Many people are in a hurry to be an “influencer,” as they say today. This started way before social media though. But social media provided a turbo boost. Everyone has the ability to have their own spotlight now.
The way people are generally prepared to be highly influential in churches is through the insertion of theological information into the frontal lobes of their brains. A young person feels called, receives some kind of theological training for a few years and then is branded and sent into ministry.
This is considered sufficient preparation. In many churches, they then assume great influence at a young age.
This is spiritually unhealthy for all involved.
If the most influential people in your spiritual community don’t have gray hair (or no hair), that’s a major red flag.
People need time
I’ve been in 2 different church situations where this was the case. So I speak from experience. Both of those situations ended up being toxic.
Those young people who were the most influential were nice, likeable, smart and gifted. While those are great qualities, they aren’t necessarily accompanied by a deep formation of Christ’s character.
There’s one essential ingredient that young people can never obtain for this to happen. It’s TIME. Time to watch. Time to fail. Time to be corrected. Time to come to the end of oneself. Time to grow in wisdom. Time to stand on the shoulders of those who come before you.
A sign of church health is the older are working to help the younger surpass them, and the younger work to stand on their shoulders. Elijah discipled Elisha, and Elisha surpassed him in power and influence IN TIME. (2 Kings 2:9)
What about Timothy?
I can hear the following objection ringing in my ears…
Well, what about Timothy? Didn’t Paul write to him to “let no one look down on you because you are young?” (1 Timothy 4:12)
Yes, he did. But context is important.
What you’re reading there is a one-sided conversation between Paul and Timothy in the context of the ministry of spreading the gospel and strengthening churches. When he did this, he didn’t stay and become the most influential person in the daily life of any church.
He was gifted to come into a situation and perform a particular function to influence churches in a specific way. A few verses later Paul says “do not neglect the spiritual gift within you.” (v. 14)
So Paul is encouraging Timothy to perform a specific function and to not be discouraged if someone says he’s too young to do so.
Then a few verses after that, Paul says “Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, and to the younger men as brothers, to the older women as mothers, and to the younger women as sisters, in all purity.” (5:1-2)
So Timothy was encouraged to use his gift, but do so in a way that showed he understood his place in a community as a younger person.
Also, Paul saw Timothy as a one-of-a-kind among the churches he worked with (Philippians 2:19-20). While Timothy can serve as an example for us, we should not throw expectations onto young people to “be Timothy” in their churches.
It’s not fair, and in fact the guilt can be damaging when they don’t live up to those expectations. Timothy grew up in a unique situation in a unique time with a unique family, a unique gift and a unique mentor (Paul).
Treating Scripture respectfully, these verses should not and cannot be used as an anthem for young people to go out and assume leadership roles in churches.
Transformation is slow
I can also hear the question “what if a younger person truly is more mature in Christ than the older people?”
I would ask “How well do you know them?” My bet is if you lived with them for a while, you’d come away with a different take.
In one situation I was in, the person was a powerful preacher and had the IQ of a genius in his twenties. They also had sexual issues that made them do horrible things that no one found out about for years.
In another situation, a person was sold out for building Christ’s church in his twenties. But they were so focused on Christ the Body that they didn’t have a great connection with Christ the Head, which manifested in a lack of humility and sensitivity to the Spirit of God.
Generally-speaking, transformation is slow. Although the Lord can gain ground in certain areas of people’s lives very quickly, transformation occurs at the pace of a glacier when it comes to people’s foundational character.
What I’m not saying
What I’m not saying is that younger people can’t or shouldn’t be influential, or that old people are mature just because they’re old. Younger people can and should be influential. If they’re not, that’s also a problem.
To repeat, what I’m addressing here is situations where the makeup of a community is such that those without gray hair are the most influential in a church on a day-to-day basis.
There’s one characteristic that sticks out among the great characters in the Bible that were used by God. It’s that they come to the end of themselves. Almost without fail, that takes lots of time.
If the most influential people in your spiritual community have full heads of non-gray hair (just saying they’re not older), I’d encourage you to seriously consider your situation and how adjustments can be made. You’re likely on a road you’ll eventually realize you never really wanted to go down.