A few years ago, I wrote a post called "The Alexaner Syndrome" that’s been coming back to my mind a lot lately. In fact...i'm not sure I've ever been more convinced about an argument than I am about this one.
This was the basic premise: At the age of 30, Alexander looked upon his Kingdom and wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer. Using that as the dominant metaphor: In evangelical folklore, we are constantly inundated with stories of wildly successful churches (read: BIG) and with pastors who are almost surprisingly young (late 20s to early 30s). These stories have slowly seeped their way into the subconscious of many young pastors, and there is an unspoken pressure that says, “By the time you’re 30, you need to have done something ridiculously significant and made your mark on the world.” This leads to a frenetic, stressed way of living for many of these pastors who find themselves not measuring up and constantly “behind” the curve (at least in their minds).
There are two things in particular that have brought this to mind:
- In the last year, it feels like we have seen more evangelical posterboys 'fall' from grace than in the last 10 combined. When this is the "curve" people are grading their success on...it screws with the curve. (to say the least)
- Last week, Elizabeth and I had the privilege of having 16 people over our house who have all been faithfully serving in church ministry for 30+ years (some in a full-time capacity, some not). What struck me was not just that they survived, but how energized they are by where the church is at (East End Fellowship) and where we are going. They've come out on the other side of their roaring 20's, have raised kids who love Jesus, are serving in urban ministry, still have marriages that flourish and are ready to go. It's astonishing, quite frankly.
So here's what I've been thinking about lately:
What if the most fruitful ministry years are really supposed to be when you’re between the ages of 50-70?
For quite some time, there has been a paradigm that has said a senior leader’s most significant time of ministry would be between the ages of 35-45.
Because in a traditional church setting, the senior leader’s most important contribution is the teaching they give on Sunday. Furthermore, within this model, a speaker can usually attract people who are 10 years older and 10 years younger. The ages of 35-45 would mean you’re attracting people who are newly married (pre-kids) all the way to empty nesters whose kids have recently gone to college. That means you get couples from their 20s to their late 50s AND all of their kids.
At least that’s the thought.
But clearly, my thoughts have always been far more concerned with movements. I don’t have anything against traditional church models, per se, but simply to say that I see the call of the Kingdom to be far more movemental in its properties than institutional in nature. You make disciples who can make disciples who can make disciples.
What does that lead to? A LOT of disciples.
Now I’ve had the opportunity to study sustainable, meaningful movements. I’ve also had the opportunity to work alongside a few folks who God has used to catalyze movements of discipleship and mission (the most significant ones led by people you've never heard of...which seems to be the way of the Kingdom).
And here is my contention: You simply couldn’t lead a meaningful Kingdom movement before the age of 50. You could maybe plant seeds for it. But in terms of leading one, growing one, sustaining one...I wonder if you have to be 50 and older.
Because the accrued wisdom needed to lead a multiplying Kingdom expression is simply not possible for someone who is younger. For instance, the early church didn’t really begin to take on movemental properties, at least in my opinion, until Paul is training and sending out his team beginning in Acts 19 in Ephesus. At that point in his life, Paul is probably well over 50. Furthermore, I'm more convinced than ever that Paul saw more sustained breakthrough as a broken down, old man in a prison cell, writing letters and warring in prayer for the young pastors he'd invested so much of his life into.
This wasn't sexy work. This wasn't work that people saw. But it was Paul bearing the most Kingdom fruit of his life.
Through a lot of brokenness, substantial failure and a smidgen of success, I've learned that at the end of the day, Kingdom work has little do with IQ, smarts, and charismatic gifting. The best strategy and powerful preaching and even hard work is incredibly limited. (In fact, I hear that if it can be explained by my own human effort, it's not really Jesus: "Apart from me, you can do nothing.)
The most powerful Kingdom leadership comes from the wisdom of trying at something for more than 30 years and all the failure that this entails and all the way that life in the Spirit for this long a time grows someone. This kind of wisdom and leadership come from people whom the Lord has taken through the crucible of long term, sustained faithfulness and all the pain that comes with it, and all the sanctification this produces.
Our culture and our young leaders may gravitate towards overnight success and people finding it at a young age, but these things aren’t reproducible. And sometimes I think God is just gracious that way. (Plus...even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then. ;-) )
I’m starting to find certain things incredibly reproducible, and every day, my ability to do them grows…often most powerfully in the midst of my own mis-steps and failure. I expect that will lead to a lot of gained wisdom in the next 20-40 years, right?
I certainly hope so, or my posture as a disciples of Jesus (a learner and the humility that should come with that posture) is all a sham.
And to be honest? For me, I find this liberating.
No longer is the pressure there to perform, achieve, and prove by the eve of my 35th birthday. What it does is allow me to simply listen to what God is asking me to do and to constantly reflect on what I’m learning as I respond to what he’s saying…in both success and failure, knowing that the more experience and reflection I have, the more capacity I have to lead faithfully in the future.
This isn’t me trying to skirt responsibility but to process the nature of human development and growth as I’m observing things around me.
I wonder if that makes sense? What say you, faithful readers?