Where Have All the Skinny Jeans Pastors Gone?

Where Have All the Skinny Jeans Pastors Gone? February 1, 2017

From CT:

American pastors aren’t as young as they used to be.

As clergy live longer and stay in ministry longer, the average age of Protestant senior pastors has risen to 54—a decade older than 25 years before, when the average age was 44.

Now, just 1 in 7 pastors leading congregations is under 40, according to Barna Group’s 2017 State of Pastors project.

In the new report, Barna president David Kinnaman called the aging pastorate “one of the most glaring challenges facing the church today.”

The pulpit has been graying for decades. In the ’60s, a majority of pastors were under 45. In 2017, most are over 60. The age shift stems from evolving career expectations and difficulty passing leadership on to millennial-aged pastors, Barna reported.

The research, conducted in partnership with Pepperdine University, represents surveys and interviews with 14,000 Protestant pastors.


The State of Pastors report listed nine overarching factors contributing to this generational disconnect:

  1. Demographic: Not only are millennials the largest adult generation in terms of sheer numbers, they are also the most ethnically, culturally, and spiritually diverse (unlike many of our churches).
  2. Social: Young people are generally going through the shaping experiences of adulthood at later ages than did previous generations—yet most of our churches are designed with families in mind.
  3. Economic: The economic pressures on middle-class and working families are being passed on to local churches, and the financial and ministry implications are immense.
  4. Vocational: The landscape of work is shifting toward a gig-oriented, multi-careering, freelance terrain, and there is profound need for a robust theology of vocational discipleship.
  5. Institutional: People get the information they want, when they want, for the price they want to pay. “Disintermediated institutions”—including churches—are no longer the sole mediators of knowledge, and pastors no longer the chief authority.
  6. Legal: Particularly when it comes to holding historically orthodox beliefs about human sexuality, Christian institutions are at increasing risk of running afoul of the law.
  7. Digital: The “screen age” requires adaptive approaches to community and discipleship. “Digital Babylon” is an always-on, hyperlinked, immersive culture where Christians must learn to live and thrive as exiles.
  8. Moral: Society’s moral center is shifting away from external sources of authority (the Bible, Christian tradition) to the self: You look inside yourself to find what’s best for you.
  9. Spiritual: “Nones,” or the religiously unaffliated, are the fastest growing religious group in the nation. Nominal, cultural Christianity is no longer the “default position” of Americans—and this reality is challenging the Church to reevaluate faith formation.

From Steven McAlpine, from whom I take the title of this post:

Let me add a tenth to that – a theological reason – A Poor Ecclesiology.  And it’s this tenth one that could be allowing the other nine listed above to set the agenda.

How so?  Well, for the past fifteen to twenty years we have seen a plethora of books, conferences, blogs, movements etc, that have not only questioned the special nature and role of the gathered people of God, but have actively pushed against it. Go to your local Christian bookstore and you realise that when the kingdom is everything, then nothing is the kingdom.  The church is no longer viewed as the locus of God’s work on earth.  And where it is, it’s supposed to be completely fluid to the point that it’s hard to see where the church begins and the world ends, and vice versa.

The idea that the Kingdom can be experienced, viewed, seen, tasted in a gathered community around King Jesus called church has fallen out of fashion – and fast.  Faced with a pendulum swing that located all godly endeavour around church work (secular work being only good for providing money for church to do ministry), the pendulum has swung hard the other way.

This pushback against the gathered, local church stated that kingdom work was whatever social justice endeavour you could apply yourself to.  The apparent truth of this was doubled down by the increasing hostility towards the established church by the culture.  So not only was there a poor ecclesiology from within, there was suspicion and animosity from without.  Together these were a pincer that squeezed the desire out of many younger skinny jeans Christians (in the almost immortal words of Scott McKnight) to pursue pastoral ministry vocationally. Nowadays church based pastoral ministry has all of the allure of  three-day-old smashed avocado.

Let’s face it. There were no kudos to be had in doing work for Jesus that involved preaching the Word, pastoring the flock or creating frameworks for church leaders to flourish and do evangelism.  Especially no kudos for doing evangelism.

But working in a Third World setting bringing “real change”?  The world loved it because it was doing it too and it didn’t involve any of that crazy proselytising that is so old fashioned, bigoted and imperial.

And the church increasingly loved it too as you stood out the front prior to your trip and narrated how you were “going to make a real difference” in the world rather than proclaiming a message that was hopelessly mired in western theological assumptions anyway.  You’d be out on the frontline doing real change, while they’d be sitting in meetings, preaching increasingly irrelevant sermons and fattening already well-fed parishioners who should be giving more, who should be spending less time with their families and more time with their neighbours, and who should be ashamed of themselves more often. …

Then if you think it’s right, as opposed to whether or not you like it, (those two things are different sometimes you see), then gird your skinny jeans loins and think about what it might mean to invest in local church ministry for the next thirty to forty years as the culture presses harder against you, the congregation grows increasingly frantic, and the voice of gospel proclamation falls increasingly silent.  Compared to that, digging wells in Africa is easy.

