The following article is an updated version of one that ran in the fall 2021 edition of Onward.
Almost every time I am in a conversation with a church leader who is older than mid-forties, invariably the conversation shifts to how their children and grandchildren are leaving the church. They are not necessarily leaving their faith or familial commitments and enjoyments; they’re just leaving the church. Many are no longer convinced the church is a place where they are able to meaningfully experience God and his work in this world. And their non-churched friends, of course, say the same thing. At a recent college-age group retreat I was leading, I asked if they ever considered inviting any of their non-churched friends to church. Out of the twenty Gen Z students, only one said they have ever invited a friend to church. In another setting, a 26-year-old young woman who grew up in church said to me, “Kent, why would I come to a place and have a man who’s over 60 years old – no offense – talk to me for forty-five minutes without me being able to interact in any meaningful way? I have a group of ten or so friends who meet online every week from all over the world, and we study the Bible together, we pursue our lives with God together, and we pray.”
Rather than complaining about “those young people these days,” the leadership of the NAB has realized we need to attend to these issues carefully and with great discernment. In fact, one of the eight major initiatives of the conference is to elevate younger voices. We need to create places and spaces where the voices and perspectives of younger leaders are heard, particularly those who are burdened for their non-churched friends. This requires those of us who are older and in existing leadership positions to be curious, listen, learn, and be ready to rethink some of our time-honored perspectives. The world is changing, and millennials and Gen Z are leaving the church and are unlikely to come back to it as it is currently structured. In addition, young church leaders are increasingly uninterested in simply taking over what we have created. There is a desire and a need for something new. We are confident our younger leaders who have great passion for God, the church, and serving this world will lead us into new expressions of the church. But safe spaces must be created for these conversations, spaces where our younger leaders can speak honestly and without fear of being dismissed. These conversations are not always easy to have in the church.
In light of this, a small group of around ten young leaders in their twenties and thirties from Canada and the United States was created and met online over the past two years. The Elevating Younger Leaders Team (EYELET) was entrusted with being a think tank to help give leadership to the NAB’s initiative of elevating younger leaders. This group met monthly over Zoom to share their experiences in the church, their love of the church, and their frustrations. They read together, they challenged each other, and they began to dream about how the voices of younger leaders can begin to give direction to the conference.
Out of this two-year experience, EYELET 2.0 is starting to take shape. The group is moving from primarily a think tank to a group that is excited to start doing things. The purpose of EYELET is to engage, equip, and elevate young leaders to lead the NAB into the future, and they are ready to begin. A few of the things being worked on is developing networks of youth pastors and young leaders, holding a young leaders gathering, yearly conference-wide young leader Zoom calls with a resource person, and developing a training program for mentors. EYELET also oversees The Gathering, a conference-wide gathering of NAB youth that happens every three years.
Those of us who are older continue to be desperately needed as our conference moves into the future, but our continued leadership must be more and more oriented around making room and unleashing the creative and Holy Spirit–inspired leadership of our younger leaders. It is a wonderful thing to be able to confidently declare that the current leadership in the NAB – from the International Office, to the regional offices, to our churches – is committed to this initiative of elevating younger leaders. If EYELET does its job well over the next few years, more and more of the leadership, dreaming, planning, and activity of our conference will be heavily influenced by younger leaders. Our future demands it.