Our Greatest Challenge: Trying to Be Multi-Generational

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I am coming to see that the hardest work facing a church isn’t finances, facilities or failing programs.

The hardest problem is trying to be multi-generational.

That is, trying to nurture a congregation that embraces the elderly, active retirees, middle-aged persons, young adults, youth and children in one fellowship.

And within each group to embrace singles, the never-married, the divorced, the widowed, parents and childless couples. Also to embrace the full range of sexual identities. Plus ethnic identities.

When the “rainbow” works, it can be a thing of glory. God’s full family gathering for mutual support. But enabling the rainbow to work requires more work — and more creativity — than we are currently applying.

The needs of each group are profoundly different. The elderly, for example, cannot avoid looking back to former days, especially to a “golden age” in church life. As a great-grandparent in one of my favorite TV shows put it, “I talk about yesterday because that’s mostly what I have.”

Active retirees have abundant energy and want to make a difference. But they don’t always resonate with younger generations, whose passages through youth, young adulthood and family formation and middle age seem remarkably different from theirs.

Middle-agers are the “sandwich generation,” caught between children and elderly parents and wondering when the light will shine on their own needs.

Whatever we call them — Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials, Odyssey Generation — those between adolescence and middle-age defy simple categorization or needs identification. Attempts to serve them require nimbleness, diverse offerings, targeted staff, and a “startup” mentality.

Children today are living profoundly different lives from children yesterday. Less freedom and more focused activity, insecure parents, distant grandparents, challenged institutions such as schools, and a general nervousness about safety and the future.

Trying to bring all of these personalities, needs and attitudes under a single umbrella is difficult — possible, but difficult. It will require a major rethinking of how we function as congregations. What worked yesterday just isn’t working today. Take Sunday School, for example.

Or take the standard staffing approach, which places unrealistic expectations on a single senior pastor. We should be thinking targeted ministries, maybe part time, so that one professional is overseeing older cadres and their needs, one overseeing younger cadres, one handling worship and music, one handling communications, and one managing a pastoral care system carried out by laity.

Another example is Sunday morning. I have concluded that it is virtually impossible for a single Sunday service to serve all ages and needs. Each age cadre wants different things from community time, and all of those needs matter. Simply perpetuating established patterns of Sunday worship doesn’t work. There’s no inherent right or wrong to traditional or contemporary, music this way or music that way, excluding or including children, and so on.

The attempt to create something-for-everyone worship is failing to satisfy anyone. It’s boring, for one thing, and scattershot. Better to have a traditional service aimed at older adults and do it well, and then to serve younger cadres with a second service, perhaps even at a time other than Sunday morning, or separate ways to gather.

Cohesion can come from regular all-hands events like festivals, picnics and mission projects. But maybe we overestimate the value of forming a cohesive whole. Communities work when people have mutual respect and allow friendship circles to form. That doesn’t require everyone to know everyone.

We certainly need to ratchet down the generational power struggles now going on. I see too many congregations being paralyzed by unresolved conflict over whose needs get met. Each age cadre needs attention. Clergy must be relieved of having to decide between serving older parishioners who pay the bills and younger parishioners who represent the future. That is a self-defeating choice.

We are way beyond the old village church approach that still shapes leaders’ thinking. By that I mean a single-cell entity that tries to function as a family, with a single patriarch or matriarch, all-family-together meals, living in a common village or neighborhood, everyone knowing everyone. That system hasn’t worked for five decades — and, having grown up in that expectation, I think it was fanciful even then.

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