NOTE: Readers & Friends, I am working on a new book on this general topic and would have to have your input on this concept. How can "traditional" churches move toward an intergenerational emphasis? How can we develop healthy and growing intergenerational relationships - while balancing the positive aspects of peer ministry? Please help me think this through. I'll be posting some of my thoughts in future days on this blog.
One only has to take a walk through the facilities of most traditional churches on any Sunday morning to see that we may have a potential problem developing. Take an imaginary walk with me on a tour of your church to see if it is somewhat similar to what I’ve noticed in many of the churches I’ve visited recently.
The children meet with their dutiful Sunday School teachers in the basement. The teenagers gather with a handful of youthful-looking “sponsors” in the living room of an old house next door, while members of an adult class scatter throughout an otherwise sparse auditorium. A group of senior citizens assemble in the pastor’s office in arranged rows of folding metal chairs. Other than the involvement of a loyal few church workers – the various generations had almost nothing to do with each other during that church’s Sunday School hour.
Sadly, the morning service demonstrates the same basic approach. Some young parents reserve seats for their children – at least until the kids are dismissed for “children’s church”. Some of the teenagers sit with other teenagers, the older adults sit with other older adults, and a few families sit together in almost assigned-seating patterns of familiarity.
I highly encourage all readers to study the “generation-to-generation principle’ in Scripture. Even a cursory look at the Biblical narrative visualizes a “next generation” emphasis in God’s story. We see it in the accounts of Moses with Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, Paul with John Mark and Timothy, and, of course, with Christ and His disciples. The Biblical pattern is to pass down truth, faith, skills, and memories to future generations. I believe that we have a Biblical mandate to “pass the baton” from one generation to the next.
Of course, the primary Biblical responsibility for this transfer rests squarely on the shoulders of parents. Personally, I thank the Lord for the legacy of faith on both sides of my family that chronicles my Christian ancestors backwards for several generations. My Dad’s family members have been active in my home church for over 100 years, while we can trace my Mom’s Christian heritage back to the time of the American Revolutionary War. My wife and I continue to praise Him for the fact that all 3 of our own children are actively involved in vocational service for Christ as well. Believe me, my story and my family’s story is truly one of God’s amazing grace.
However, I also believe that the church has a Biblical responsibility to pass the baton to future generations. I have seen several once-significant and influential churches that are now almost irrelevant in their own communities and that are basically neutered (please excuse my harsh language here) without any real global missionary impact. How does this happen? I think it is because those churches failed to implement the generation-to-generation principle into the fabric of their church life. There are other factors to be sure, but when churches or ministries become one-generational, there is usually a resulting slide into introspection and self-centeredness.
I’ve had the opportunity recently to visit some of this country’s historically prominent churches. These are some of the churches that at one time were greatly used of God, not only to make a considerable impact on their own communities, but that were also used of Him in the past to launch some of the greatest church movements in American history. The sad reality of the present is that these particular churches are no longer culturally relevant. They’ve begun to honor their past instead of building for the future, and they’ve become content with the methodology that built the church instead of reinventing their form and function for successive generations.
That downward slide is never the intent, of course. But, when churches fail to see the importance of basic reproduction into lives of the next generation, they tend to become inward-focused and quite opinionated. The trends frankly, are easy to spot. The membership of these churches begins to age and they quit practicing the very outreach methods they once used to build the church. Often this is because they become content with what they have become and the membership becomes somewhat irritated with the demographic constituency they once welcomed – be it youth, or the ethnicity of the people-groups the church once targeted for growth. These churches once worked diligently to reach out to their own neighborhoods and communities, but in time the cultural make up of the community around the church begins to change.
As these churches begin to drift into contentment, they lose their “edge” - their passion for outreach and their commitment to cultural relevancy. Then they often become one-generational because as their younger members grow up they see the contentment of the older members, but the very nature of youth wants to see vibrancy, continued change for the emerging cultural relevancy, and a commitment to include them in the process of change. So, without a true church-wide commitment to reinvent itself to retain its drive for outreach and its passion for relevancy – the church will actually drive away their own maturing young people and community neighbors will gradually feel unwelcomed and unwanted by the church. The sad result is that once growing and vibrant churches often decline into a position of contentment and ultimately irrelevancy. These same churches sometimes seem to excuse this decline away by actually blaming the emerging generations for their lack of commitment instead of working diligently to accept change as the actual key for continued future growth and development.
There is a vivid Biblical illustration of this happening in Judges 2:7-10, “The people served the LORD throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the LORD had done for Israel. Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of a hundred and ten… After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel.”
Church passion for growth and outreach MUST include a significant commitment to include emerging generations into the planning and process. Churches MUST make the “generation-to-generation principle” a top priority. We must pass the baton!