Burden of Helping Young People Grow)  

Your youth pastor can’t do it alone. From my days as a teenager, I can still remember the senior pastors who attended church camp. I call on lead pastors and executive pastors to rekindle this tradition. It’s time to get the sleeping bag down from the attic. I think you should go to camp next summer. And don’t just drop in, go all-in. Ride the bus, lead a small group, play 9-Square until your Hokas give out. It’s not about adding a registration or checking on the youth pastor—it’s about being present when the lightbulb goes off for a student.  

My friend Darrel Land at Redemption Christian Church (Jasper, Indiana) is a senior pastor, and he attends a CIY event with their student ministry every summer. He could be doing lots of other things, but he wouldn’t miss it. It’s too much of an investment opportunity to miss, he’d say. Summer camp and CIY events are usually the start of big things. This is your invitation to the ground level. The data tells us that someone “believing in” a student is the most powerful thing in the process. Imagine if that person was a lead pastor. That kind of encouragement is unstoppable.  

Commit to viewing your youth ministry as a platform to send out the next generation of missionaries and church planters (and not just a program to attract people). These young individuals are your legacy, your Timothies. They are your way to reach people for generations to come. And they will do it if you tell them that you believe they can.  

  

Leaders Who Are There (Recruitment + Retention)  

Recruit, but retain.  

While I remain firmly convinced of an impending pastoral crisis, I believe there is more than one way to solve the problem. Recruiting new pastors is important, but so is retaining those we’ve already called.  

Can we close some of the back doors on pastors leaving vocational ministry? I believe we’ve all seen the social media posts of those who are stepping away from located ministry to pursue other career paths. There are a host of reasons why they have left: church hurt, burnout, financial struggles, and lack of support, to name just a few. Others of those truly felt called to leave, and that could be the right decision.  

However, what if a pastor we’ve already raised up in our local churches continued to receive our encouragement and support long after ordination? What if we created a culture where the elders regularly prayed over them? What if they knew they had a place to turn when ministry got difficult? What if elderships and executive leaderships had written plans of ongoing care and provided consistent follow-up for the pastors they sent out?  

There are tangible things we can do as a church to close the back door for some of the pastors who are considering leaving. Develop a list of the people who consider your church their home. Call them, write to them, pray for them, pay for counseling when needed, check on their families, and celebrate them publicly when they come home. Make retention a priority of your leadership. Be there when you hear things are good and (especially) when you hear things are difficult. Paul often spoke of being encouraged by the church when he was in hardship. How can we model that same spirit?  

In this pivotal moment for the church, let’s embrace the vital mission of inspiring, mentoring, empowering, and encouraging people for vocational ministry. As stewards of our faith, let’s do what Jesus tells us in Matthew 9:38—let’s ask. Let’s commit to prayerfully asking Jesus to raise up workers from our churches. Then let’s be diligent to care for the crop. It’s time we actively invest in them, ensuring the enduring vibrancy and relevancy of the church for generations to come.  

Jayson French serves as president of Christ In Youth. 

Eric Epperson serves as vice president of story with Christ In Youth. 

1 Comment

  1. Mark Hodges

    I’d like to see how we could help with future leaders in our church.
    We have a strong youth program and usually have an intern or two each year but we could probably do more.

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