Indeed, every church struggles with the challenge
of passing on the meaning of the faith
to each succeeding generation.
– George Hunter III (1)
At birth, a church is usually full of vibrant characteristics, innovative initiatives, committed participation, and passionate vision for reaching neighborhoods with the message of Jesus. The founding generation of a church invests much of its time, social activity and money into making the new congregation a growing, dynamic faith community that impacts the people around them. But typically, as these new churches and the people within them grow older, the initial missional momentum that so defined their existence tends to diminish. As a church community ages, innovation can evolve into an entrenchment of structure, risk-taking can develop into protectionism, and shared vision can fragment into competing outlooks of direction. Over time, a local church can struggle to …
…actively engage with the rapidly changing communities and culture around them. Among the older members in these churches distrust can develop towards for the younger generations, who are generally more highly influenced by trends in culture, and who are generally less experienced in life than the older generations. Likewise, younger generations can experience frustrations with the scope of ministry owned by the older members. As a result, over time generational tensions can develop that strain against the original optimism of the founding members. If generational tensions increase, the purpose of a local church can tend to focus upon maintenance rather than vision, the ministry can tend to become segmented rather than inter-connected, and the traditions can tend to become rigid rather than adaptive. Gradually, perhaps even unnoticeably, many churches that once could have been described as vibrant, outgoing, or laden with potential gradually become imbalanced bureaucracies that cater to either the aging preferences of their founders or the youthful appeals of emerging generations.
Every generation, younger or older, seeks a voice and a belonging in a local community. Unfortunately, in North America there seems to be a struggle to transfer ownership of ministry leadership to successive generations. The voice of one particular generation often becomes the sole proprietor of the workings of a church and fails to lend an opportunity of influence to others. In such churches there is an inevitable breakage in the lineage of faith. It is no wonder, then, that many young adults find themselves uninspired by the ecclesial expression and commitment of their inherited churches. In fact, the generational divisions in the local church seem to be a growing reality in North America. More and more, the emerging generations in the United States and Canada are rejecting a pattern whereby faith would be transferred to them from the prior generations.
1 George Hunter III, The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West… Again (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), 79.
Having worked for parachurch organizations like Youth for Christ and InterVarsity and having also worked for local churches in generationally focused ministry… I’ve learned that parachurch groups like these started in the last 100 years because local churches weren’t reaching huge segments of youth and young adults. But these groups have often found it hard to equip students for how to be involved in an intergenerational setting of church after high school or college.
I think what these researchers are observing is a chronic problem, that has been perpetuated for the last several generations. I have observed that each generation, starting in their youth / twenties, builds a community amongst their peers, and even does outreach to their peers. As they grow older and become busy with their families, they become more insular, form cliques within their peer group, and do not reach out to their peers, let alone to other generations, younger or older. Then the same cycle happens again with the next youth / twenties peer group.
Is it time to teach the youth / twenties generation to reach out with Christ’s love to the older generations, rather then waiting for the older generation to reach out to the youth / twenties. Would it be possible that the heart of the people of the older generations will grow three times (like the Grinch’s), and that they will be changed? Would this break the church out of this recurring pattern so that when the teens / twenties become older they are so used to reaching out to older generations that they just naturally reach out to the younger generations as well instead of forming their tight little cliques?
Paul, you are absolutely right we need to see partnerships between the younger and older generations. But instead of waiting for the older generation to partner with the younger generation, let us lead the younger generation to powerfully and dynamically love the older generation, with the prayer that the Holy Spirit would so transform the older generation that they would return to their first love. Just as the Holy Spirit is doing an amazing work amongst the younger generation. (When I refer to older generation I am thinking of the 40+ or even 35+).
Paul and James,
I’ve enjoyed following your responses here. Thanks for feeling free to discuss this with each other. You both bring up some great points that I wouldn’t have been able to draw out myself. Thanks for that!
Perhaps, generally speaking, we need to be calling all generations again and again to the Love the Lord and love others. We get so sucked into ourselves, we seek God for our sake and we seek others for our sake. When do we do things for God because God is God and we love God and can’t help it? When do we do things for others because we simply can’t help but to love others?
As per James’ questions…I’m not so sure that we need to start “generationally relevant” movements, because those will quickly turn into much of the same thing which they once rallied against. It’s not even so much about generations more than it is, as James alluded to, a problem of the kind of faith being lived out. We have all experienced (I hope) the wonderful blessing it is to partner with older and younger generations in mission for and with God, and it is when this is lost that generations (both young and old!) become selfish, complacent, apathetic and simply unfaithful to their calling.
Do we need a warning/wakeup call for existing churches…absolutely; the question is whether anyone is listening or ready to hear what the Spirit has to say to the churches (as per your Revelation connection).
Maybe the younger generation is right in rejecting the ‘faith’ of the older generations. Maybe the fact is that the ‘faith’ of many in the older generations is no longer a true faith. Is it possible that the younger generation sees what John had to write about the church in Revelation?
If the faith of the older generation is ‘exclusive / comfort’ as Paul suggests, then this faith is no different then the faith of mainline denominations 100 years ago that caused all new denominations to spring up in North America. Or, to be really offensive, maybe the faith of the older generations is no different then that at the time of Luther, or the Pharisees?
Fortunately one cannot generalize so simply, because God has his faithful in every generation and in every church who love the coming generations with a love inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Is the answer to start another movmement for the younger generations, so that in their search for the truth they are not led astray? Or is the answer to issue a warning / wakeup call to the existing church to return to their first love?
What intrigues me is when that tipping point actually begins to turn the priorities away from its mission and identity in the life of a church.
How we understand “success” will be fundamental as well as the value we place on programs, for programs exist to serve people where many churches seem to believe (at least by their actions) that people exist for programs. Rarely do leaders ask whether a certain program is still serving the mission of the church, but rather, return to how “successful” it was and could be and recruit people in order to keep it alive.
What is difficult about the generational issues is discovering the common points that older and younger generations can be inspired with. I think part of the seeming apathy and exclusive/comfort attitude of some older generations is a direct result of how we have “done” church for the past 60 years. The progress has come at a cost and our buildings, institutions and leadership development have had obvious shifts away from the mission of the church and more about maintaining an us/them wall of (dare I say it) hostility.