Bench Warmers

How churches are sidelining their most valuable young players.
If you are a gifted singer or musician, a record contract could be awarded to you—at virtually any age. If you are an exceptional writer, artist or actor, you can make your way to the pinnacle of your vocation even as a young adult. If you are effective in business and management, you can rise through the corporate ranks quickly, holding positions of authority commensurate with your skill and ability.

But if you are in your twenties or thirties and you want to find a challenging and meaningful role as a lay leader in your local church, well, good luck. Try again in a decade or two.

According to our research, this is the experience of millions of young adults—especially those gifted as leaders—who drop out of churches following high school and are less likely than previous generations to ever return to congregational life. These used-to-be-churched young adults traverse their most significant life decisions—education, career, marriage, relationships, the formation of their faith and values, and more—without involvement or opportunities from a local church.

In fact, just one out of every eight churchgoing Busters (the generation of Americans ages 22 to 40) have served as a lay leader in the last two years. That compares with one-quarter of Boomers (ages 41 to 59) and one-third of Elders (ages 60-plus).

And since Busters are less likely to be churchgoers at all, that further softens their leadership engagement in churches. Just one out of 25 Busters is currently serving in any leadership capacity in a local congregation, nearly three times less likely than Boomers and almost five times less common than Elders.

What makes this reality so sobering is the unfulfilled potential of Buster leaders. By failing to connect with these missing leaders, churches are leaving significant levels of time, creativity, talent, energy and passion on the table. Check out the data in the graphic: 23 percent of Busters say they "definitely" consider themselves to be a leader, which is nearly identical to the levels among Boomers (22 percent) and Elders (22 percent).

Of course, there are many ways of assessing whether or not people are gifted as leaders, and not everyone who calls himself a leader actually has the character, competencies or calling to be used in accomplishing God's purposes. But do you see the bigger picture here? God has given each generation its share of leaders, but many of today's youngest leaders are not being energized toward Kingdom purposes.

God always gives His people what they need to flourish—leaders, resources and so on. It becomes our responsibility to steward those resources and gifts effectively. The simple reality is that churches are failing to make the most of opportunities with young leaders. The result is that millions of young leaders are abandoning God's destiny for their lives and for their leadership.

The feeling of being sidelined is especially frustrating to young leaders because they actually want to grow and learn. Busters are significantly more likely than are older generations to say they would like additional training to become a better leader. But make no mistake: Busters do not merely want a period of training and apprenticeship in which they are slowly and methodically nurtured for some distant leadership horizon.

Instead, young leaders want hands-on, meaningful opportunities. They are willing to have their leadership capacity shaped, but not merely in classroom settings or in under-the-radar roles. They would rather be making an impact while learning on the job.

Bill Hybels. James Dobson. Billy Graham. Many of today's most influential Christian leaders began their ministries at young ages. Imagine the ministry and marketplace influence America's youngest generations could have—if their leadership potential is realized. Will you help young leaders discover that destiny? After all, the last thing we want is to see rising leaders making their fortunes and finding fulfillment outside the church.

David Kinnaman is Vice President and Strategic Leader of The Barna Group, Ltd., in Ventura, Calif. For more research on leadership, twentysomethings, young leaders and teenagers, visit

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