Listen for the Sound of the Genuine: Stephen Lewis

An interview with Stephen Lewis

A Baptist minister, educator, and former banker, Stephen Lewis is the new president of The Fund for Theological Education, based in Atlanta. FTE identifies gifted young people from diverse backgrounds who seek vocations in ministry and teaching. In nearly sixty years, the organization has awarded more than 6,000 fellowships – about 100 a year – to fund individuals’ theological education or their exploration of ministerial calling. FTE also partners with congregations, last year training nearly 800 church leaders in “VocationCARE” practices to nurture young leaders. In 2011, FTE awarded some forty fellowships to minority students pursuing graduate study in religion, Bible, and theology – an effort to help new generations interpret and give birth to a changing church. (see

REFLECTIONS: Are the obstacles to religious vocation so different from a generation ago?

LEWIS: Several trends come to mind that identify these times. One is the tech revolution, which is reshaping community and the way we engage information and relationships. It has mitigated the way people traditionally meet face-to-face, yet it has given people new online access to others across the whole world in ways that a physical building couldn’t make possible.

There’s a larger public now that wants to know the relevance of religious institutions that seem to have had a heyday already. What does it mean to be community in a fast, techno, consumer-driven culture? That requires a different set of tools and skills.

Another trend is the wave of baby boomer retirements and the challenges that will come with the aging of congregations.

Young leaders must prepare for many expressions of church – rural setting, urban, suburban. As the research shows, most congregations see less than one hundred members per week. Some are comprised of senior citizens – older, faithful people who need someone to care for them and bring new life, or help them merge with another church. Some are just looking for a chaplain as they ease into the twilight of their congregational life.

By contrast, there are also the large, big-box versions of churchgoing, with multiple resources for multiple constituencies and lots of amenities that reflect the searching, purchasing style of a consumer culture that hopes to find a reflection of its own values.

Making our way out of this recession, many churches are just trying to keep the lights on. But in every case what you find are institutions very much in need of quality leadership.

REFLECTIONS: Is it harder to lead churches today?

LEWIS: Congregations and denominations are not as strong as they were. We live in a post-Christian and pluralistic era. Of course, there are pockets where Christianity is still strong, but some pastors argue that this is the last generation of Christians who grew up in the church and know the stories and the heritage. The new generations coming into the churches now are different: they don’t have that memory. Reaching them requires new skills.

REFLECTIONS: How is your organization adapting to this changing scene?

LEWIS: We are working with a remarkable new generation. Among young people born in the early 1980s, the Millennials, a good number are committed to justice, peace, fairness – in short, the social gospel. That’s the nature of this generation: a propensity to want to change the world and find purpose in their own lives. They’re asking, “What does my faith have to do with the conditions of my community?” They place a high value on asking deeper questions of life. They are seeking the intersection of faith and service, with a deep but not uncritical love of the church. Like I said, there’s a deep need to change the world. Young church leaders may not know what that will look like, but they are bringing that passion to the way they read texts and analyze social conditions.

REFLECTIONS: The conventional wisdom says churches are in decline, and there’s a growing “So What?” attitude about religion. How does it look from your position?

LEWIS: I hear boomers say young people aren’t coming to church anymore. What many are really saying is the literal building is the place where church must happen. But maybe boomers have not developed the lens for seeing that young people today are creating their own communities – they just don’t gather in the way boomers are accustomed. They might gather at a coffee house, or in someone’s apartment or basement. But they are gathering. They are asking questions. They are trying to seriously explore what the beloved community can mean.

REFLECTIONS: In your own life, you moved from banker to ordained minister. Your calling changed?

LEWIS: Working in banking, there came a point when I thought, there’s got to be more to life than climbing the corporate ladder. At church I was seeing how deeply people were engaging the questions of life and trying to change the community. I came to realize what mattered to me was, how could I make a difference in the world? And people at church were seeing things in me that I couldn’t see. Eventually, they told me: God has a hand on your life, and you have to trust that God will lead you. I was twenty- four. What I realized was that I wanted to bring to the church environment some principles of leadership – mentoring, coaching, identifying one’s growing edges and gifts – that I had experienced in corporate life.

REFLECTIONS: And you work now with church bodies on this elusive question of vocation. What can congregations do to nurture young leadership in their midst?

LEWIS: If God has called these congregations into being, then they should continuously think about carrying that calling into the future. They must think intergenerationally and recognize their own role in the congregation’s calling and in a young person’s calling.

There are many ways to step into that. Honor a young person’s talent and presence. That might mean tapping that young person on the shoulder, asking him or her into the choir or to teach. It means the pastor carrying a list of young people that he or she calls regularly, or lay leaders having lunch with a student. It could mean inviting a young person to walk alongside an older leader to see the daily work that is done.

Whatever the practice, the message to the young person should be: we have seen gifts in you and we want to pray with you as you figure out what you want to do, and we invite you to consider whether congregational ministry might be what you are called to do.

We want churches to help young people keep in mind what Howard Thurman told students at a Spelman College address in 1980: “There is in you something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. Nobody like you has ever been born and no one like you will ever be born again – you are the only one.”

Invite young people at church to try on the mantle of leadership: this should be in our DNA.