When the Generation Gap Comes to Church
June 22, 2010
Updated August 6, 2015
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“No longer just a problem for families, the generation gap has donned casual business attire and come to work,” state Beverly Kaye, Devon Scheef and Diane Thielfoldt in their article entitled “Engaging the Generations.” According to these authors, an organization that fails to actively engage across generations fails to thrive. When cultural generations clash in a workplace, the results often include conflict, misunderstanding and miscommunication. Talented workers leave for greener pastures, and those who remain lose their motivation. Workplace morale takes a dive.
It is not only businesses that can suffer from generational disharmony. When the generation gap comes to church, it can wreak havoc with a congregational’s well-being and long-term sustainability.
Rev. Adrian Van Giessen, Regional Team Leader – Eastern Canada for Christian Reformed Home Missions, believes that the church, like other organizations, has good reasons to be concerned about multigenerational engagement. But the church’s reasons are rooted, first and foremost, in God’s Word. “Using the analogy that Paul uses in Romans 12 of the church as a body, a healthy church not only recognizes different spiritual gifts as important but also the experiences and wisdom that various generations bring to the body,” Van Giessen says.
“There is a human tendency for each generation to believe and act like the church exists just for them,” Van Giessen says. Programs like girls and boys clubs, youth groups, women’s and men’s Bible Studies, seniors’ activities and Sunday Schools have sprung up over the years, targeting specific generations with age-appropriate programming. These programs are important and necessary in nurturing people along their faith journeys, but now many churches are seeking a place where they can bring the generations back together.
“Members representing different stages and ages in their faith journey ought to learn from one another,” says Irene Bakker, a member of Hebron Christian Reformed Church in Whitby, Ontario. Bakker chairs a committee in her church that was established to plan multigenerational worship. Hebron’s leaders identified a need for parents and children, young and old, youth and seniors, to engage in “spiritual conversations” across generations. Worship seemed like a good place to start that dialogue.
“Worship is one setting where we may have as many as four or five generations present in the same space,” says Bakker. “Worship plays a key role in our faith formation, and multigenerational communal worship more accurately reflects the unity and diversity of the body of Christ.”
Bakker and her committee intentionally design worship with all generations in mind. The committee itself has members representing all the different generations in the church, something that Bakker says has led to many interesting conversations as services are planned.
“We have a large range of ages in our congregation and many different musical tastes,” Bakker says. “One of the most challenging aspects has been finding songs that all generations know and sing well. In addition, it has been difficult to engage both children and mature seniors with the same sermon.”
But the intentionality of their worship design is having a positive impact, and the blessings for the church are clear. Bakker says the church has seen a new eagerness in young people coming to worship. From handing out bulletins to collecting the offering and helping to write songs, they participate in worship, are blessed and are a blessing to others. Because the committee incorporates worship activities that appeal to diverse learning styles and life experiences – from drama to art – a broader range of individuals can now use their gifts within the worship service and beyond.
A Common Mission
Van Giessen believes that efforts like Hebron’s to bridge the generation gap can go a long way to strengthening churches. “As a church planter who has spent a lot of time in emerging churches, I’ve seen and experienced the blessings that come when people, old and young, work side by side on a common mission. When people from all age groups are involved in a shared mission and recognize the need for various gifts and experiences to help make that work, ministry flourishes and generational differences seem to melt away.”
The sense of Kingdom completeness that comes when generational boundaries are blurred is rooted in Scripture. “God’s Kingdom includes all ages. From generation to generation – the Scriptures tell us – we are blessed and enriched by each other’s perspectives,” says Rev. Karen Wilk, Pastor of Community Life and Discipleship at The River CRC in Edmonton, Alberta.
A few years ago, Wilk participated in a Sustaining Pastoral Excellence peer learning group with colleagues from other Christian Reformed Churches in her region. Together, Wilk and her peers explored the topic of multigenerational ministry. “This really helped us think through the Biblical, theological grounding for being multigenerational,” says Wilk. The pastors who participated in the group continue to reap the rewards of applying their learnings within their congregations, says Wilk. “It has helped us keep other age groups in mind when planning and thinking about church life.”
Multigenerational ministry is something that comes quite naturally in a newly established church like The River CRC, says Wilk, but it is crucial for any church’s ministry—even older, more established churches. “Multigenerational ministry is in our DNA,” she says. “We have youth in our worship bands, doing audio-visual, leading children’s ministry, and participating with our service projects.”
Connecting old and young across the generations also presents valuable opportunities for mentoring within churches, says Van Giessen. “Especially among the younger generations, like the Millennials, there is a hunger and deep desire to walk and live closely with older folks who are willing to love and affirm them.”
In their article, “Engaging the Generation,” Kaye, Scheef and Thielfoldt suggest that informal mentoring allows for the transfer of new skills and insights—something that is desperately needed in the church today. But the authors warn leaders not to think of cross-generational mentoring as a one-way street. While retired church members representing “The Silent Generation” or “The Boomers” can mentor younger people, youth also have skills to share. For instance, technically-literate Millennials can teach older members a thing or two about harnessing the power of the internet to accomplish ministry goals. Gen Xers may challenge authority and rules but they bring intention to vision and purpose within a congregation’s ministry.
What the Holy Spirit Intends
Bridging generation gaps in the church may seem like a lot of work, but the rewards will be worth it. It will foster unity and provide a purpose that is larger than any individual generation’s hopes and experiences.
“Through multigenerational ministry, the church can begin to experience what the Holy Spirit intends for us all,” says Van Giessen, “to be a body of diverse yet unified people.”
The Generations in Your Church Today*
A cultural generation is a cohort of people whose youth was shaped by a particular set of events and trends. Because of these shared experiences, cultural generations develop similar values and approaches toward life.
The Silent Generation (born between 1933 and 1945)
This generation grew up in the years following the Great Depression. The harsh economic climate of childhood taught them discipline and self-sacrifice. Over the course of their lives, this generation saw their affluence increase. They tend to be team players who are loyal to organizations. They have a huge knowledge legacy to share and a strong work ethic.
The Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964)
Boomers grew up in a time of unprecedented economic prosperity and post-war hopefulness. They were typically raised in nuclear families, most often with a stay-at-home mom. Boomers worked hard and were rewarded for it. They tend to be optimistic and driven by success. Because of their sheer numbers (they are the largest generation alive today), they have dominated the workforce for decades. Boomers excel in tackling issues and finding solutions.
Generation X (born between 1965 and 1976)
Divorce and working moms became the new normal for this generation, and many in this generation demonstrate characteristics of independence, resiliency and flexibility. Gen Xers came of age during a major recession. They saw their parents laid off after decades of service. Many graduated from university to find few jobs and opportunities. As a result, Gen Xers became loyal, not to organizations, but rather to their work, their team or their boss. Gen Xers thrive in situations that minimize rules and maximize flexibility and participation. They value feedback and are looking for meaning in their work.
The Millennials (born between 1977 and 1998)
Raised in a child-centric world, this generation has been showered with attention and held in high regard by the adults in their lives. As a result, they are self-confident and achievement-oriented. Technology has surrounded them from birth, and they are more techno-savvy than any previous generation. Their parents involved them in many social, sports and school activities, and they are masters in multi-tasking. They thrive in teams and expect structure.
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