Church growth expert warns of 'leadership crisis,' offers 3 tips for passing ministry to next generation

Rich Birch, author of Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems To Drive Growth At Your Church, speaks at the 'Future FWD 2020 Conference' on November 19, 2020.
Rich Birch, author of Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems To Drive Growth At Your Church, speaks at the "Future FWD 2020 Conference" on November 19, 2020. | Future Forward Conference

A “crushing leadership crisis” lies ahead for the American Church — and pastors must be asking, “How do we hand our ministry off to the next generation?” a church growth expert has said. 

“I believe for years, there has been a leadership crisis in the local church and in Christian ministry,” said Rich Birch, one of the early multi-site church pioneers in the United States, during the FutureFWD2020 virtual conference on Thursday. 

An increasing number of pastors are retiring, yet few are entering the ministry, he added. One denomination he recently encountered is facing 1,500 pastors retiring over the next 10 years, yet their seminary is graduating just eight to 10 people a year. 

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“Your ministry and my ministry is being impacted by this,” Birch stressed. “You and I need to stare down the barrel and say, ‘What are we doing to hand our ministry off to the next generation?’”

The COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the pressures of the ministry, is going to “accelerate” this trend in the coming years, Birch predicted. 

“Millennials are now the largest population in North America. These are the people who need to lead our ministry, who need to take the flag and run it down the field for our ministries,” he said. “So the question I have for you is: ‘How can we accelerate our pace of giving ministry away to the next generation? How do we get ahead of that trend?’”

Birch, author of Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church, cited 1 Timothy 4:12, which says: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.”

“For you and for me, the challenge of this is, do not look down on young people. But let them lead, let them take what's coming, let them take the ministry and run with it,” he said. “You and I, who are in leadership positions, it's our job to steward, to pass the ministry on to the next generation.”

Church leaders can do three practical things to hand the ministry off to the next generation. First, Birch advised “walking together.”

“My challenge for you is, when you look around your leadership table ... where are the young leaders 10, 15, 20 years younger than you, and how can you walk together with them?”

Second, Birch recommended “giving it away,” adding: “You've got to prematurely step back, you've got to prematurely say, ‘Hey, I want you to take this part of [the ministry].’ Sure, you might need to do that in sections, you might need to do that in pieces, but you need to fully give it away. You need to give it to someone else.”

The final piece of advice Birch offered was, “fund it.”

“Cultural change is happening quickly and we need leaders from the next generation to sort that thing out,” he said. “It's not going to be you. ... God's going to use them with a fresh vision. Sometimes, the piece of the puzzle that we bring to the table is simply taking the resources that God's given us, that He's entrusted to us in the season that we were leading and say, ‘I would like to fund what God's doing in you.’”

Senior researchers with the Barna Group recently warned that the novel coronavirus pandemic could accelerate a loss of faith among the next generation unless churches find ways to better disciple young churchgoers and keep them connected.

“We know that 22% of young people today are what we call ‘prodigals.’ They lost their faith entirely. That number grew by double from 11% 10 years ago. So what it will look like in 10 years is hard to know, but we think it’s going to actually accelerate that problem,” David Kinnaman, president of the California-based evangelical Christian polling firm, said. 

Sadie Robertson, a 23-year-old author and evangelist, recently urged older Christians to make efforts to mentor and disciple younger believers, explaining that her generation is “craving” absolute truth.

“Sometimes, our generation is fearful to ask for a mentor or fearful to ask to be discipled, but we crave it,” she said. “If you are in the older generation ... if you came up to us and said, ‘Can I disciple you?’ I know my answer would be yes every time. And I know a whole lot of people who would agree with me who are my age.”

The FutureFWD2020 virtual conference was held to inform church leaders about trends and strategies for the faith. 

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