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  • jh

    Several thoughts –

    1. Why does the Christian blame everyone else for his failures? why is it the culture’s fault, the government’s fault, anyone else’s fault? Perhaps the culture/people are noticing a disconnect between what the Church promises and what actually happens? There’s a reason that people abandon certain trends or nonsense. It’s not just the church but a load of things that people routinely abandon because it’s not working out. If you doubt me, just think of all the things you watched as a child. I’m betting the majority are unwatchable now that you are an adult.

    2. We’ve had christianity in government and in power. Salem, the Dark Ages, Saudi Arabia. Is this what Christians want when they bemoan their numbers? Where is the culture/time in history when religion was married with political power (usually a divine right of kings sort of government) where the majority of the citizenry were not suffering and had not experienced systemic, unstoppable injustice?

    3. Why do certain Christians always attribute selfish motives to non-Christians who advocate a different moral code that is not based on the Bible? Personally, I don’t see how a autocratic rule makes more sense than one based on evidence and reasoning and is focused on reducing harm and suffering. I will lie to the Nazi at the door if it means that the Jewish family gets to live. I don’t care what your God says. That is immoral in my book. It is selfish to keep myself “pure and whitewashed” by sacrificing my neighbors. I look at the evidence. I test. I doubt myself. I listen to the people who will be impacted the most.

    4. Legal? There are still churches that forbid interracial marriage. They haven’t been shut down and they still receive my tax dollars to fund their nonsense. perhaps the church needs to stop pretending that schools and hospitals and whatnot are churches. Schools teach people skills. Hospitals treat illness. Neither requires some “church badge” to fulfill its mission. Imposing religious requirements to a janitorial position is just being that nasty uncle who spouts racist shit and ruins the entire family gathering.

  • Richard

    Sounds like poor succession planning and leadership development by the boomers still holding onto power.

    Does Barna Group account for the bench or bullpen in these churches? What’s the average age of the associates (worship, executive, youth, children, etc)?

    It’s worth noting here that African American churches are retaining millennials at numbers white churches are not. If white churches seem to be upholding or reinforcing segregation, intentionally or unintentionally, and the millennial generation values diversity (for both biblical and secular reasons), that would also contribute to this.

    As for Steve McAlpine’s thoughts – I’d agree with his assessment of poor ecclesiology but would it be that hard for him to acknowledge that western Christians have unwaveringly supported the imperial ambitions of their nation of birth? That our ecclesiology lost it’s place as the conscience of our earthly nations and has led to our unquestioning allegiance to oil, war, and exploitation of the poor?

    Perhaps we were so smitten with Joseph we forgot about Daniel?

  • Greg

    While holding on too long can be an issue so is taking the reigns of leadership too early. I think the biggest issue is that we want to be either or and not both and. Old guys try to tack on a young staff member to attract the younger generation and the younger generation adds an old guy to do visitation.

    The problem is that we don’t want to learn from each other and listen to each other. That lack of listening makes older leaders bland and destroys younger leaders before the develop the level of character and competency that it takes to survive the spiritual battles in ministry.

    If we are not careful we will discard all our seasoned leaders and burn out our younger ones before they reach their greatest potential all for momentary progress, which may or may not last so is it really progress.

    Now comes my confession I and the median age now, but often get ignored because I am old. When I started in ministry I was too young and needed to season. I must has been asleep for the 8 hours I was the prime age.

    Maybe the problem was I could never stomach skinny jeans so I couldn’t dress the part. I blame that on my Dad, who was not a pastor just a dad. His idea of style was orange pants and a red sport coat. He just knew God loved him and wanted others to know it too. So he invested heavily in the younger generation as did many others in our church. I can only hope God sees our value to His Kingdom differently than many do today.

  • Mike Mercer

    How about the effect of the CEO model of pastoral leadership? The more complex the “leadership” of a congregation, the more maturity and experience is needed.

    Are young people today not doing what I did when I was out of Bible school? Taking a position in a small rural church for low wages but invaluable experience?

  • scotmcknight

    No, they are not at least not as much.

  • scotmcknight

    He’d probably agree. He’s an Ozzie.

  • Joseph Canner

    Pushing back on Steve McAlpine’s quote a bit…The Acts 2 church was a healthy mix of teaching, prayer, fellowship, signs & wonders, and service to the poor. For a long time the Church was renowned for how it cared for the poor. Service was not just some optional appendix tacked on to be performed several times a year. I would speculate (without evidence) that the millennial desire to do service outside of the context of the church reflects their frustration with the lack of balance between the various elements found in the Acts 2 church.

    Similarly, with regard to evangelism: for the disciples and the early church, evangelism was inviting others to follow Jesus and join with others who are doing the same. If millennials are not seeing much Jesus-following in the Church, why would they want to invite people to join?

  • wogster

    I think one of the issues is that many of the churches are looking at, a certain period of time, as an ideal, and if we could simply act as if it’s that year, then the church will be full again. I know of several churches that are stuck in 1976, when they had every seat filled and needed 20 people to run the Sunday school.

