Feb 17, 2004

From the Archives

A New Generation of Pastors Places its Stamp on Ministry

Following the Baby Boomers has not always been easy for the Baby Bust generation. Busters (currently ages 20 to 38) have typically lived in the shadow of Boomers. But, according to a new study from the Barna Research Group, there are reasons to pay attention to the perspectives and practices of Busters who are currently serving as Senior Pastors of Protestant churches. For one thing, Busters’ presence in the lead pastor role is – pardon the expression – booming! The number of Busters who serve as senior pastors has doubled in just two years from about 22,000 to more than 45,000 (out of 324,000 Protestant senior pastors). Even more significant is their courage and creativity in charting new courses for the churches they lead. They are experimenting with communication methods, ministry priorities, education, and many other aspects of their church-based work.

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The Barna study highlighted five ways young pastors are beginning to shape their church’s ministry differently than was done by preceding generations of clergy.

1. Young pastors are experimenting with approaches to effective communication.

In a world where image is king and attention spans are declining, the research shows that young pastors are more likely to experiment with new approaches to teaching and preaching. Compared with older pastors, Buster pastors are more likely to use drama (32% to 21%); more likely to show movies, videos, and DVDs (30% to 21%); and more likely to tell stories (28% to 13%). The study also indicated that young pastors more frequently use art, music, and interactive dialogue as part of their efforts to communicate biblical truths. These multi-media and experience-laden forms of communication appeal to younger, often postmodern people, who tend to reject external sources of authority in favor of relying on their own experiences and feelings to interpret reality.

Consequently, many of these young pastors also focus not just on communication techniques, but also on the communication environment. Some of these leaders even tinker with the lighting, with the look and feel of the room, with the seating, and with relational interaction to create a setting that better facilitates their efforts to communicate.

2. Young pastors’ perspectives about their churches and their ministry skills are different than their predecessors.

Another area in which young pastors seem to differ from older pastors is in how they describe their churches. Young pastors are more likely than Boomers to describe their churches as seeker-driven (45% to 33%) and as theologically conservative (93% to 80%), while less likely to depict their churches as fundamentalist (33% to 40%).

Young pastors are also more likely than their predecessors to say that their primary skill in ministry is leadership, administration, or management (18% of Buster pastors identified one of these skills, compared to 12% of Boomer pastors and 5% of Builder pastors). They also gave themselves above-average marks for motivating people around a vision, which is an activity closely related to leadership ability.

On the other hand, these young leaders gave themselves comparatively poor ratings when it came to pastoring, shepherding, and counseling. Both Boomer and Buster pastors described themselves as particularly ineffective at fundraising and at evangelism.

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3. Young pastors are less likely to pursue traditional seminary education.

Despite their self-identified characterization as “theologically conservative,” Buster pastors are not taking the conventional path of ministry education. Less than half of Buster pastors (46%) currently have a seminary degree, compared to two-thirds of Boomers (62%). Part of this gap stems from the fact that some pastors obtain their seminary degree later in life.

However, many young pastors are avoiding seminary due to their growing skepticism about its necessity and relevance to their ministry. Past studies have also shown that a growing number of large churches are training congregants for full-time ministry from within, rather than sending people off-campus for more traditional academic training for ministry. Many of those church-trained leaders apprentice within the mother church, then are sent off-campus to plant a church. By staying within the nurturing framework and support system of the mother church, the nascent leader has no compelling reason to attend a seminary.

4. Young pastors are more attuned than are older pastors to the cultural battle for the hearts and minds of young people.

Another mark of Buster pastors is their heightened sensitivity to the cultural bombardment facing kids and teens today. The research showed that young pastors were significantly more likely to affirm that children are being influenced by magazines, by their peers, by television (including special mention for MTV), and by the political domain. In comparison, Boomers and Builder pastors were more likely than were Buster leaders to believe the church has significant influence in the lives of children and youth.

5. The ministry priorities of young pastors have shifted from those of their predecessors.

Perhaps because of their increased sensitivity to media influence, Buster pastors (46%) are more likely than are Boomer pastors (30%) to prioritize ministry to families, youth, and children. The study showed that Buster pastors are also focusing more attention than do their predecessors on spiritual growth, discipleship, and Bible study (37% to 27%).

However, many of the ministry priorities of Buster pastors are quite similar to those of the Boomers: both groups are equally likely to prioritize teaching and preaching, evangelism, and worship.

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Out With the Old?

David Kinnaman, Vice President of Barna Research and director of the study of young pastors, commented on the findings. “Young pastors are basically cutting and pasting from fresh ideas as well as from established wisdom to form a new, era-appropriate portrait of church leadership. A handful of the young leaders are making huge changes in their ministry approaches when compared to older pastors, but most Buster pastors are simply tinkering with the style – not the substance – of ministry.”

Kinnaman noted that Buster pastors have embraced some new practices related to worship: for instance, they are less likely to use choirs or organs, and more likely to use a turn-and-greet portion of the worship service. However, few Buster pastors have implemented much change in relation to music style. Only one in four Buster pastors offers contemporary music, while most use traditional or blended worship, which is similar to the proportion of Boomer-led congregations using those styles. Kinnaman explained, “Many young pastors seem to struggle to find balance in worship and music. They admit they do not always see eye to eye with their worship leader. And their expectations about what facilitates true worship ” and even how to assess whether true worship has occurred – seems to be in a state of flux. The bottomline is that young pastors have to identify God’s unique vision for their church’s worship and music, rather than trying to cater to people’s preferences or their church’s traditions.”

“Another challenge facing Buster pastors is the fact that even as they work to cover the basics, many may be allowing other important priorities to slip. Young pastors are actually less likely than average to say their church prioritizes community, missions, service, social action, or prayer. Surprisingly, the ‘missing’ priorities of young pastors are some of the exact elements to which members of the young generations (Busters and Mosaics) gravitate.” Kinnaman observed that “without increased emphasis on these areas, many churches – even those led by young pastors – will find it very difficult to appeal to young people who deeply desire relational authenticity, service to the poor and disadvantaged, globally minded activity, and spiritual depth through prayer.”

Research Methodology

The data described in this report are based on a national sample of 3,005 Senior Pastors of Protestant churches conducted in 2001 through 2003. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with that sample is ±1.8 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The study included 338 Buster pastors, which has a maximum sampling error of ±5.8 percentage points. All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of churches.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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