By Karl Schad
After months of seeking God in prayer, we prepared to launch three worship services designed to better reach all the generations in our community. We would offer blended traditional, contemporary, and modern services on Sunday mornings, each designed with a specific demographic in mind.
Every service would include elements handpicked to engage the generational diversity of our community as we identified the distinct needs of the different age groups and planned to meet them. Three service styles would allow our community to express their worship to God in the way that best connected them to the Lord.
It was a good plan springing from a Christ-centered desire to respond to the generational challenges that exist in our fellowship and in many church families. We were confident God was leading us. Then launch day came.
The first Sunday we tried this, immediately following the blended traditional service, a senior saint approached me with a smile. I felt like the service had been a home run, so I was prepared to receive some positive affirmation.
But here’s what she said: “We are old; we are not dead.”
The zinger was expressed with love and humor, but it contained a stinging observation that became evident on the other side of the generational spectrum, too. In the modern service, we had allotted extra time for personal interaction, meant to create conversation, but it ended up feeling like an awkward slow dance at a junior high formal. Our miscalculations would become clearer over subsequent months, and these internal questions arose:
Were our presuppositions about how to reach the generations dead wrong?
Could we have missed what God was calling us to do?
Are we ministering to the generations at all?
For all the good intentions of building bridges, we seemed to be setting up silos. Intuitively, the different generations began migrating toward the middle. There was obviously something more basic, more sacred, than the elements we handpicked to engage them.
It was a hard reality: the attempt to reach our church family with generation-specific worship services was failing. I knew it, but it was difficult for me to accept. I lobbied to keep it alive for another six months, but conceded to the collective wisdom of the elders and staff. We decided not to prolong the inevitable; about 30 months after the initial launch, we returned to offering identical services.
When I was asked to write an article about how our church is reaching the multiple generations in our community, I was reminded of God’s sense of humor. How could our failed attempt add to the discourse in a meaningful way? Then I recalled the words of a wise sage, “If, at first, you don’t succeed . . . maybe skydiving is not for you.”
In most instances, our failures are not fatal. If success eludes us the first time around, we usually have opportunities to try again and again. As a result, many of life’s greatest lessons are learned through experiences we might consider misfires. Failure we learn, in life and ministry, is a faithful teacher. Though our attempt at generation-specific worship services failed, it helped us find the best practices to better reach our multigenerational church family.
This goal to minister to multiple generations is not merely a good idea; it’s God’s design. When the apostle Paul wrote to his younger protégés Timothy and Titus, he offered inspired insight for effective cross-generational ministry.
“Older women . . . are to . . . teach what is good, and so train the young women” (Titus 2:3, 4).*
“Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1, 2).
These Scriptures command us to care for, teach, and train up all the generations represented in our church families—the young, the old, and everyone in-between. Paul’s insight points out the connection that must be nurtured between the generations.
Reflecting the Family
These pastoral principles remind us of the value of generations of all ages sharing the same experience. In our church, we’re striving to be more generationally aware in our worship services. This includes various styles of music, but it’s more than song selection. The musicians, vocalists, and communicators are mixed to represent vibrant youthfulness and seasoned maturity.
Relevance is not exclusively young, and maturity is not uniquely aged. This is modeled from a preaching standpoint as well. As a preacher, I recognize the need to glean biblical truth from experience and wisdom extended beyond my 42 years of living. We make room for those voices in our preaching schedule because it’s critical to reflect the whole church family.
Becoming Better Together
Paul was also championing interaction between the generations for the purpose of relational disciple-making. Life legacy is waiting to be transferred from one generation to the next.
We are intentionally creating relational space for this transfer to take place, not only in our worship services, but also in our life groups. Shortly after we transitioned back to identical services, we relaunched our small groups. The groups are formed geographically, not demographically, in order to create a relational environment for cross-generational discipleship.
Rethinking the Shelf Life
One of the coordinators of our Young at Heart seniors group told me something that broke my heart.
“A lot of times the seniors feel like they get put on the shelf,” she said. “We know we’re not, but it can feel like we are no longer needed.”
This statement was troubling, not because it was a critical swipe, but as sort of a white flag of concession. Senior saints long to be engaged and contribute to their church family, but all too often we do marginalize them. And not only do they suffer, so does the church.
When the prescription Paul gives to connect the young and old is ignored, we forfeit our divine responsibility to take care of, teach, and train up all the generations represented in the body of Christ. It’s time to rethink the shelf life of some of our most valuable spiritual resources. The biblical challenge for the church is to connect and care for the generations with the greatest resource we have, each other.
Our church is still on this journey to better connect the generations represented in our family. I don’t think we will declare success anytime soon. As we endeavor toward greater awareness, I am certain we will have many more failed attempts. But the greatest failure would be to attempt nothing at all. The lesson in doing nothing would be too costly for all of us.
*Scripture is taken from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
Karl Schad serves as senior pastor with Gateway Christian Church, St. Louis, Missouri.