by Doug Paul
A few years ago, I wrote a short article called “The Alexander 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 the Great looked upon his Kingdom and wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer (do yourself a favor and never watch Oliver Stone’s film of this. Do yourself an even bigger favor…don’t watch the 3 times longer director’s cut. You’ll thank me later). Back to the point…Using that as the dominant metaphor, in the last 20 years of evangelical culture, we were constantly inundated with stories of ‘wildly successful churches’, helmed by 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 (myself included), 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.” As a millennial myself, I feel this deep in my bones, as it is riven into the American mythos as well.
What this can inevitably lead to is a frenetic, stressed way of living for many of these young 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 might seen more evangelical poster-boys ‘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)
- A little while ago, Elizabeth and I had the privilege of having 16 people over our house who have all been faithfully serving in local 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 we are as a church (East End Fellowship) and where we are going. They’ve come out on the other side of their roaring 20’s, raised kids who love Jesus, and are serving in urban ministry in their 60’s, and still have marriages that flourish. And they still ready to go at it. 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.
You’ve probably heard this before.
In a traditional church setting, often the senior leader’s most important contribution is the teaching they give on Sunday morning. Furthermore, within a particular 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.
Now for me, my thoughts have always been fixated on the idea of movements of God. I don’t have anything against traditional church models at all. We see so much of their fruitfulness every day and I’ve served in several churches that are an incredible expression of God’s mission and his enduring faithfulness. But I think most of us would agree that while there are aspects of the Kingdom in the New Testament that have some organized elements (worship gatherings, patterns and practices, etc), many things tended to be far more movemental in their properties than institutional in nature. Ultimately, this led to disciples who made disciples who made disciples who made disciples.
And what did that lead to? A LOT of disciples. Which, through the amazing power of God, has me writing this article and you reading it. We are the beneficiaries of the movemental properties of the New Testament Church.
Now I’ve had the opportunity to study sustainable, meaningful movements. I’ve also had the opportunity to work alongside a few folks God has used to catalyze movements of discipleship and mission (the most significant ones led by people most of us have never heard of).
And here is my question: Can you really 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 I wonder if the accrued wisdom needed to lead a multiplying Kingdom expression is simply not possible for someone who is younger. For instance, at least in my opinion, I’m not sure Paul was really contributing to a sustainable Kingdom movement in training and sending out his team until the beginning of 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. The seeds have been planted, the ground had been watered and the Lord was making the thing grow.
This wasn’t sexy work. This wasn’t work that many 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 very little do with IQ, smarts, and charismatic gifting. The best strategy and powerful preaching and even hard work is needed, but still 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.
I say this as someone who is 35. And to be honest? For me, I find this liberating.
Increasingly, the pressure to perform, achieve, and prove my meager existence outside of Christ wanes. 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. Can God use someone who is 30 to catalyze and lead a movement of God? Of course he can. He’s God and I’m not. But do I think that’s his normal pattern as he’s concerned more for my character? Probably not.