The Task of Engaging Young Leaders in a Rural Church

With butterfly’s in my stomach I ran out of the tunnel from the locker room to our high school football stadium. It was the biggest game of the year – Leominster vs. Fitchburg – on Thanksgiving Day. So big in fact that this rivalry of neighboring towns has been played since 1894.

As we approached the sidelines I looked at a teammate and said, “Where is everyone?” I was naïve because this specific game broke 15,000 in attendance, but it looked empty in my eyes.

Growing up I couldn’t comprehend small or rural America. I didn’t even know such towns existed. I grew up 40 miles outside Boston (673,000). I eventually moved to Baton Rouge (227,000) and spent a short span of time in New York City (8.5 million).

Endless food options paired with a Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks on every corner was the norm to me. Fun activities and the general personality of a large city was always on display. There was never a dull moment to be found.

This past December, Kayla and I went on vacation to Los Angeles (3.9 million). At this point though, we lived in towns of 4,009 and 4,652 for the previous six years.

It was a Sunday and we were making our way to the Griffith Observatory in LA. The Observatory was only seven miles from our hotel. It took us 45 minutes to get to our destination. I looked at Kayla and screamed, “Bring me back to my town of 5,000 people!”

I never thought I’d live – or enjoy living – in a small town. Maybe that's because this isn’t the case for most people my age. Because of this it’s becoming more difficult for churches in rural locations to not only employ young leaders, but engage with millennials in their communities.

What are rural towns and the church up against?

For the sake of our conversation rural is defined as anywhere with less than 20,000 people in population. Let’s look at two common trends which dissuade young leaders to rural towns and churches.

1.     Most millennials will never live in your rural town.

Despite my recent found love for my small-town studies show that most millennials will never live in your town. In turn, most young church leaders will never serve in your church that resides in a small town.

Forbes Study: Growth of the millennial population from 2010-2015

The Sibert Foundation Study states that 73 percent of millennials live in mid-to-large cities.

These six cities are also target cities for new church planting, which is predominately led by church leaders under 35-years-old. Consider this – while starting new churches isn’t a bad thing – let’s look at the current number of churches in these cities:

Number of churches in each city

It bears repeating that this is not a bad thing, but it shows rural church leaders that young leaders are not concerned of the quantity of churches in areas they plant or to which they move.

In other words – if you asked a millennial church planter to start a church in a small town that has two churches versus a large city that has 822 churches – let’s not assume they’ll look at the number and select our small towns.

2.     The Allure of Popular Christianity

While millennials won’t admit it, there is an allure of what the polarizing Christian figures are doing coupled with a sense that we can achieve that. Five years ago, I literally prayed and dreamed that one day I could be like Judah Smith. I even gave some serious thought about what it would look like to start a church in a big city or serve at a big church like Bethel, Hillsong, or Elevation.

I’m not the only one that thought (or thinks) this way. The idea of starting something new in a thriving community – or partnering with an already thriving entity in a large city - is on the forefront of millennials' minds.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Rural matters.

If you’re a church leader in a rural town, I’ve done a great job of discouraging you to this point. I’ve essentially shouted from the roof that millennials don’t care about rural towns.

Studies may lend this perspective but rural matters. Your small town and church matter. A PBS study recently concluded that 72 percent of our world is classified as rural. In fact, God cares so much about rural He orchestrated for Jesus to be born and raised in a rural town of 500.

The reality is that despite the challenges you face in rural America there are young leaders who will shun the thrills of a big-city to partner with you.

I don’t have to look further to validate this statement than our church – Crossing Place Church, which is in a town of 4,652 people.

Our church – led by the intentionality from our pastor – has done a marvelous job of engaging and retaining young leaders. In fact, of the eight pastors the church employees – six are all under 30-years-old.

The church averages around 600 in Sunday attendance but has around 750 unique individuals who call Crossing Place Church their home. Forty-one percent of the church is under 35-years-old. Yes, in a rural town that no one has generally heard of.

