Keeping the Stage Young - Part Two
by Dan Adler
A few weeks ago I wrote an article in response to an ad I saw for a worship pastor position at a church that said that part of the job description was to always “keep the stage young” because the leadership of this congregation is “more loyal to their future than their past”. If you missed that article, you can read it here. My article seemed to resonate with a lot of people and I received quite a few responses to it – so much so, that I felt that I should write a follow up to that article where I can make a few clarifications and additions to what I wrote.
1. First of all, in responding to the “keeping the stage young” approach, I want to make it clear that I don't think it’s more virtuous for churches to have “the stage” always be middle-aged either. I think a great mistake that many churches have made in the past, is to not have made more of an effort to include college and high-school age young people in their worship leadership. I think that one of the reasons we have the “keeping the stage young” dynamic becoming so popular, is because there has been so little integrating of younger people into the worship leadership in many churches in the past. In many congregations, the only time you would see young people on stage was when there was a “youth Sunday” where the youth group got to lead the service once a year. Because of that, youth groups started to do everything separately from the adults – including worship. And so, many churches developed sort of two subcultures divided between the older and the younger. Kids in the youth group grew up feeling at home in the youth ministry but felt like the regular worship services weren’t for them. That in turn has led to many kids, having grown up in church, who no longer attend church once they graduate from the youth program because it looks and sounds so very different than what they came up with in youth group (this, by the way, is just one of the reasons for that dynamic). Others, have instead, been part of starting new churches with an emphasis on “keeping the stage young” and reaching younger people as their main “market”. There is a very sad reality that most church leaders are keenly aware of, and that’s the reality that youth are leaving church attendance in droves. So it’s understandable and admirable that many church leaders are now doing whatever they can to reach out to younger people in their main services. How that typically manifests itself is in “keeping the stage young”. But I would like to challenge the premise that this approach is the best solution to this problem.
2. I agree that it is important that we do all we can to reach out to youth in our culture and I think that the modern worship musical form and utilizing younger worship leaders as part of the worship leadership has a role in that. But I think we are making a mistake – and an unsustainable one at that – when “we are more loyal to the future than the past”. You see, we have this harsh reality that we have to deal with, that every day, we all grow older. All you have to do, is for a few minutes, put yourself in the shoes (which all of us will one day be in – if we aren’t already) of being the talented worship pastor, or lay leader, or gifted singer or musician who has been “aged out” of worship. Then feature being in that aging part of the congregation who feels completely marginalized and cast aside – as if this church, that you were once such an integral part of, is no longer for you. That doesn’t feel like Church or love or Christianity – but is quickly becoming the experience of so many, many Christians, Christian musicians and worship leaders.
3. In adopting the “keeping the stage young” approach, there is an assumption that the “young” are drawn to the mega-church model of famous churches and their worship music ministries as seen on their videos and heard on Christian radio that have become to models for this approach. But ironically, there are more and more younger people who are turned off by the mega-church, big screen, big stage, smoke and lights approach to worship. They question the perceive hype, the use of funds for the sound and video systems and buildings and the impersonal approach – versus smaller house churches and intimate communities. So, wouldn’t it be a sad twist, in casting off older people in order to reach younger people, that we could actually end up turning off young people as well?
4. There’s a difference between changing or expanding musical forms and casting off everyone but the young. Musical forms are not sacred. There have always been and there always will be various and changing forms and styles of music in church. It seems that that’s not ever an easy reality for Christians to adjust to. But it is a reality and it is important in connecting with the musical language of different subcultures within a society. So when someone is hugely upset because the pipe organ isn’t being used in worship as much or at all anymore, that is a different issue than when no one but the young are allowed on stage. Intolerance of musical change and the spiritualizing of musical forms, is certainly no better than narrowing the music down to one modern worship music style at the exclusion of all other forms. In many ways, it’s almost the same issue being embraced by generational groups separated by years (i.e.. grandparents and their grandchildren). New songs are a good thing and new and diverse styles are part of connecting with diverse people, but the idea that you can and should only do new songs is, to me, as ludicrous as saying we should only sing old songs.
5. One of the big issues I have with this “young stage” approach, is that this rule almost never applies to the Senior Pastor – who is often the one dictating that the stage be young. If this rule of keeping the stage young is truly vital to reaching young people, then it seems to me that there should be a rule that the Senior Pastor and any other church staff who appear on stage on Sunday mornings, should be required to resign from the ministry and go work at a church for older people as soon as their hair starts to gray or they reach a certain age. Yet that doesn't seem to be any part of this approach for some strange reason, and the idea of implementing such a rule sounds truly absurd – as it should. Yet that approach is so readily applied to the musical worship leadership...hmmm…
6. As people transition through life stages, it is often empty-nesters and older that reach a point where they have more time and resources to offer to the Body of Christ than ever before, so to encourage, tap into, and mobilize this group of mature believers within a fellowship is incredibly valuable to the whole church. Having a multi-generational stage and music, is a way of helping those older people to feel like they still belong in this congregation.
