When your father and your grandfather have been well-respected leaders of a church for more than four decades, suffice it to say that Jonathan Stockstill had large shoes to fill when he became a third-generation pastor of Baker, Louisiana's Bethany World Prayer Center (now Bethany Church) in the fall of 2011.
Add to that the fact that Stockstill was only 30 and had no prior experience preaching, and the looming task of assuming such a pulpit appeared downright overwhelming.
However, Stockstill relied on something stronger than his pastoral genes as the baton was passed down to him—a clear calling from God. Although he had little experience speaking from the pulpit, Bethany's congregation was accustomed to seeing the young Stockstill on the platform each week as he led worship.
A prolific songwriter, Stockstill has studied music since he was 4 and led worship since the age of 16. Additionally, he's written or co-written over 70 songs and he plays both guitar and piano. Preaching might not have come naturally, but communicating certainly did.
"Christ has called me to shepherd this church. It's definitely a learning experience," the worship-leader-turned-senior-pastor explains. "It's not like I had pastored a small church before. I had to learn in front of a ton of people. I'm learning quickly."
With a congregation of 7,000 on a regular Sunday to as many as 11,000 on Easter, Bethany's congregation is one of the largest in the United States, making Stockstill one of the youngest pastors of a megachurch in America. Despite the size and scope of Bethany, which includes three locations in South Louisiana, the transition from father to son was smooth, considering both Stockstill and his father took intentional steps the prior year to ensure he and the congregation were ready.
"I know there's probably a lot of right ways to do it, but I really think the way we did it worked well," Stockstill says. "I knew going into it that Dad would totally take his hands off the wheel, and in some churches, it's not like that. Whoever the transitioning pastor is has a hard time letting go, so the transition turns out being drawn out, and it's really hard to figure out who's leading.
"Ours wasn't like that at all. It was pretty straightforward. Dad pretty much unplugged from everything. But when it happened, it happened, and it was a lot to take on at first."
Stockstill's father, Larry, is a well-known televangelist and author. His real passion lies in missions and church planting, having been a missionary in Africa for two years before taking over Bethany's pulpit from his father. Incidentally, Larry was the same age as Jonathan—30—when he took over the family church. Today, he's hardly retired, preferring instead to propel Bethany's church planting and missional efforts.
"For him to be able to devote his full attention to that was very natural," Jonathan said of his dad's new role.
Larry Stockstill had no trepidations when he handed the reins to his son three years ago after 28 years as pastor at Bethany. Bethany's three overseers—all with more than 30 years of pastoral experience themselves—recommended Jonathan take over for his father.
"Not only has the next generation received the leadership they deserve, but the vision of Bethany has multiplied exponentially," he said. "Jonathan has brought our services to another level, helping enhance connection groups between members and sparking service projects that have helped families to unite between parents and children."
Meanwhile, Jonathan Stockstill has found that he's been able to transition into full-time pastorship without fully forsaking his worship roots. "The cool thing is I felt like my passion for music hadn't died when I took the church, but I really did feel like the Lord spoke clearly to me that I was going to move into the position of pastor," he said. "In the last three years, God's brought a ton of young worship leaders and people that I'm able to coach in a way. We have a huge priority on worship at the church.
"I really encourage people in our church to write and record music. It's not a rare thing for me to show up at a rehearsal and help out with arrangements, so there's a huge value that I put on it. It's just been cool to see how God can use the position I'm in now to even make that passion go further."
Rhythms of Grace
Over the course of his three years thus far as Bethany's leader, Stockstill has faced his fair share of growing pains, but his challenges have evolved as he's grown into his leadership role.
"Three to six months after I'd taken the church, I would say the greatest challenge was the rhythm of preaching on a weekly basis and being the responsible party for the diet of the church," he reveals. "You want to speak something that matters and that's relevant to where [people] are. It's also what God is wanting to say. It's just a huge pressure, that weekly speaking pressure. You grow in the grace for it."
Today, the biggest hurdle facing the now 34-year-old might surprise you; it's the same challenge currently facing most millennials—finding balance. "Probably the greatest hurdle for me is not allowing myself to push too hard but just get into a comfortable rhythm," says the father of two, adding that he's seen burn-out happen quickly when a young minister dives in head-first for years without stopping to prioritize. Stockstill intends to be in ministry for the long-haul, and he knows that in order to maintain longevity, he has to find a pace that's healthy for his church and his family. He says his dad modeled this for him and his five siblings.
"Dad's always just been a great leader," he says. "In his private life [and] his public life, he genuinely loves God, genuinely pursues God, genuinely has a relationship with my mom that's tremendous; and they've been married 38 years. I just saw an example of genuine Christianity lived out in front of me."
