There is much discussion among church leaders regarding whom we are trying to reach.
Should the church develop worship services, music programs, and buildings that meet the needs of lifelong members? Should we give priority to children and students? Should we focus on young adults and newly marrieds? These questions have kept many preachers and elders up at night, and I confess this has been a struggle for me throughout ministry.
In my opinion, the answer cannot be “either/or,” it must be “both/and.” After all, the Scriptures say, return to the “ancient paths” (Jeremiah 6:16); “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority” (Hebrews 13:17). But Scripture also says, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you’re young” (1 Timothy 4:12); “Sing a new song” (Psalm 144:9); and “New wine into new wineskins” (Mark 2:22).
That is why I have had the conviction that the church Jesus envisioned would always be multigenerational. The majority of churches in America tend to reach those over age 50 or primarily young families. Frankly, those who have decided to primarily reach the “old guard” are declining in membership or are soon to be closing their doors. It’s true that congregations targeting younger families are more likely to be growing in numbers, but they also often struggle to meet the budget.
I am in my 25th year of leading a congregation, and I consider myself blessed to lead a multigenerational church. The congregation was founded by 22 believers in 1837, so when I arrived in 1986, my prayer was we would be a thriving congregation that reached the young and unchurched, but I was also committed to taking the longtime members with me on the journey.
National church leaders have told me the age range of our congregation is very rare. I am quick to tell them that, while there are many challenges to becoming a congregation for “the ages,” it is extremely rewarding. Last year’s Easter weekend provided a snapshot of what God has done in this congregation, as a 65-voice choir consisting of middle school children through those in their 80s led 6,500 people in worship of the resurrected Christ.
The truth is, there are weekly frustrations related to the generation gap. Someone says, “We need a choir anthem where we can hear the vocal parts, because THAT is worship.” Another says, “A choral feature song is more like a performance than worship. It is not real; it is not relevant.” One says, “Those people leading worship in jeans are disrespecting God and it sounds like a rock concert, including lights and sound. It’s just a show.” Still another remarks, “The lights, the quality of musicians, and the high-energy praise really helps me to worship.”
And here are two separate comments about the same Sunday experience written on our connection cards: “The music makes me physically sick” and “The energy was awesome!”
Ephesians 4:3 says, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” But I have observed, where there are multiple generations, there is angst. So I would caution any church leader who tries to reach “both/and” that varied opinions, especially regarding music styles, will always exist. However, I really believe the challenges of reaching the generations are huge, but the potential gains outweigh the losses.
Older members provide wisdom, experience, faithfulness, and commitment. The emerging church desperately needs the example and counsel of older, wiser members. And now that I am in my late 50s, I also grasp how much we need the energy, passion, and fresh thinking of the young. A congregation committed to reaching multiple generations can actually see Scripture lived out, with the older women training the younger women (Titus 2:4) and the older men encouraging the younger men (Titus 2:6). When the older members are wiser, they understand how much they need the life that younger adults bring, and how it is critical to the purpose and vision of the church. When younger adults truly desire to become Christlike, they intentionally seek out those who have experienced the bumps and blessings of life.
So how do we experience the advantages while coping with the challenges of a multigenerational church?
A commitment to become a multigenerational church can lead to creation of different worship venues. We have two services every weekend that blend hymns loved by lifetime believers with newer songs they’ve learned to appreciate. Those who can best worship with the more traditional forms of church music really do feel valued in the services we call Chapel Praise. And we’ve even found some younger adults who prefer the more traditional form of worship, as well as new members from the community who have been seeking a quality, traditional worship experience in the context of a thriving local congregation.
We have three contemporary worship services that are clearly targeted at those who enjoy the more modern forms of musical praise and worship. These services are reaching many unchurched men and women and young families from a variety of backgrounds. They also provide an environment that many new believers find attractive to them and their dechurched friends.
The generations come together for Easter, Christmas, and other occasions that remind us of our heritage and future.
In addition to the opportunities for men and women to cultivate relationships with those who are much younger or older than themselves, a multigenerational church demands there be a measure of respect for others who have a different perspective. Church leaders who have walked the path for years have opportunities to teach the younger. There are also opportunities to remind the older members of the blessing we have to see the younger find God and connect to Christ.
A multigenerational church provides opportunities to speak into the lives of others regarding a different generation’s perspective. For example, a sermon series last year called “Modern Families” led older members to examine the challenges young families face today, while younger families were reminded of the “ancient paths” from Scripture that transcend generational differences.
Reuel Howe begins the last chapter of his book, How to Stay Younger While Growing Older, by sharing what he did at the end of every worship service. He would have the congregation turn and face the back door and ask themselves, “Is that door an entrance or an exit?” Each person’s answer was significant. To see the door as an exit means there’s no future. To see the door as an entrance means members of the congregation were taking their worship experience and making it a lifestyle to model for the world outside.
Does your congregation see the main door at church as an exit or an entrance? The older congregation may see it as an exit from a long, hard road. The younger may see it as an entrance—a place to take on the newness of life and fresh opportunities. But the multigenerational church has the blessing of history, tradition, and stability and the vision to connect this and future generations to Christ through the unity of the Spirit.
Steve Reeves is lead pastor with Connection Pointe Christian Church in Brownsburg, Indiana.