It appears to me that there is a growing chasm between generations in local churches. Churches are becoming more and more generationally homogenous. If you entered a church on Sunday, you might easily label the church as either a baby boomer, generation X, or millennial church. Obviously, this is a broad observation. There are churches that do well at being generationally varied. But I don't think enough attention has been drawn to how uniform many churches are and how dangerous this is to discipleship and spiritual growth. Let me first share my own experience.
I’ve attended four churches in my Christian journey. Each of them had a generational makeup that defined them. Likewise, I’ve interacted with a handful of other churches from which I’ve built this experience.
Two churches that I attended had a strong constituency of young families. One was a baby boomer church; the other was a generation X church. In both, the singles and college ministry was a ghost town. In one of them, there was not a grey hair in the crowd, merely families with children through teens.
I attended the first as a college and single. I was the anomaly of the church. In order to find gospel community with people from my generation, I traveled through several college ministries or singles ministries for four years. I did what I could to build community within the church, but there were many barriers that prevented this. One of which was the lack of urgency that the older generations felt to remedy the situation.
In the second, my wife and I were married with children and I served the church as a pastor. I shepherded the teen generation and was at max capacity. I didn’t have time to pour into my own generation and build community. This generation remained fragmented with no voice or leadership; it had a tough time finding a place in the church.
The third church was a dying church with an aged congregation. Then it relaunched. After relaunch it was mostly constituted of college and single students. As I have watched this church progress, I have seen it turn the corner and develop more heterogeneity. But I can tell that this church has been intentional. My wife and I attended this church between the two churches I shared about above. We felt very connected to our own generation, but were hungry to have more mature saints to pour into our lives.
Then there are the churches I hear whispered about. “Did you hear that such and such church closed their doors?” These churches after decades of loyal saints serving could not afford to maintain their facilities. They atrophied. They lacked younger families, singles, and college-aged adults to sustain gospel ministry momentum. These church facilities become community centers, pubs, or small businesses. As I’ve traveled the Chicagoland area during the past few months, I have encountered the truth of this. What were once beautiful bastions of Christianity have been converted into businesses.
Thankfully, there are churches that have a healthy cross-section of generations present. The fourth church, which I attend now, represents this healthy cross-section. In this church, not one generation sticks out from another.
Why the Divide?
One reason that a church is generationally uniform is because it started that way and stayed that way.
For example, if the plaid, bearded, hipster, millennial church planting conferences that I’ve gone to during the last year is any indication of the uniformity within past generations, I might be onto something. These bearded, plaid-bearing men are a type that I am a part; I’m pointing the finger at myself here. We love to gather together with others just like us to learn how to minister those who are - shocker - just like us.
If churches strive to be generationally mixed, it is important to start that way. They cannot be started with young people who are reacting to the stagnancy of older generational churches. It is not outlandish to claim that younger generations of the church become frustrated with how older generational churches function. The reasons for frustration vary. It could involve theological, philosophical, or cultural generational preferences.
But these preferences have planted certain kinds of generational churches. Some may question if a generation can have theological preferences. But I guarantee there is a young, restless, and Reformed millennial generation that has “left behind” the generations before it.
Likewise, generation X made a pivotal shift philosophically. This generation became seeker sensitive. This generation valued church growth that emphasized programs. The generation before it resisted this shift. The one coming after has seen its foibles and is running away from it as well.
Finally, the baby boomer generation withstood all of these changes. They maintained the culture that it had before generation X. It resisted the philosophical shift. A segment of this generation is delighted with the Reformed part of the young, restless and Reformed millennials. Another segment feels more threatened than ever by how this generation embraces certain aspects of culture. They dress more relaxed, have tattoos, imbibe in alcohol, and smoke pipes and cigars. This generation navigates media in a redemptive mode. All of this frightens the older generations.
Unfortunately, these fears build gospel blockades rather than bridges. From one generation’s frustration, another generation of church dies; the younger generation abandons ship and starts a younger-aged church. This has been going on for decades now. Thus, we can recognize when a church began in the mid 20th-century, the 70's and 80's, or the 90's and 2000's. You can see the predominant life-stage represented within the church as easily as you can date the architecture of the building.
Here is a major caveat. Do not read this article and think that this guy is against church planting. On the contrary, I am a church-planting intern. I wholeheartedly believe that church planting is biblical. Paul traveled the Mediterranean region starting local churches and installing men that he mentored into elder roles in those churches.