So, let’s talk about how your church can engage and retain young leaders in rural communities.

How can we engage and retain young leaders in our rural churches?

These suggestions are based off what’s worked in our church, but with a personal touch. Prior to working in our church, Kayla and I worked secular jobs in this community just for the opportunity to attend and serve the church with minimal compensation.

It’s worth noting that God was the orchestrator of this transition. Ultimately, our pastor prayed for a team to helped him lead in a rural town. God honored that. We felt God call us to this church far before any of these points below.

1.     Sell young leaders on your mission.

Yes, we knew God called us to this church, but we didn’t know why. In one conversation with the lead pastor we were captivated by the mission of the church. The pastor was completely sold out to reaching unchurched people. He wasn’t about just saying it – the entire culture and DNA of the church was built around it.

You can call millennials a lot of things, but for all the negative narratives out there, one thing millennials will rally around is a cause. They get behind a captivating mission.

Is your God-given mission for your church and community so captivating and exciting that young leaders are willing to be a part of it even when you can’t compensate them?

Our pastor did not have finances in his tool box. He couldn’t get our attention with a paycheck. He got our attention with what the church was going to accomplish for Christ.

2.     Give young leaders the opportunity to lead and grow (and fail).

While many young church leaders are heading to sit-under and learn from these larger organizations – they are not getting the opportunity to lead in the capacity you can offer.

At 19-years-old at our church there’s a very real probability of you preaching and/or being engaged in areas of leading others. Do you think they let a 19-year-old – no matter how talented – preach in place of Judah Smith or Steven Furtick?

While there are various opportunities within your rural church the key circles back to you as the leader. You have to resolve this questions with yourself: Are you willing to give leadership away to inexperienced young leaders who may think and act differently than you?

When our pastor sold us on the vision, he then began picking our brains on what God put inside of us. In our early 20s, he gave us leadership depth.

In one of our initial meetings he looked at Kayla and told her to re-launch a small group system. He looked me and told me to refine our process to connect people to our church. Fresh off leading a youth group of 10 students in a church of 75 people – we were now tasked with these responsibilities in a church of 200.

In three years, the church of 200 has grown to 600. The three small groups have multiplied to over 30 while the other systems have been refined to accommodate a church of 2,000.

Why? Because the pastor gave young leaders (not just us) the opportunity to lead and grow (and fail).

3.     Let young leaders be a part of the long-term vision.

Let’s enter the retaining part of our conversation.

Our church leadership team is young. The team has grown in their leadership development thanks in large part to our lead pastor. Our pastor has positioned each person to succeed in their gift set.

As a team, we generally feel like we're equipped to lead at a high-level even out of our current church context. In fact, some of us have been offered to join the mass of millennials in big cities.

But, there’s been one thing that’s kept our team intact. The vision.

1.     A captivating mission got us all intrigued.

2.     The chance to lead and grow with hands on experience (despite our age) has allowed us to develop.

3.     The vision of the future is keeping us here.

More than 50 percent of millennials say they would take a pay cut to work in an organization that match their values. Ninety four percent want to use their skills to make a difference.

If the vision is compelling – young leaders will stay engaged in your church.

One year ago on a Wednesday night, the church erupted in celebration when we heard our town would be getting a CC’s Coffee House. Don’t laugh. I have to drive eight minutes to get a cup of coffee. I can’t walk outside my front door and see one on every corner.

We have five good local restaurants that results in us driving almost an hour away some weekends for a chain-restaurant. Our movie theater doesn’t have stadium seating, but – hey – it costs us less than $20 for two adult tickets, a large popcorn, and a large drink.

The talk of the town three weeks ago was a pop-up carnival by Dollar General that had four rides.

Yet, we all go to a church that has hundreds of millennials and a large portion of millennial church leaders who wouldn’t trade it for any big city in the world.

The same thing can happen in your rural church if you’ll start by engaging and retaining young leaders.