David J. Wood: Do Not Despise Your Youth

NASA knows its prime leaders may be in their 20's. Does the church?

This summer will be the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing mission. I was in the 7th Grade when it happened, and was amazed at the event.

Last week, I came across an article that drew upon firsthand interviews with folks who “manned” Mission Control. Here is the fact that leaped out at me: the age range (actual ages, not the average) of the personnel of Mission Control in Houston—the center responsible for Apollo 11 once it left earth's atmosphere—was 25 to 28. The oldest in the room was the Flight Director. He was 35! The astronauts were the old guys in the program—they were 38, 39, & 40.

Reflecting on the youthfulness of the program, the Commander of Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong, said, "This new Space Age required people who understood digital computers and most of the people in that category were in their 20's."

Could the same thing be true in the church?

We do not often expect such precociousness today. But we have before. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was 27 when he delivered his radio address, “The Younger Generation’s Altered View of Führer,” which placed him among the first to publicly call Adolph Hitler’s authority into question. John Calvin was 27 when he published his first edition of the Institutes. Martin Luther was an aged 34 when he nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenburg. Dorothy Day was in her mid 30’s when she birthed the Catholic Worker Movement. Karl Barth was all of 33 when he published his first edition of The Epistle to the Romans. William Wilberforce was 32 when he introduced his first bill into parliament calling for the abolition of slavery. Martin Luther King, Jr., was 26 when he stepped up to lead the Montgomery bus boycott. Thomas Merton was 33 when he published The Seven Story Mountain. St. Francis of Assisi was in his late 20’s when he founded the movement that now bears his name.

But today in many churches conditions are rotten for young leaders. We are in danger of squandering the creative energy and inventive imagination without which congregational life becomes a bastion of cultural self preservation.

More often than not young seminary graduates find themselves placed in congregations where they are generationally isolated. They find themselves surrounded by elders who are yearning for growth and recovery. That yearning is matched, if not exceeded, by an anxiety that change will leave them feeling like aliens in a foreign land. Too often that anxiety trumps the yearning for growth and change. This reality can create the conditions where the young feel despised even when no one ever intends for that to be so.

The well worn exercise in taking and celebrating congregational history is often or can be an exercise in nostalgia—an induction of the young pastor into the responsibility he or she bears to the past. Jesus’ words, “Do this in remembrance of me,” can, in the matrix of congregational life, morph into “Do this in remembrance of Bill or Sally.” Rarely are congregational histories used as case studies in how the Spirit subverts the inborn tendency of congregations to become curved in on themselves. Congregational life has been characterized by too much talk about the importance of congregational history, not enough talk about congregational responsibility to let old things pass away. Perhaps youthful leaders’ capacity to make the case for innovation and experimentation would grow if congregations were genuinely inviting of such process.

The Church must learn how to not to fear the emerging role of young leaders. The church must be careful not to use "mentoring" as a cover for its need to school youth into the ways of waning forms and perceptions. Excellence in mentoring always creates the conditions for innovation, invention, and experimentation. There is a crucial complimentarity between mentoring and peer relationships. The former keeps youth from arrogance and the latter keeps mentoring from condescension.

Let the Church hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches: “Let no one despise your youth” (1 Tim. 4:12).