In America, there is a great need of new churches because of gospel poverty. This is not a slam against church planting. It is a caution against a certain kind of church planting; the kind of church planting that does not possess a healthy cross-section of generations. New church plants should intentionally be generationally varied. We should be alarmed when visiting a church plant and the assembly is nearly all college students - regardless of how well-meaning, doctrinally sound, and genuine the community is. Likewise, be concerned if a church plant only has young families.
Listen church planters. Develop a core group that is generationally diversified and you have hope.
Building Gospel Bridges
So how does a church plant or established church build generational bridges and develop a healthy cross-section of generations? How do they take down the gospel blockades? The only way to bridge this growing chasm between these generations is through the gospel. Here are three gospel-bridges a church can build towards having an inter-generational church.
1. Construct Inter-Generational Gospel Communities
If Colossians 3:18-4.1 and Ephesians 5:25-6.9 are examples of household codes, Titus 2:1-10 is a church code. It is a code of how multiple generations and people from varied life situations relate with one another within the church in light of the gospel. Older men, younger men, older women, and younger women should all be present in the body.
Verse 11 explicitly mentions that the gospel is “for all people.” This is not incidental. The gospel saves and unites all people in gospel community. Is this what your gospel communities look like? Have you considered creating Sunday school classes or community groups that are intentionally generationally varied?
I know this is a risky task. How can these generations with such divergent views and lifestyles function in harmonious gospel communities? They do so by the gospel. The gospel has to be the number one undergirding principle in which the community submits. We have to submit to our theology first and then build our philosophy and culture around it. That philosophy and culture should value diversity and respect authority.
Inter-generational gospel communities will add a deeper dimension to your communities. Older men and women will provide wisdom and biblical guidance in the study of Scripture. Younger men and women will infuse the gospel community with vigor and zeal to be intentional to serve both the church and the surrounding community.
2. Promote Inter-Generational Gospel Discipleship
Titus 2:3-4 indicates how older women train younger women. Does your church offer discipleship groups for younger women to learn from older women?
Likewise, similar discipleship groups could be offered for men. The book of Proverbs sets this standard. Proverbs 1:8 indicates that this book is written from the standpoint of a father to a son on living skillfully. Obviously this is the ideal. A mother should instruct her daughter and a father should instruct his son in the ways of each gender.
But guess what? Your church has first generation Christians in it. Those Christians need spiritual fathers and mothers to mentor and lead them through Scripture. My wife and I are an example of this. We are grateful for the men and women who have come alongside us during our eight years of marriage to mentor us towards the gospel and godliness.
Does your church offer inter-generational gospel discipleship? Is this a bridge your church employs to help men and women grow in the gospel and godliness?
3. Make Disciples of Multiple Generations
The gospel is for every generation. In 1 John 2, there is a gospel refreshment course for fathers, young men, and children. John says that he writes to remind them of the sin they’ve been rescued from, the enemy they’ve overcome, and the God whom they know. The gospel refreshes these generations that exist harmoniously within the church.
This is the same gospel that should be preached to multiple generations. Is your church taking intentional steps to preach this gospel to multiple generations?
There are intentional steps that a church may take to make disciples of multiple generations. Serving these people in their natural environment is an excellent way to build a gospel bridge.
To reach mature generations, do outreach to an assisted living community. Maybe there is a person there with gospel interest that needs a ride to church on Sunday. To reach young families, college-aged, and singles with the gospel, look for outreach opportunities at elementary schools, colleges, or local businesses. Help paint a school. Adopt a fraternity or sorority. Offer to do landscaping for a local business.
Allow these service bridges to become gospel bridges. As you serve these people, you are earning the opportunity to share the gospel with them. You welcome them to cross the bridge from their natural environment into your church environment. Through these relationships you make disciples of multiple generations.
Together in the Gospel
The Church has a long way to go to reconcile the generational divide within her. When generations fail to interact with one another and listen to one another, it only widens the divide. When younger generations act as exiles or evacuate from one church to start new, younger, and hipster churches, it only aggravates the situation. Young and old have to come together to build gospel bridges because the gospel reconciles all people..
Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” We could apply that to young and old, as well. Joel 2:28 and Acts 2:17 anticipates this. These two Scriptures give a snapshot of the Church in the last days. It will constitute of sons and daughters and young and old. All of these generations will function together to bring attention to the gospel.
Joey Cochran served as an Associate Pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma for four years before transitioning to be the Church Planting Intern at Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, Illinois under the supervision of Pastor Joe Thorn. Joey is a graduate of Dallas Seminary. Joey blogs at jtcochran.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @joeycochran.