Younger Pastors, Denominationalism, and Our Persistent Misunderstanding of Young People

by Matthew Pinson

(this post originally appeared at

Recently Lifeway Research conducted a study on pastors’ views on the value of Protestant denominations and the future of denominations. This study is discussed in an article from Lifeway entitled “Pastors Value Denominations Now, Not as Sure About the Future.”

8 in 10 Pastors Think Denominationalism is Vital

The study, which surveyed pastors in Protestant denominations, had three main findings: First, about 8 in 10 think it’s “vital” to be connected with a denomination. Second, about the same number said their congregation thinks it’s “vital” to be part of denomination. Third, almost two-thirds of pastors surveyed said they believe the value of being part of a denomination will “diminish” in the next decade.

These findings may or may not surprise Free Will Baptist pastors. But there’s another finding in the study that I think will surprise the vast majority of Baby Boomer and Gen-X Free Will Baptist pastors, but which isn’t surprising to me because my work revolves around young adult Free Will Baptists who are preparing for ministry every day of my life.

Young Pastors Are More Apt to Say Denominationalism Is Vital

The finding I think many will find surprising is this:

Younger pastors are more apt to say denominational identity is “vital to them personally,” and least likely to say that the importance of denominational identity will decrease in the future.

The older the pastor in the survey, the less likely that pastor was to affirm the importance of denominations. For example, 24% of pastors over 65 disagreed that denominations were personally vital to their congregations, while only 16% of those ages 18 to 34 disagreed. Similar responses came back regarding what younger and older pastors thought about how important denominational identity will be in the future.

(Another finding I found interesting—and relevant to Welch, since we just started our M.Div. program and are planning to put our M.A. program in theology and ministry online—is that pastors with master’s degrees were the ones in the survey who in greatest numbers (81%) said their congregations valued their participation in their denomination most highly. 72% of those with bachelor’s degrees affirmed this, and 68% without a college degree affirmed it.)

Data Piling Up about Young People and the Church

These findings add to the myriads of data piling up that upend our presumptions concerning younger people and that the only way they’ll come to or stay in church, or faith in Christ, is if we appeal to the consumer sensibilities of youth culture in our worship and church programming. As all the sociological research shows—from more popular sources like LifeWay, Barna, and Answers in Genesis, to more scholarly sources like Pew, the Fuller Youth Study, and sociologists such as Christian Smith, Melissa Lundquist Denton, and others—Millennials and Gen-Zers are more open to tradition, doctrine, depth and substance in preaching and teaching and singing, intergenerational mentorship, and the list goes on.

Rainer, Ham, Kinnaman on Why Young People are Leaving the Church

This research, seen for example in Thom Rainer’s Essential Church, Ken Ham’s Already Gone, and David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me, shows that young people are leaving all sorts of churches at the same rates—large and small, urban and rural, contemporary and traditional, charismatic and liturgical.

As with the more general surveys of adults by people like Barna and Rainer, these studies of younger people show that the reason they’re leaving the church has little to do with stylistic factors and everything to do with the lack of solid teaching, the lack of intergenerationality and mentoring across the generations, the lack of love and community, and what they see as hypocrisy in the church. Church style is way down the list and is usually not listed as a factor at all.

Again, these studies are also undergirded by more academic sociological studies by scholars such as Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton, whose results support David Kinnaman’s conclusion that

“After countless interviews and conversations, I am convinced that historic and traditional practices, and orthodox and wisdom-laden ways of believing, are what the next generation really needs.”

—David Kinnaman, CEO, Barna Group

Millennial Preferences in Church Architecture

This is even confirmed by Millennial preferences in church architecture. A few years ago, the Barna Group conducted a study for one of the largest church architectural firms in the country, which wanted to know what style of church architecture Millennials preferred. When shown pictures of the “stage” or “platform” as well as the outside of traditional and modern church buildings, two-thirds of Millennials preferred traditional structures over modern ones.

This is not to argue, of course, for a “sanctified” architecture. It simply shows that many of our assumptions about what “the young folks” will actually prefer have been overturned by the Millennial generation, and similar preliminary reports are coming out of the even more secularized Generation Z.

Fuller Youth Institute, Growing Young

These same sorts of considerations continue to be borne out by the research. For example, the Fuller Youth Institute’s latest study, Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church, lists the top ten qualities churches don’t need to “grow young”:

  • A certain size (young people don’t care whether a church is large or small)
  • A trendy location or region
  • An exact age (young people don’t care whether a church is old or newly planted)
  • A popular denomination . . . or lack of denomination (young people aren’t negative on denominations)
  • An off-the-charts cool quotient (“For young people today, relational warmth is the new cool.”)
  • A big modern building
  • A big budget
  • A “contemporary” worship service
  • A watered-down teaching style
  • A hyper-entertaining ministry program (“We don’t have to compete. . . . Slick is no guarantee of success.”)

Don’t Underestimate Our Younger Ministers

Count on it: The reformation of Protestant faith and practice in the Free Will Baptist Church is not going to come from my generation. It’s going to come from the Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) and, even more, Generation Z (those born between 1997 and 2012).*

They tend to be more interested in doctrine and theology, depth in teaching and preaching, transcendence not trendiness in church life, and authenticity and intergenerationality in relationships and community. In short, to use Kinnaman’s words, they’re more interested than you might think in “historic and traditional practices, and orthodox and wisdom-laden ways of believing.”

Don’t underestimate them; don’t write them off; and don’t think you’ve got them figured out.

*Obviously, there is debate about these exact years.


  1. It looks like with the failure of the seeker sensitive movement of the 80s and 90s and with more and more people waking up and beginning to realize that the mega hip relative church being all flash no cash,and leaving them spiritually dry,they are looking for somewhere that will give them solid Biblical teaching not some life coach pep talk.

  2. I have closely observed church life in our movement, and I am agreement with the assessment of the article by Dr. Pinson. The surveys that are reflected in the article are accurate in that they unveil the heart of all generations to connect together around biblical truth. This is the true New Testament church, all ages, all generations loving, worshipping, and serving together.

    1. Thank you for these comments, gentlemen. President Ange, you’re in a unique position to understand younger ministers as well. While many younger people (and people my age!) are fine with a more superficial religion that’s tailor-made to what we might think are their consumer tastes (who’s to say?), the younger people that are becoming “Nones” the fastest are doing so because they’re not getting depth, transcendance, honest answers to tough questions, and intergenerationality. But when we spread a feast of Scripture and the Christian tradition for these young people, and lovingly mentor them as they taste of it, it’s amazing how many become excited about the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

      -Matt Pinson

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