top of page

The Gap

The Gap

The fractured world of multi-generational church leadership.

from Christianity Today

Rehoboam requested more time and decided to meet with his leadership team. He split the team into two groups: the rapidly aging Boomer leaders and the emerging leaders. Not surprisingly, they gave him diametrically opposite advice. He took the advice of the leaders from his own generation and crafted a compelling strategy ("My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.") People by and large did not get on board with the new vision.

When Rehoboam sent out a staff member named Adoniram, who was in charge of equipping ministries (the TNIV translates it "forced labor"), the people stoned him. There was a big church split, there were serious worship wars (and in those days worship wars were worship wars), and after two and a half millennia, things still have not completely healed.

The moral of the story is that you should have all generations represented in a single leadership team. Actually, you could probably draw other insights from the passage (2 Chronicles 10) as well. But it is striking that even in the Bible, one of the ways that human community becomes disrupted is the generational divide.

Scratching a niche

If the generational divide was a gap then, it is a canyon now. We are niched by generation as never before. Thirty years ago, families had one TV with three channels; and if people watched something, they watched the same something together. Today there are more channels than you can count, and they no longer broadcast; they narrowcast to a little sliver in the age spectrum.

I serve at a 135-year-old Presbyterian church with a wide span of ages in the congregation and a leadership team with members who range in age from 26 (not me) to 68 (also not me). They are a fabulous group of human beings. Navigating change wisely is the subtext beneath almost every conversation we have. I will tell you what we are learning about generations working together.

We are making it up as we go along

If there are not regular disagreements, i know, as a leader, i've not engaged people fully.

Multi-generational church ministry in our day is uncharted territory. In past centuries, because culture changed more slowly, when people entered the church, they entered church culture. They sang common music and spoke a common language. Today, church life has largely been contextualized to reach people in popular culture. But pop culture has fragmented into all kinds of micro-cultures. Generations are generally segregated by media, clothes, music, entertainment, and technology. Trying to reach different generations simultaneously has become like trying to design one church that will work in both Spain and France.

I was looking at church websites not long ago and noticed a fascinating dynamic. Many new churches have been formed with "multi-cultural" as part of their DNA and a stated value. But I have not yet seen a new church plant with "multi-generational" in its vision statement. In all the cases I read (in an admittedly non-scientific sample), "multi-generational" in a church's self-description was a euphemism for "we are an aging church that wants to have more young people attending so that we don't die, but we don't want to change enough to actually attract any of them to come."

Churches that do best at multi-generational community have tended to be smaller churches from Amish or Mennonite traditions, in which children are acculturated into the common life of the church from early childhood. If this hasn't happened by the time they're twelve or so, they are already so shaped by their own generational "micro-culture" that it's not likely to happen at all.

When we began to talk about multi-generational community, one of our (younger) staff leaders asked a terrific question: what does it mean? How do we know if we're successful at it? One of the most common ways to define it is in terms of a worship service. By this definition, effective intergenerational worship would be a congregation of diverse ages sitting through a service of mixed styles that displeases everyone equally.

But another way of defining it is relational. How many relationships with people of different generations do folks at our church have? This leads us to look at the kind of activities and events that are actually relationship building.

This past week at our church, we held Compassion Weekend. We canceled our regular services and worshipped God by serving throughout the San Francisco Bay area. One of the highlights of the weekend is the relationships that form when young and old serve together. Musical tastes often separate people; serving brings them together. We had a 98-year-old woman serving at a Habitat for Humanity construction project. We had a two-year-old helping with folks building kits for AIDS caregivers in Africa.

We've also had an increasing number of people signing up for multi-generational small groups. One of the biggest requests in churches is also one of the least delivered—intergenerational mentoring. But you can't get mentored by a stranger. Finding a mentor is like finding a spouse; it works best if you start out by being friends first.

We must get past terminal niceness

There is an old saying in the church world that "the issue is never the issue; the issue is always control." And when it comes to generations working together, the question of control is never more than about a micron below the surface.

We had a conversation around our leadership circle recently about food in the sanctuary. It was fascinating to track the discussion. To some, bringing food into the sanctuary communicates a dumbing down of worship, a devaluing of sacred space, and a loss of transcendence and wonder. The chief justice doesn't snack on Raisinettes while he's swearing in the new president.

To others, being able to bring coffee or a bagel into church communicates a sense of community, warmth, and acceptance that is desperately needed. It's a way of defusing the expectation of a stuffy, formal, inauthentic, foreign experience that tells me I'm not welcome and the church doesn't care.

But underneath the issues of food, or dress, or style, often lies the deeper issue of control.

One researcher put it like this: we often think people are opposed to change, but that's not quite true. Everybody changes all the time—particularly when they are the ones proposing the change. It helps to distinguish between two types of change: technical change and social change.

Technical change has to do with logistics and props. Switching from typewriters to computers, or pews to individual chairs, or hard copies to email are technical changes.

Social change has to do with who is making the decision. Social change has to do with who is in control.

Any time a technical change is made, it raises the issue of social change. Am I and my group gaining or losing our influence? Who gets to call the shots around here? If my influence is receding, then probably my sense of ownership and commitment will diminish as well. This is why trying to sneak changes past people is generally a bad idea.

Recently we had a conversation about changes in worship at a service where I thought there hadn't been any change. But someone noted that a worship leader that used to be sitting behind a keyboard is now usually standing behind a raised keyboard. It had not occurred to me that this counted as change. But to somebody else, it was a step in a direction she hadn't gotten to vote on.

