On younger pastors and preachers

I preached my first sermon when I was 19, I preached for a few years in our small Brethren Gospel Hall in Bradford and a couple of other local churches including a struggling AOG church which I helped out with getting my first experience of revitalisation/replanting.  The elder there wanted to try and use some of their small funds to pay me to stay and work for them post University but I believe it right to go and get some more life and work experience. So I headed South, worked for BAE SYSTEMS for ten years and got involved as a member of an FIEC church, teaching Sunday School, being on welcoming etc. It was a few years before I preached again and I was 30 when I was encouraged to consider Theological College, 32 when I actually went and 36 when I took up my first pastorate.

Generally speaking, I would encourage people to follow that kind of pattern of getting significant experience in life and work. I don’t just mean a couple of years tokenistic work in the style of a future Tory MP being on the payroll of a PR company.  I think there are benefits to going into ministry in your 30s.  However, note the use of the word “generally.”  A generalism is just that.  It’s not true in every situation. There are reasons why some will find themselves pastoring earlier than their mid-30s and I know some exceptional young men doing so.  I do think that there is a gap in their experience that they need to be alert to and actively consider what they will do about that.  A lot of the practical nuts and bolts, common grace stuff that it’s helpful for pastors to know for example is not taught in Theological College but often is picked up in those contexts.

These tweets from Marcus Honeysett of Living Leadership prompted some further thoughts from me. 

Now, Marcus’ main point is that we need to be thinking about the tone and content of our preaching, teaching and pastoring, especially coming out of the pandemic. I broadly agree with that, with some qualifications which I will talk about in a separate post.  However, I wonder whether it is most helpful to think about things in terms of age.  That may even suggest some blind spots to our pastoral insight into the life experiences and challenges of younger people. I would be concerned if a pastor of any age assumed that spiritual apathy was the primary challenge facing those ministering to the younger generation. Tell that to the predominantly under 30s who turn up each month for our family of church’s prayer and praise evening “Breath.” Tell that to the wonderful young people who turned up and slept on church floors to reach out to Birmingham during the Commonwealth Games.

Thinking back on my own experience, by the time I was preaching I had gone through or was going through these life experiences.

  • I’d experienced systemic, serious and prolonged bullying at school.
  • I’d suffered from a serious eye condition and undergone major surgery twice.
  • We had grieved the death of both my grandads.
  • We’d also seen a few other people close to us or our family die. This included sadly a friend who died in a room fire just up the corridor in my Halls of Residence.
  • There had been the Bradford City Fire Disaster
  • My dad would be made redundant during my last year of University.

In my early twenties, moving to the South-East, I would experience intense loneliness living on my own.  The flat had a dodgy boiler and a tight landlord who wouldn’t replace it. I’d experienced some decidedly cold winters as a result.  I remember in those early days checking my bank account as once the main bills and rent had gone out, it was sometimes touch and go whether I’d still be in the black at the end of the month. I learnt to trust God’s provision.

My point? We can’t make assumptions about life experiences.  It’s also worth saying at this point that the better off you are, the more shielded you are likely to be from the challenges around.  If you are from a deprived community or an asylum seeker family, then you will have been much less shielded from life in a fallen, broken world.

Geographical and historical context matter. Imagine what a young man in his early 20s living in Ukraine or Afghanistan will have experienced.  Meanwhile, if you have grown up over the past 20 years here it is unlikely that you’ve lost your grandparents already, you’ve also enjoyed a time of relative peace and prosperity.  However young twenty somethings in the next decade will have experienced a new cold war with a similar nuclear threat that those of us born pre 1990 knew and potentially serious economic hardship and tough winters.

Most of all, I just don’t buy into the suggestion that younger preachers are all about the “just go for it, get on with it” kind of application.  I don’t think that’s a produce of age.  I’ve heard some older preachers who lacked warmth and compassion. I’ve heard some younger ones who have oozed grace and gentleness.  I have plenty of faults and weaknesses as a preacher but I don’t think that my own application can ever have been characterised as coming close to Marcus’ description.

I think a lot has to do with context, about the kinds of cultures and backgrounds we are drawing preachers from. A lot will be simply down to temperament. There’s also something to be said for character, gifting and spiritual maturity too.

So, whatever your age, if you are preaching and pastoring, I’d encourage you to take time to reflect on the tone and content of your pastoring.  Are you applying what is needed, being direct and sharp where that is needed, gentle where that is needed so that the comfortable are challenged and the hurting comforted?

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