Like Father, Like Son
It's easy for people to make comparisons between Stockstill and his father, especially considering the two men favor one another in appearance. While he's humbled to carry his father's legacy, Stockstill says he's trying to carve his own path, find his own style, and his dad is extremely supportive.
"I try to take complicated things and make them simple," he says. "I tell stories about my life. I really try hard not to ever emulate somebody [else] but just be myself.
The church of his grandfather's day never dreamed of satellite campuses or ways to engage congregants on social media. Meanwhile, Stockstill sees the progression of technology as a tool that enables the church to reach people like never before.
"I feel like technology has enabled us to take every limit off and do things that we were never able to do with multisite campuses," he contends. "It's just tearing down the walls of possibility. A lot of the internal culture, the internal bubble, of the church has been kind of dismantled, and the church is growing with the culture."
He's careful to note that growing with the culture doesn't mean emulating the culture. In fact, in an attempt to be culturally relevant to reach the lost, he sees many churches exchanging Christ for cool.
"I feel like some people, in an attempt to be culturally relevant, have lost [their] spirituality, which that's the bottom line of what we're supposed to be doing—connecting people with God," he says, adding that churches are doling out therapy sessions and motivational speeches rather than speaking hard truth.
"We're more often connecting with them from an intellectual, teaching and self-help standpoint than really helping them connect vertically to encounter God. The temptation is to make truth relative and [allow] each person to define truth for themselves. The Bible is not really the authority. It's more how you feel, and I think a danger is people begin to make up God. They begin to say, 'This is who I think God is.' And they make up a God who doesn't even exist."
Stockstill says there are many issues being debated where the Bible's stance is black and white. Meanwhile, millennials are often confused about what they truly believe because Christian leaders adopt a noncommittal position in order to not ruffle feathers on either side of the fence.
"I think the biggest danger to the next generation of ministry is culture corrosion, changing perspectives on things we know God has spoken clearly about [and] just forgetting the authority of the Word and backing down on issues we know are clear," he said.
Despite the growing trend of evasive theology, Stockstill is encouraged by the denominational lines he sees blurring. "I do see a greater sense of unity among churches," he says. "I see denominational walls really falling down. I really believe God's ultimate desire is for the church to be united."
In many ways, Stockstill sees technology aiding in global unity and in reaching unchurched people groups. Conversely, he is also concerned about Western culture's inward focus, encouraging evangelicals to bravely remember brothers and sisters on the other side of the world, who are often overlooked, even in terms of foreign missions.
"We need a greater international focus from the Western church world. It's easy for America, Australia, Europe and even Africa to be self-focused, but when you start thinking about the Middle East, the Muslim world and the Far East, there are billions of unreached people," he says. "I think a greater global focus is so important because you could have five churches on one street in America and not one church in the entire nation in another country."
Through Bethany Church's own church-planting efforts around the globe, service has become a touchstone. The church has a unique A-B-C model that allows members to fuel their spiritual life on three different levels. "Activate" plugs members into service opportunities both locally and globally. "Belong" connects members to "b-groups" (Bethany's version of life groups that meet at homes throughout the area). Meanwhile, "Cultivate" engages members in corporate gatherings for in-depth Bible study and worship.
Although, like most megachurches, Bethany offers ample opportunity to participate in meeting needs, Stockstill emphasizes that evangelism must be at the core of service.
"We plant churches, and then we do social justice around those churches," he says. "What people need more than anything is to encounter Christ somehow. It doesn't help to dig a well if nobody ever finds Christ."
Where He Leads
With a focus on technology, social justice, evangelism and church planting, millennials are flocking to Bethany. It's easy for young families to relate to a pastor who's only 34, and Stockstill intentionally ensures his sermons, leadership and demeanor make him approachable to everyone.
"God's entrusted this church to me," he says. "He's entrusted thousands of believers that are here, and I just pray that I'm faithful—faithful to teach them the truth, love them and watch out for their souls."
Stockstill has made friends with other young pastors with whom he talks and texts often. The younger generation of American pastors seemed to have formed their own informal club for support.
"I think we kind of find each other and huddle up and encourage each other," he says.
Stockstill admits that although he's speaking into the lives of people who are his peers, he hasn't discovered the secret to reaching his generation.
Meanwhile, he's navigating marriage and parenthood and then preaching from his own personal experience as a 30-something husband and father with two little girls.
"Trying to figure out marriage and how that works with kids [is huge for me]. I know I have very real struggles that everybody else does. So I preach to those struggles and preach to those things that matter and what the Word of God says about them. I preach to myself a lot."
Lindsay Williams is a freelance writer for Ministry Today magazine.
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