Statistics can be profoundly clarifying and sometimes defeating. We can sometimes feel like failures in our part of the world because Christianity is facing some serious decline and rising opposition.
The pastors and church leaders I know are eager to find solutions that will make their churches effective in fulfilling Christ’s great commission of Matthew 28:16–20. But the first job of a leader is to define reality.
We do this by assessing the current situation with the best data available. Once we have the data in hand, we seek the help we need to understand it properly and then share it with those we share leadership with. From this point forward, a shared vision of a better future reality can emerge with creative strategies for getting to that improved future.
A need for digital pastors
I recently attended a conference focused on reaching Gen Z, those who are generally between the ages of ten to twenty-five. This “screen-ager” generation has never known a world that didn’t include high-speed internet in their hands via a smartphone with ready access to social media and virtually unlimited information. Not wisdom, just overwhelming information.
For all practical purposes, this generation has never seen or used a paper map, written a paper check, or held a newspaper. Most never carry cash.
One of the clear and compelling messages at the conference came from Mark Matlock, a longtime leader in reaching younger generations. His declaration was that “screens disciple.”
The word disciple means learner. Since the dawn of time, stories, art, pictures, movies, television, computers, and now mobile devices have taught and formed the hearts and minds of people for good and for evil. In our current age, that means screens can be used in powerful ways to disciple people, especially Gen Z, in the gospel of Jesus.
The covid-19 pandemic accelerated our understanding and use of digital technology to reach, support, deepen, and enlist people of many generations for the kingdom of God. All technology and ministry methods have limits, but one way the church must pivot today is by raising up “digital pastors” who can seize the power of technology to evangelize, mature, and mobilize the next generation.
Discipleship cannot be reduced to a three-by-six-inch screen, but those screens can facilitate a lot of spiritual formation.
A Gen Z exodus from the church?
Such efforts are critical. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reveals how America’s core values about faith, family, and finances are changing—and not for the better.
Additionally, recent research commissioned by MovementDFW.com reveals that the Christian faith is not highly valued by many in Gen Z. This statement is profound: “If current trends continue, the church in the USA will be at half of its current attendance by the year 2050.”
That means that 35–50 million young people currently in our churches may leave their faith and the church in the next twenty-five years.
Now is the time to pray for revival in our churches and awakening in our nation.
What else can pastors and church leaders do?
A need for genuine pastors
We can be real.
Multiple recent articles, including this one, sound the biblical command to be authentic, honest, and even vulnerable people first who then serve as spiritual leaders.
The appeal for authenticity among pastors should not surprise nor upset us. People see regular reports of ministerial brokenness and sometimes abuse. We are “cracked pots” being made whole, like every other sinner (2 Corinthians 4:7). As pastor and theologian John Claypool was known to teach, we are fellow strugglers helping other strugglers on the road of faith.
But how can we let our Christ-focused authenticity show?
Every pastor should be required to memorize 2 Timothy 3:16–17 before they are ordained to ministry: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Another good requirement would be to etch 2 Timothy 2:15 on your palms: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (emphasis added).
And this one too for the hectic days of ministry: “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5).
All of these are vital but, as you’re developing your ministry skills, don’t forget the incarnational reality and proximity of your influence.
A need for faithful examples
I’m startled by the number of times Paul points individual believers and groups of believers to remember and reflect on his example of faith and faithfulness. See 1 Thessalonians 1:5b–6; 2 Thessalonians 3:9; and 1 Corinthians 4:16.
Then, to Timothy, some of Paul’s last recorded words include,
You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:10–15, emphasis added)
In times of faith and ministry doubt, fear, loneliness, and struggle, I find myself returning to that phrase in verse 14: “you know those from whom you learned it.”
Faith and faithfulness are both taught and caught. From Jesus to Paul to many others, the validity of faith is conveyed through a mystical yet authentic combination of what we say, do, and who we are. Timothy had the faith heritage of his grandmother and mother to inspire him (2 Timothy 1:5). He also had the shining and real examples of Paul, Silas, Barnabas, and many others like Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:16). Timothy may have never encountered Jesus personally, but he did see the spiritual reality of Jesus in the lives of others. Their genuine lives conveyed the true reality of Jesus and the gospel.
I’m praying that you have many such inspiring, incarnational examples of faith too.
May we imitate the Lord as a model for others
So, liberate yourself from trying to appear perfect to your people. They know better already. Make yourself as accessible and approachable as possible. Ask God to deliver you from the addiction to unreasonable forms of affirmation and applause. Stop waiting for perfect information and conditions before you decide and act, refusing to act out of fear of making the wrong move.
Ask God to remind you of the real Christians in your life, to bring more of them into your life, and then to make you an authentic example of faith to others.
What was true of the Thessalonians can be true of us: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere” (1 Thessalonians 1:6–8, emphasis added).