The writing of this article is taking place during the seventh week of social distancing in my state. It has been nearly two months since churches have gathered in person; two months since halls have been walked, sanctuaries have been filled, and Sunday school rooms have been bustling. Over those two months, many of us have heard or even uttered the words, “I miss my church.” And by “I miss my church,” what we really mean is that we miss the people that belong to our community of faith; very few of us miss a building – we miss each other.
It has become apparent over this season that relationships and gathered community are essential to our spiritual walk and faith formation.
In her book Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us, Dr. Christine Pohl reminds us that, “Human beings were made for living in community and it is in community that we flourish and become most fully human.”1 Similarly, Christians were made for living in the community of the church and it is in that gathered community that we flourish and become most fully Christian for Christ is in the midst of those gathered in His name (Matthew 18:20).
Community is something that we must work for because barriers to community are swift to arise.2 These barriers can be detrimental to the creation and maintenance of the type of community that sustain us both physically and spiritually. One such barrier that has grown in both society and the church is that of the “generational gap”. The generational gap is defined as “the perceived difference of opinions between one generation and another regarding beliefs, politics, or values.”3 This perceived difference has had a deep impact on how our society functions and the structures that have been put in place along generational lines.
Research has found that age is becoming more and more of a dividing line in our culture. Everything from architecture to technology can be delineated along age-specific lines. But this division in our community has not been good for us. Studies show that age homogeneity in social networks leads to isolation and loneliness and greatly inhibits socialization in younger individuals and generativity in older individuals.4 And what is even more alarming is that these trends of generational divide and age segregation can be found in the church.5
The architecture of our buildings, with separate wings and rooms for specific ages; our services divided into traditional, contemporary and coffee-shop culture; and even our age-specific Sunday School curriculum and Bible studies, all perpetuate the barrier to community along generational lines.
But this is particularly worrisome for churches because our faith is primarily dependent on generational discipleship; the passing of the faith from one generation to another. If intergenerational interactions and community are limited because of the structures described above, how can “One generation commend (God’s) works to another” (Ps 145:4)?
This question has become one of increasing significance over the past decade, especially as the representation of rising generations has decreased within the American church.6 To that point, there has been increased attention given to the area of intergenerational ministry and the opportunity it offers to bridge the generational gap and re-establish a more connected faith community.
What is intergenerational ministry?
Sometimes it is easier to describe what something is by exploring what it is not. Many people associate this term with children’s ministry or family ministry within the church. While those ministries may be partners in intergenerational ministry, the scope of these ministries are not broad enough. Intergenerational ministry encompasses the whole church, all generations, in a communal and corporate context.
Intergenerational ministry is more of a cultural characteristic of a church than it is a ministry area; it is a culture that values and creates space for meaningful connections to be made across generational boundaries in a variety of settings for the purpose of generational discipleship, faith formation, and community building.
As the term implies, intergenerational ministry is an intentional approach to ministry that both allows for and encourages interaction between multiple generations in such ways as corporate worship, relational mentorship and lifelong community.
In order for a church to recognize the need for this generational connectivity within their faith community, the following question must be answered: What does each generation need from the church and what can each generation contribute to the church? Let’s begin with the latter and the explore the former.
Generational theory, the grouping of individuals into particular social groups with a shared identity predicated on the year of their birth and life experiences, began in the early 20th century and gained steam in the mid to late 20th century as marketing firms began to explore how to best market to specific groups, coining nicknames for them in order to create a collective conscious.7
Currently, the most likely generations that would be found in a given faith community would be the Silent Generation (born 1924-1942), Baby Boomers (1943-1964), Generation X (1965-1980), Millennials (1981-2000), and Gen Z (2001-current). These five generations offer unique experiences in both spiritual and communal practices for the church (see attached chart).
The older generations bring a wealth of faithful testimonies, historical worship practices, and community-sustaining disciplines.
The middle generations offer a bridge between past experience and current ones through experience with a vast array of communication tools from rotary phones to high-speed internet conferencing and the latest social media trends.
The youngest generation offer the heartbeat of current culture and the application of spiritual truths in a dynamic cultural environment.
Likewise, each generation brings its unique needs to the church. The attached chart uses Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial stages to outline these needs in a church setting.
The older generations need to be needed; the desire for generativity and legacy-leaving are uniquely found in these generations and to be left isolated from those to whom their legacy can be left (the younger generations) is stifling and leads to stagnation.
The middle generations are those seeking intimacy in deeper relationships with others, such as mentorship and discipleship, but if those opportunities are found lacking, will retreat into a placed of isolation.
The youngest generations are looking for a placed to be industrious (an important part of the community) and find identity (a role to play in the community); thus faith communities need to be intentional not just with providing safe and fun environments like Kid’s Church and youth group but integral participatory environments that allow for identity and industry to be rooted in the church.
Recently, I have been offered the opportunity to serve as the Minister of Generational Discipleship for the Great Lakes Conference of the Brethren in Christ. The goal of this position is to be able to come alongside our BIC churches and offer support, encouragement and resources that will help connect generations in meaningful relationships and discipleship within each faith community. There is no cookie cutter approach to intergenerational ministry. Each congregation, each gathered community, has their own unique needs and desires that must be addressed in order to create the space needed for relational discipleship to grow. But the need for these intergenerational connections have never been more apparent and the opportunities have never been more plentiful than they are today.
1. Pohl, C. Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us. 2012, p. 3
2. Ibid, p. 4
3. Aggarwal, M., Rawat, M., Singh, S., Srivastava, S , & Gaub, P. “Generation Gap: An Emerging Issue of Society.” International Journal of Engineering Technology Science and Research. 4(9), 973-983
4. Hagestad, G. and Uhlenberg, P. (2006). Should We Be Concerned About Age Segregation?: Some Theoretical and Empirical Explorations. Research on Aging 28(6), 638 – 653
5. Stonehouse, C. and May, S. (2010). Listening to children on the spiritual journey: Guidance for those who teach and nurture. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Books.
6. Pew Research Center, Oct. 17, 2019, “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace”
7. Hazlett, John D. "Generational Theory and Collective Autobiography." American Literary History 4, no. 1 (1992): 77-96. Accessed May 6, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/489937.
About the Author
Christina Embree, wife to Pastor Luke, mom to three wonderful kids, and church planter/NextGen pastor at Plowshares BIC. She also serves as the Minister of Generational Discipleship with the Great Lakes Conference of the Brethren in Christ.
With years of experience in family ministry and children’s ministry, she is passionate about seeing churches partnering with families to encourage faith formation at home and equipping parents to disciple their kids in the faith. She recently graduated with a Masters of Arts in Ministry focusing on Family, Youth and Children’s Ministry at Wesley Seminary, she also blogs at www.refocusministry.org and is a contributing blogger at D6 Family, ChurchLeaders.com, and Seedbed