    So the only people who can be involved were members in 1976, the only songs that can be sung, are in the 750 page hymn book, published in 1976, we use paper bulletins and have a choir, because they were popular in 1976. The only time for services is Sunday, because everything was closed in 1976, and other then the cop, the paramedic and the fireman, nobody worked on Sundays in 1976…. You can tell these churches quite easily, the roll gets smaller every year, because the old people are dying off, and there are no young people who are welcome there. Eventually it closes, because there are not enough to stay in the big old church building.

    Churches that want to grow, need to reinvent themselves, they don’t always need a younger pastor, they need a younger thinking leadership. I

  • stevecuss

    Actually speaking as an Aussie born in Steve’s backyard, I think he’s technically Irish! To complicate matters further, I am a west aussie living in Colorado who plays an Irish guitar. You’re welcome.

  • Bev Sterk

    we the 1st world Church are reaping what we have sown in so many ways… abuse of power (ie covering up and sweeping sexual sin under the rug), narcissistic tendencies in leadership, distorted theology (ie missional -love our neighbors is emphasized far more and seems to come before relational – loving God first), rampant deception, immorality (ie epidemic levels of porn in the Church), objectification of people instead of recognizing every human being as made in God’s image, worthy of love and respect because they are fearfully and wonderfully made in His image… just for a start on how we, as the institutional Church have messed up…

    I don’t know why we think God would exempt us from the earthly consequences of our unholy choices.. He disciplines those He loves, and it is (and will be) a painful process…

    He says in Rev 19, that His bride has made herself ready (with help of Holy Spirit)… Bride, we have a long ways to go…

  • josenmiami

    great article, as was the previous article on the Evangelical Soul. I’ll give it a shot and try to stay away from politics for a month, but it sounds from reading the comments that not many others will attempt it. So sad.

  • pam

    Vocational: The landscape of work is shifting toward a gig-oriented, multi-careering, freelance terrain, and there is profound need for a robust theology of vocational discipleship.

    why is there a profound need for a robust theology of vocational discipleship? what in the world is wrong with ‘multi-careering’?

    vocation = salaried career. why is it important that faith and community be monetized, so much so that it is considered a ‘profound need’?

    sounds to me like a driving force in this greater issue is money. what’s especially irritating is that it is masked with piety.

  • pam

    i can’t help but think that sentimentality is a driving force behind concern and worry over all this. Fear of change, comfort in the safety of what is familiar and personally meaningful. But what bothers me is that this, too, seems be masked in piety.

    Great concern over all this worldly change which shouldn’t be happening and surely God must be in jeopardy!

    I don’t think so. What is in jeopardy is the comfort of what is familiar.

  • pam

    “Digital: The “screen age” requires adaptive approaches to community and discipleship. “Digital Babylon” is an always-on, hyperlinked, immersive culture where Christians must learn to live and thrive as exiles.”

    What’s wrong with digital and the screen age? Why the dichotomy between that and what it is to be Christian? Why pit one against the other? Them/wrong/enemy/bad versus us/right/good?

    it’s simply change.

    it seems pretty ridiculous to me to spiritualize this with the ‘Christians must learn to live and thrive as exiles’.

    kind of reminds me of the days of spiritualizing going to the evil cinema and playing that evil Canasta (& other such games with sinful decks of cards).

    Christians aren’t exiles. They simply take themselves too seriously.

    (spoken as one in practice — i’ve retired the label, though. too much silly baggage)

  • pam

    Scot, you say,

    “The church is no longer viewed as the locus of God’s work on earth.”

    Was it ever the locus of God’s work on earth?

    Aren’t my friends & I who have met once a week for 5 years to pray and kick spiritual butt (among other spiritual exploits of our own initiative) said locus? (as much as any other christian person/people doing similar things)

  • I just think that this is a normal process that we’re going to have to go through. It’s part of our cultural shift away from Christendom, and it’s going to take time, and we have to let it run it’s course. I don’t think there’s a way to short circuit it. We have to go through the pain of the institutional church becoming irrelevant, fully and completely to it’s end, at which point something new and better will be birthed (and in fact, is already starting in small pockets). That’s my take.

  • Great point about not needing younger leader(s) necessarily, but younger thinking leaders. Totally agreed. I know many older folks that think young, for sure.

  • Vicki_L_Hale

    More women are attending seminaries. Fewer men are. As long as churches push back against Millennial women pastors in their churches, they will have a shortage of pastors under 40. The obvious answer is full ordination of women and increasing support for women lead pastors, particularly of the younger generation now coming up.

  • JQ


  • Jeff

    I remember a time, not many decades ago, when there was no such thing as a youth minister, children’s minister, worship minister, etc. You were either the “senior minister” or nothing. I can’t help but think that that fact plays powerfully into these statistics.

  • Vanessa Loy

    As an aside, has anyone noticed that singles ministries have been replaced by the ubiquitous “college and career/young adult” ministries? When I graduated from high school in 1995, it was just the opposite at my church. The singles group was mostly 30-40 somethings, many of whom were divorced and/or single parents. Hardly any churches had groups for college students. My guess is once again, the millennials are driving these changes.