In simple terms, what is an elder?
Jim Stier: The word “elder” implies long experience and trustworthiness. An eldership is a group of people who are trusted because they’ve lived a life that inspires trust. They are chosen by the Lord to give loving help to people who look to them as a source of wisdom, stability, affection, strategy and understanding. Basically, the idea is of a covering group, that’s there to serve and minister; to wait on God and lead others into God’s presence.
How are eldership and prayer linked?
John Dawson: Great spiritual authority is gained by the followers of Jesus if they pray in unity. And by unity, I don’t mean intellectual agreement about everything. What I’m talking about is affection and respect and friendship. Do you really know one another? Have you taken the time to deeply listen to the stories of your fellow believers?
A true eldership joins with others in taking up a loving concern for the wellbeing of all the people within a larger group, and intentionally gathers to pray for them.
How has God led YWAM towards an eldership model?
John Dawson: Several years ago in China, the Holy Spirit began speaking to the YWAM’s leaders about a new season of innovation and growth supported by New Testament principles of eldership. As YWAM seeks to both pioneer new initiatives and develop loving communities, this has led us to question how we meet as international leaders and the quality of our relationships with one another.
We realised that we were confronting a fundamental question: Is Youth With A Mission a movement guided by common relational history, vision and values or are we an organisation governed by delegates to a legislative body?
We have become convinced that we are a movement of allies, not an institution. This has been in our DNA from the beginning. So in December 2011 we changed the name of the Global Leadership Team to the Global Leadership Forum, seeing ourselves as simply one of many forums of senior YWAMers.
Can young people be elders?
John Dawson: Good question – after all, YWAM is a movement dedicated to youth and largely consisting of young people. At first glance it would seem that “elder” is a role served largely by older believers, however in the New Testament the term is used in relation how recently the church in question came into being. In Acts 14:23 we see reference to Paul appointing elders mere months after conversion in some cases.
When we look at the New Testament (e.g. 1 Timothy 3:1-7), we see that in a typical list of qualifications for this function, almost every virtue is mandated elsewhere for all believers. Only two things stand out as distinct. First this person must not be a novice, and secondly they must be able to teach.
Being able to teach, although benefiting from age and experience, primarily presupposes a growing grasp of the Scriptures and the ability to communicate the Gospel well. Above all, the members of a gathered eldership must excel in the qualities expected of all believers.
Why should we worry about the words we use?
John Dawson: When understanding and describing ourselves as the family of God, the Word of God is a great gift to us. We want to use the primary language of biblical metaphor and story. If we lose touch with this gift, we could drift into imitating the institutional thought and practice of the common society and cease to be an agent of transformation. Having said that, we may not use the term ‘elder’ much when we describe our roles and gatherings. Appropriate terminology needs to be developed in the languages and cultures in which we operate. The importance of this discussion is that we anchor our language and practice in the meaning imparted by God’s Word. The Word of God is our foundation.
Read the entire copy of John Dawson’s latest letter to YWAM about the global structure at the YWAM Life web-site.