By Pastor Matt McMillan
Ecclesiologists note that we currently have around three to five generations attending the church simultaneously for the first time in history. However, the majority of young people in our society are spiritually interested, but not Christians. Thus, we live in a time of an aging Church, filled with gloom, worry, and anxiety about the future. Often, the result of this combination is blame from one generation to another.
A primary reason for the lack of generational cohesion can be traced to the explosive growth of the seeker-friendly churches in the 1990s and 2000s. This movement overemphasized the growth of sanctuaries rather than the growth of disciples. As a result, we have a generation of un-discipled men and women who are – interestingly enough – frowned upon for their lack of biblical knowledge, limited biblical literacy, and lack of interest in Christianity overall.
So, where do we go from here?
How can we reclaim a healthy dynamic in our generationally divided churches?
If I could encourage young pastors or first-time pastors of a plateaued, dying, or dead church, I would say: don’t assume that shifting from a traditional church to a contemporary church (whatever that is now) will fix your church’s attitude problems and bring in a legion of young and excited families. “Contemporary” initiatives are simply tomorrow’s sacred cows unless the culture is different.
If you want to see your church come alive, from generation to generation, we don’t need a change in leadership structure, worship style, or preaching style. We need a movement of the Holy Spirit. Those changes might come but cultivate the spiritual life first.
Our goal is to create a culture where the Spirit transforms the hearts of young and old through evangelism, discipleship, and teaching of the Word (Matthew 28:19-20).
Here are seven misconceptions that I have experienced regarding the cross-generational church.
- Committees need to go. People’s service moves the church forward. Changing the church’s name won’t fix your congregation. Change from debating to service and celebrate every victory in each committee.
- Traditional styles can’t reach young people or contemporary worship will bring in young people. Many young people actually prefer “traditional.” Many dead or dying churches try contemporary styles instead of changing the church’s culture and engaging the city.
- Older people won’t serve outside the church and younger people don’t serve. Create ways all people can serve (think through physical, mental, or emotional disabilities). Highlight how young people serve and how older people have served for decades!
- Young people don’t like older people. Older people are like the Google for life. Create space for stories, questions, and lots of wisdom to be shared.
- Young people want more topical sermons. Challenge young people. Study hard, teach the whole Bible, and don’t be redundant. True expository preaching has the best application, anyway. Also, they will fact-check you, so study.
- Older people want hymns only. They actually want familiar songs, just like young people. To test this out, try and do a hymn no one has heard of before. You might be surprised.
- It takes a long time to make a change. No, you can change things quickly. But, changing culture takes time and makes strategies missional instead of confrontational. Change the culture!
I have written primarily with pastors of dead or dying churches on my mind, especially those who, like me, desire to get generations to exist together in one church. I’m speaking into the Southern Baptist Convention sub-culture of evangelical Christianity and have a slight focus towards those jumping into a church revitalization with plans to reach the city.
I struggle hard. And, maybe this article is more for me more than for you. I know your situation is different than mine. Still, I hope we can all pray for the Holy Spirit to move afresh in our churches despite our limitations personally and corporately. These misconceptions and thoughts won’t fix all of the cross-generational challenges you face, but they might free you to focus on the most important matters. Spirit, move.
- “Look Before You Lead,” by Audrey Malphurs
- “Developing a Vision for Ministry,” by Audrey Malphurs
- “Counter Culture,” by David Platt
- “Onward,” by Russell Moore
- “Living in a Gray World,” by Preston Sprinkle
- “Grace and Truth” by Preston Sprinkle
- “The Courage to be Protestant,” by David F. Wells
Matt McMillan is the lead pastor of Westminster Baptist Church, in Maryland.