December 16, 2014 / Natasha Sistrunk Robinson

#ChurchTrending: Can the Church Lead the Way, Part 3 (The Generational Divide)

This mini-series affirms that we need a united and reconciled church to faithfully embody what it means to be the people of God in our cultural context. For the church to effectively lead the world, we must first cultivate the health of the whole body of Christ and that includes breaking down the walls of hostility within the body, and calling all of God’s children to love unconditionally and serve humbly. Part I confronted the issue of women and leadership. Part II addressed the racial and ethnic divisions within the church that reinforce cultural incompetence and partiality. Today’s post challenges the misshaping and cultural obsession with youth which directly links to hostility and generational divisions within the church.

Due to advancements in science and sound health choices, people are living longer. That’s a good thing. I would imagine that the extension of our life expectancy would be a benefit to the church—because older and wiser people would be around longer to disciple, mentor, lead, and guide the next generation of believers according to Titus 2 and the numerous examples that we see in the Bible. Unfortunately, that hope for the church and intergenerational discipleship is not always actualized, because in addition to being segregated over racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic lines, churches are often divided by generations.

Sure, I know its cool when you can attend the young, hip church that serves swanky coffee in the lobby and have the band rock out on stage every Sunday…but where are the elderly in the congregation? Our preoccupation to what is hip or trending does not allow much space for the values of tradition, history, and the positive influences of elderly. What’s equally as troubling is the numerous churches with elderly membership and so few if any young people. These congregations send a message to young folk that they are not welcomed and congregants would rather allow the church to die than compromise, make any changes, or embrace, nurture, and raise up the next generation of Christ leaders. Finally, we can also consider the church that does have a fairly diverse generational representation but every group is doing their own isolated thing so the generations are not intentionally interacting with each other.

For the past few years, I have led a women’s mentoring ministry that intentionally focuses on discipling women across generations in a church that closely resembles the latter description. While there were numerous rewards and testimonies about the ministry, the most discouraging thing about that experience was our ministry’s leaders could not get the elderly women to invest in the lives of the younger women in the church. At the same time, I would write about the importance of discipling and mentoring women within the body of Christ and have my heart break for the comments received from young women who were desperately longing to have older and wiser women speak into their lives and walk with them on their faith journey.

If we are to become a church that leads in the world, we must make disciples across generations, while identifying and intentionally training up the next generation of well-informed Christian leaders. Making disciples—not attending church service, or Bible studies, or performing good works—is the single most important action that shapes the church’s relationship and engagement with the rest of the world. All the other actions mentioned are of great importance; however, they are vain repetition if people do not actually follow Jesus and do what he says as written in Matthew 28:19-20.

Our God is the God of generations. From the first five books of the Bible, he constantly refers to himself as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” He has a historical plan and fulfills that plan across generations, and this is why the word that constantly echoed throughout the Israeli camp was “Remember” Yahweh! It is the elderly, the wise, and the spiritually mature who teach us about who God is and what He has done. It is the elderly who do not allow us to forget. They let us know that we are not alone, and God has not forsaken his covenanted people—in spite of what the present situation looks like. Making disciples across generations is what continuously fulfils the Abrahamic Covenant and blesses all nations to the glory of God.

Collectively, we must humbly lead through the congregational tensions and personal preferences that keep the church divided across generations. We do that by valuing the wisdom and contributions of the elderly, while also identifying, challenging, and raising up the next generation of Christian leaders. Much like the changes in our culture, generational debates in the church often reveal a disconnection (though not necessarily a difference) in our values.

The older generations hold claim to Jesus. They value traditions, history, and family. Sometimes they are too quick to judge the younger generation without acknowledging their own inability to invest in them and model a life of Christian character for them. The younger generations also love Jesus, and they show love of neighbor through grace, justice, and hospitality. They frequently connect in communities and with friends outside of their congregations. Millennials are not necessarily interested in using their spiritual gifts so they can spend more time within the four walls of the church building. The young apologists, advocates, and social media voices of this generation know that God has called them to go out into the world and live (John 17:15-16)!

Our generational challenge will never be resolved if we have an “us vs. them” and “either/or” mentality. This mentality, which is so prevalent within the church, is often what cripples us from leading others effectively outside of the church. We need elderly and we need vibrant young people in every congregation. We must humbly stand on the basic foundation of discipleship and intentionally draw generations together through a holistic commitment to listening, learning, mentoring and service. To help us in these efforts, I recommend the following:

  1. Offer some Bible studies, classes, mentoring/discipleship groups, and community service opportunities that are not segregated by age and gender. Give the sisters and brothers opportunities to learn from those who are different. Get them outside of the four walls of the church to meet in homes, coffee shops or restaurants, book stores or libraries. Unlike church classrooms, these environments are more informal, hospitable, and inviting for intimate relationship building and even evangelism.
  2. In addition to offering sound Bible teaching and Bible studies, all Christians must be taught how to think theologically and develop a Christian worldview. Find practical ways to teach about relevant issues beyond the pulpit on Sunday morning. Like the Israelite priests, the elders among us need to frequently remind young people of who God is and what He has done. While at the same time, affirming their purpose and calling through mentoring, and equipping them to serve God in their generation. Across generations, give them opportunities to learn, develop, and live out their theology.

In this culture, all Christians must humbly listen and be intentional about prioritizing discipleship, while releasing people to serve in their areas of giftedness and influence.

Can the church lead in the world? Does the gospel have an answer for the cultural trends that are misshaping society? We can lead the world and the gospel does have an answer for the social ills of our day. Addressing these challenges, however, first requires that we look at ourselves and confront the divisions within the body of Christ which hinder our ability to positively impact the world. Confronting these challenges means that we stand united as men and women, young and old, committed to working together to see God’s kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. By embracing the challenge of the 2010 Lausanne Covenant, “The Whole Church taking the Whole Gospel to the Whole World,” we can serve as God agents to bring about his good purposes in the world. Will we commit and do it?

[Image by Christopher Michel, CC via Flickr]