This also means that on the leadership team, we have to embrace conflict. Where there is a difference of opinion that falls out along generational lines, we have to be willing to enter the tunnel of chaos. If there are not regular, passionate, energized disagreements about what our future should look like, I know I have not done my job as a leader to engage people fully.

We don't know what we don't know

I was visiting a large church in southern California not long ago. The band was leading a worship song that wasn't just pushing the envelope, it actually left the envelope altogether and was Fed-exing itself into tomorrow. The senior pastor was flushed with irritation that they would do a song that so obviously interfered with everyone's worship.

Until he looked at his daughter, who happened to be visiting that weekend.

Tears were streaming down her face. She told him later how that song resonated with and expressed the worship of her heart like nothing she had ever heard. She told him how proud she was that the church would allow worship that resonates with her generation.

Those of us who are older tend to under-estimate the difference between generations. We think that what feels comfortable to us will not—or should not—be a barrier to those who are younger. Those of us who are younger tend to over-estimate the difference between generations. We feel as if those who are older are a different species and could never understand our experience. One of the most important concepts along these lines has to do with the notion of connection. Who feels "connected" at our church?

I used to think that connection had primarily to do with relationships. But it does not. Connectedness is a separate notion. It has to do with whether or not, when I enter a church, it feels like a place for "people like me." How people dress, how they talk, what the music is like—many details create a sense of connection or disconnection.

If I feel connected, I am likely to overlook how disconnected people of another generation may feel. So we have to have constant conversations about the experience of people in our generation at our church. We will never be able to make all people feel totally connected at all services. But at least we have to be aware of the dynamics.

We recently did a survey to gauge our church's effectiveness at ministering to families and people of differing generations. In talking about the survey, I mentioned from the platform we needed feedback about generational issues. Following the service, a number of attendees approached staff people to comment on aspects of the service that they did not like. When I heard about this, my first inclination was to feel deflated and defensive.

But another very wise staff member immediately responded, "That's great! Now the conversation has begun." And I realized the importance of her mindset. We can never move to where we want to be without speaking honestly about where we are.

How another generation needs me

One of the younger women on our leadership team, a recent seminary grad with tons of leadership gifts, was speaking recently about her desire to contribute.

"I want to be developed," she said. "I know I have lots to learn, but I want to have some people who believe in me. I want to be part of a team where people are cheering me on and helping me soar. And I want to do the same for them."

As someone who has been involved in church ministry for almost thirty years, it struck me that I get a chance now to do for younger team members what mentors did for me. I thought about how much joy there is in helping someone discover her gifts and flourish.

At the same time, one of the older members of our team talked about how much energy he received by sitting around the circle with people who were decades younger. I recalled a conversation with a man in his eighties who had done church ministry all his life but had never reached out to younger people. He spoke of his sadness and loneliness now that his contemporaries were dying off.

Churches do not hit the multi-generational crisis until after their first thirty years or so. Churches often begin by targeting young people, and may attract a fair number of older folks who want to be around the energy.

But the real challenge comes when the core that the church was built around begins to age, and the people the church needs to reach are different from the people the church already has. It's one thing if I go to a "younger" church because I choose to. It's another thing if my church decides to go "younger" while I'm there.

It's up to the older generation to figure out how to hand the faith to the younger generation.

Some time ago I read something about the delegation of responsibility, and it used this analogy: the person who owns the problem is the person who has "a monkey on his back." The gist of the article was a warning to be careful if you're a manager not to accept monkeys from others. If a subordinate tells you, "Here's this problem," and you respond, "I'll think about it and get back to you," you've got the monkey.

Who's got the monkey now?

In churches, we have to be clear about who's got the monkey. God's plan is that wisdom and love and especially knowledge of him be passed from one generation to another. That means the church needs to recognize which generation has the monkey of faith transmission. The monkey rests with the older generation.

Many different methods have been used over the centuries. In Moses' day, those who were older would write commands on gates and doors. In the book of Joshua, Israel is eager to move on after crossing the Jordan, but God has them make a pile of twelve boulders. "In the future, when your children ask you, 'What do these stones mean?' tell them…'Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground. He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the lord your god'" (Josh. 4:21-24).

A few hundred years ago, the Heidelberg Catechism asked children: What is your only comfort in life and in death? Answer: That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ."

Sometimes churches used stained glass windows. (One pastor I know asked children during a children's sermon to look at their large stained glass window and identify: who is that figure holding two tablets? A seven-year-old girl answered, "Moses." The pastor asked, "How did you know?" "Because under his picture," she said, "it says, 'Moses.'") When I was young, the church used a brand new technology called flannelgraph. The church has used many different methods. But it's up to the older generation to figure out how to get it done.

We can't say, "We were faithful; good luck to whoever comes next."

We can't say, "Here are the methods we responded to when we were young. If you look like us, dress like us, sing like us, talk like us, then we'll pass on the faith and you can know God. Otherwise, we'll just let you drift into an eternity apart from God."

So as a leadership team, we have to have a firm commitment from each person that the big issue is not Who gets to determine what's cool? or Who is it that gives the money that supports the church?' or Who carries the DNA? The question is: How do we pass the torch?

God is the God of every generation.

Sooner or later every church hits the generation issue. We are richer people when we work together. Our relationships are enhanced when we have multiple generations around the table.

God's plan is not for the church to be a one-generation operation with a 30-year shelf life. It is a richer thing to be part of a church that embraces multi-generational ministry and multi-generational leadership.

Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.

John Ortberg is editor at large of Leadership Journal and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California. Read more from John Ortberg.

Original article:

Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page