7. A huge issue in our culture is divorce and fatherless homes. So many people come from broken homes and have lacked a father figure in their life. I've run into so many young men who long for a father figure they can connect with. When what we present on the church stage is all about youth, we are, in one way, undercutting the great role that older men – and women - can have in being examples and mentors to a youth culture filled with broken homes. (Obviously, this is not the only way to do that). I would think, in sheer marketing terms, having adult men on stage who are older than their 20’s or 30’s could actually be a good draw to some younger people. But ultimately, how much better to present a multi-generational approach to worship where those who attend are allowed to be led by both the young and the old? How much more powerful – and again – more Biblical is that? And how much more is that a picture of true Christian community?
8. Enjoying the songs of, the talent of and the fellowship of older people can be a great blessing to
younger people as well as to older people. The most moving note I received in response to part one of
this article, is from our long time African American singer and friend, Rick Murphy. I asked him if I
could share what he wrote with you because Sandy and I were so moved by what he shared – and he agreed.
So here’s Rick’s note:
“Thank You, Dan, for those wonderful thoughts…. My 82 year old mom is blessed to have a congregation and church leadership that allow her to remain in the choir, occasionally lead worship and render inspirational solos. The youth and children of her congregation love it when she gets to sing because they've known her all their church lives and they've grown to love her whatever fault age tries to color in her abilities. As they listen to her sing, the young people remember all the history they experienced with her.
Our young churches today – so many destined to open and then disband within a five year period, will never experience her church’s kind of love. It’s a love that comes only from the maturity brought about by time shared together. Consequently, she (Mom) feels valued at the church and not put aside – as she’s often experienced in much of today’s society.” - Rick Murphy
Wow… Isn't that a great picture of the Church?! Isn't that the kind of church that you want to attend? I do! And isn't that an appealing model to present to a broken, castaway culture filled with broken homes? And here’s the thing, when we present this picture, we're not marketing a re-packaged, cooler version of Christianity. This is just the real thing being lived out! I also think that something for us to ponder, is that this “casting off of the old” dynamic is a uniquely Caucasian church reality. Rick’s Mom attends a primarily African American church called Macedonia Baptist Church. You will find in most African American, Latino and Asian congregations, there is a real honoring and revering of older people in the congregation. That, to me, is one of many examples where Caucasian congregations have much to learn from our brothers and sisters in congregations of other ethnicities.
I am glad to say that I know several Caucasian and multi-ethic churches that are “keeping the stage multi-generational” and it’s great to see. One of these churches is a large church in Birmingham, Alabama, where my brother is the Worship Pastor. My big brother, Michael, is a very talented and sincere Christian guy and I've watched with much admiration over the years as he has done a great job of mentoring younger worship leaders, including older and younger musicians on stage – as well as including multi-ethnic musicians whenever he can as well. Somehow, under his leadership, his church has managed to be able to pull off modern worship and traditional worship styles - as well as having a huge choir and orchestra. They don't always use all of those elements or every style of music every Sunday, but it is an incredibly inclusive music ministry that blesses so many people both in and outside of their congregation. Instead of having a small handful of younger musicians who are involved in the worship ministry, they are able to include well over a hundred.
So the bottom line with all of this, is that I believe we should do all we can, with the Bible as our guide, Christ as our focus and the Holy Spirit empowering all we do, to make our churches true Christian communities that welcome and value all generations and ethnicities.
9. And one last thing, what I don't want to inspire by writing about this, is more division and disgruntlement. Years ago, I read a quote from Francis Frangipane that really inspired me. It said something like this: “Satan spends much of his time being ‘the accuser of the brethren’. He is always finding our faults and making accusations about us. But Jesus is our Intercessor. He sees the same faults and intercedes for us continually. When we see a person or organization with sins or things that concern us, we have a choice to make. Who are we going to align ourselves with – Satan the accuser, or Jesus the Intercessor?” I found that quote to be so very challenging and so right on. It’s easy for me and any of us to point out the problems in the church as an organization and in other Christian people. We don’t have to pretend that the issues aren't there. But our criticism should be constructive and our concerns should lead us toward intercession instead of more division and bitterness. Jesus, help us to align ourselves with You! Amen.