The Beautiful Mess of a Multigenerational Church

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I never thought much about the idea of “intergenerational” until I made the transition from one church to another. My husband and I were part of a church for a few years that we absolutely loved. It was made up of mostly 20- and 30-somethings, and it was a wonderful home for us for the years we were there. There was so much excitement, energy, enthusiasm. And there was something so special about being able to connect easily with everyone in the church because we were all in similar stages of life.

It was not until we moved to a new town and a new church that I really saw and felt the contrast between a young, homogenous (in age) community and one that spans many generations. 

Both communities were and are life-giving, supportive, caring places. But there are some unique things I have started noticing from being in community with many people who have experienced more life than I have.

Wisdom from Pain

Life is painful. It simply is. Sin and death exist strongly in the world, and until Jesus comes again, this is reality. While I have not even reached the big 3-0, I have lived enough to recognize that the more life you live, the more pain you experience.

With that simple equation, when you enter into community with people who have lived more of life than you, you must recognize that they have likely experienced more pain than you as well. In the last year at our new church, I have entered into relationship with many people who have lost children and spouses. People who have suffered through countless miscarriages or infertility. People who have experienced job loss and unemployment. People who come from painful and abusive relationships and families. More life means more pain. Doing church with people who have lived more means they also have more pain in their story.

But, just like everything, God redeems our pain. When Jesus returns, we are promised and assured that pain will cease. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” And even before the pain ceases, there is still redemption in our pain. Paul tells us in Romans 5 that “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” And James 1 tells us that when people persevere in pain, they grow in wisdom.

In a church that spans across generations, there will be more pain, because life is painful. But, because of God’s redemptive work, it also means there will be more hope and more wisdom.

Love in Hospitality

This past year brought a lot of change in our life, perhaps the biggest of which was welcoming our first baby into the world. We were in a new town, a new church, and our closest family was 3 hours away. It was a daunting life stage to enter.

We were completely humbled by the love, hospitality, and generosity we received when our little girl was born. We had enough food brought over to last us for weeks. We had countless cards and gifts arriving for the first few months she was here. We had loving arms coming over for an hour just so I could take a nap or a shower. It was incredible.

Perhaps most amazing to me, though, has been our Sunday morning support. My husband preaches every Sunday and at least one Sunday a month I am part of the team leading worship. It makes for hectic Sunday mornings, and a desperate need for childcare. However, there has not been one Sunday where I have not had all the support I could ask for. I have had women coming to my house at 7am, napping, feeding, and dressing my baby, getting her to church and snuggling her through the service, all while my husband and I serve.

These are women have had babies of their own. They know the amount of time and energy it takes to get out the door on a Sunday morning, and they know how life-giving it is to be able to serve in church on Sunday morning. Because of these things, they offer themselves up to serve our family, simply so that we can serve the church.

The love and generosity that these women pour into others is amazing. And they are able to do so because they have been in this life stage and because they are no longer in it. They know what it takes, but they are now in a stage where they are able to step in and support others.

In the throes of new motherhood and caring for an infant, there is no way I could step in to support others the way these women support me. But I pray that when I am older, I can offer this love in the same way I have been loved.

Grace in Honesty

Perhaps one of the most refreshing parts of entering into this new community has been the honesty. As we moved from having very few older people in our church life to having a substantial number, we definitely felt a few concerns. You hear horror stories about the older generations in the church being stubborn and set in their ways and wanting control over every aspect of church life. Yes, this exists in churches, probably far too many. But we are so thankful that we do not experience that in our current church.

We have older members in our church who are stubborn, yes. We have older members in our church who are set in their ways, yes. We even have a few older members in our church who want control, yes. However, they are all very honest and humble. Early on we had an older member in our church open up and share his heart for a specific mission in a specific field. But, at the end of his sharing, he said, “I say all this, knowing that I am older and I won’t be around that much longer, and that at the end of the day, I need to respect that the younger people in this church are the future of the Church. And in the end, I care more about the future of the Church (than this one specific mission).”

Wow. I was relieved and refreshed and humbled to hear him say that. Because those of us who are younger can be just as stubborn and set in our ways and desirous of control. But on top of that, we are cocky. We are ambitious. We think we have all the answers to all the world’s problems. Much of the time, we do not have the understanding and respect to see that the older generation has a lot to teach us.

In a church where there are many generations represented, there certainly are differences of opinions and perspectives. But there is such beauty and grace in being honest.

When you are older, be honest that the future will look a lot different from the past. Be willing to accept that and allow forward movement. But when you are younger, be honest that you are young. Be willing to look to the older generation with respect and ask for their wisdom. They have seen a whole lot more than you have.

When people are involved, things get messy, even in church. When people come from different points of view, things get even messier. It is challenging to live and worship in a community with many generations represented. But it is a beautiful mess. There is pain, but wisdom and hope abound. There are challenges, but hospitality and love allow others to carry burdens. There is frustration, but grace and respect and humility unite.

What are some of the challenges you have experienced in doing church with multiple generations? What are some of the joys you have experienced? What has God taught you through the other people in your church?

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Community Builder

Thank you for sharing this, Jill. Your thoughts beautifully echo my experiences in an intergenerational church. We have so much to learn from each other, and there are so many ways that we can encourage each other. I think God teaches us best through our relationships with one another.

Community Builder

Love this article, there is so much to be gained in cross-generational ministry. I am old enough to have seen it from both sides. It is beautiful. 

Thank you for this insight into a multigenerational church. Isn't it strange how we view this phenomenon, which used to be the norm.

Two things came to mind as I read it. Firstly, that you are part of the ministry team, and your husband the preacher. Therefore the church was serving their minister and his family, and we wouldn't expect less. But would the same assistance, love, and care be given to all families? The unwed mother of six from the wrong part of town, who can't get her life together? Personally, I have seen congregations falling over themselves to help the minister's family, while ignoring the needs of those they would rather not be part of their church.

My second thought was, where are the children? To speak of intergenerationality means children as well. You speak of yourselves as the younger generation, but there are the very young (including the one you just gave birth to!), and these also belong to the faith community. And they also have a vocation within that community.

As I reread this comment, I realised who did welcome the outcasts and the children. Jesus.

Community Builder

Thanks for sharing the story of how your church family understands that it is truly a family.  And how wonderful that your little one has also already experienced the encouragement and support of her intergenerational church family!

Participant

I can't imagine being a part of a church that is not intergenerational.  It seems to me such a church is less than what it should be.  I've never been a member of one that wasn't intergenerational.

This makes me think, though, of neighborhoods that are demographically stratified, by age, ethnicity, economic class, or whatever.  Those too are less than what they should be, for essentially the same reason.

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