By Tom Ellsworth
I’m not sure when it happened. I distinctly remember being a young minister just starting out who desperately wanted to bridge the gulf between the generation I so respected and my generation, which also needed to find a place in church leadership. Suddenly—at least it seems that way—I find myself moving into a different stage.
I turned 60 this year and have become part of the generation to which I was trying to build that bridge years ago. I hasten to add that 60 is not old (my perspective), but neither is it young. So I want to help keep the bridge open on my end.
I must constantly revisit this question, what can we do to engage the next generation in the kingdom? I see the secularization of our culture. I am painfully aware of the millennial generation’s decreasing interest in the church. Only one in five thinks attending church is important. Millennials value relevance, sincerity, community, and an outwardly focused vision, and many churches do not measure up.
I’m also acutely aware that I don’t have all the answers. Honestly, I have more questions than ever, but let me make some general observations.
One Mission, Different Strategies
First, consider your congregation’s uniqueness. Every congregation shares the same mission—to make disciples—but the strategies for doing so are different with every church.
For instance, our congregation serves a midsized Midwestern community that is home to a Big Ten university. Given the size of our community (approximately 80,000) and the size of Indiana University (approximately 35,000, which is counted in that 80,000), it is safe to say the university plays a major role in everything that happens here. IU is the driving force behind the community’s economy as well as its mind-set. And because of the university, we are blessed with a whole community of millennials.
Staff member Jeremy Earle oversees our college and young adult ministries. You might expect some of what he does (such as overseeing Bible studies and life groups for the students), but Jeremy also arranges mission trips, develops local service projects, and connects our young scholars with roles in the church ranging from media ministry to children’s ministry, and everything in between.
He tells me, “It is nearly impossible to engage a younger generation without giving them the space and opportunities to develop a servant’s heart.” I’ve seen their servant’s hearts; this millennial generation is passionate about making a difference in people’s lives, and I love them for it.
Seven years ago our church started The PourHouse Cafe, a coffee shop in downtown Bloomington just two blocks from the main entrance to IU’s campus. It’s not a Christian coffeehouse; it’s a coffeehouse run by Christians. “Pouring global goodness” is the tagline, and every month the tips go to a different global need or mission. It has become a safe environment where seekers can ask questions and build relationships.
One Church, Many Generations
We’ve discovered most of our college students prefer an intergenerational setting at church. On campus, they are surrounded by people of a similar age and life stage. When they attend on Sunday, they enjoy interacting with all ages.
That’s why our Adopt-a-Student program is so successful. Suitable families and interested students are connected for the school year. The families open their houses and lives to the students to give them a taste of family life away from home.
I’ve also learned that millennials are seeking mentoring relationships. Such opportunities not only build bridges between generations but also foster spiritual maturity in younger people. That’s why men’s and women’s intergenerational discipleship studies seem to meet a growing need. We have several weekday women’s groups that provide opportunities for women of all ages to learn from one another. Our men’s Discipleship Revolution groups meet to connect potential new leaders with experienced ones.
Years ago I stopped talking about our youth as “the church of tomorrow”; they are, and want to be, leaders in the church today. So now we want to focus on preparing healthy church leaders.
I meet with a group of young men for breakfast weekly just to share life. I’ve learned a lot, had a great time, and count it a privilege that these younger guys would let me hang out with them. Mentoring works both ways, and while I hope I have something to offer them, I know I’m the real beneficiary of our time together.
I realize ministering in a university town provides us with opportunities many churches won’t enjoy, but the overriding principle is the same. Discover the uniqueness inherent to your congregation and start building your intergenerational outreach around those distinctions.
Many Ministries, Everyone Needed
Here’s another observation. Be intentional about involving the younger generation. As a church, ask the following questions:
How are we involving young men and women in worship services, small groups, service projects, short-term mission trips, teaching/preaching opportunities, and every other ministry of the church?
How are we equipping them for leadership roles and ministry opportunities?
How are we encouraging them to grow and mature in their faith?
Those are by no means the only questions to ask, but an honest critique provides a good starting point. When our staff team meets to evaluate the past Sunday’s worship experience, we count how many younger people were involved and in what ways. If a college student or 20-something family visits and only older adults are visible in the Sunday morning worship and leadership roles, they will likely conclude their generation is not valued.
When you walk into your home church on any given Sunday morning, whom do you see greeting at the doors, leading from the platform, or serving in the welcome area? If what you see doesn’t reflect an intergenerational family, then be intentional about changing that perspective.
Our youth band occasionally leads adult worship. Periodically, our fourth- through sixth-graders help serve during offering and Communion time. Each is paired with an adult coach, helping them feel a genuine connection with the church. It may seem like a little thing, but it communicates an important value to our youth.
A third observation is be creative. Don’t just think outside the box; get rid of the box, if necessary. The most creative ideas in intergenerational ministry have come from others in our church, not from me. When someone else has a great idea, embrace it. Encourage and equip that person to make the dream a reality.
In the past we have partnered with a local high school to build a Habitat for Humanity house, and we will do it again this year. During our annual CareFest community outreach day, Christians from all different generations have fun working shoulder to shoulder while helping meet a variety of needs.
One of our greatest joys comes from the number of international students who worship at Sherwood Oaks. IU students attending from around the globe are also serving with us. For the last 10 years our International Furniture Drive team works tirelessly for months to collect used furniture and household goods that are then given free of charge to first-year international students. Many arrive in Bloomington with only what they can carry in a suitcase or two, so when they leave the church property on that day with a desk, bed, sofa, or housewares that we deliver to their dorm or apartment, it says more than just welcome to Bloomington.
I’ve had the privilege of baptizing some of those students who I know will return home—many to hostile environments—as ambassadors for Jesus Christ. And it all started with a used piece of furniture.
Try something new to bridge that generational gap in your congregation. If one idea doesn’t work, try another. Encourage people to dream, and then help their dreams become reality. Above all, don’t give up or stop trying. The consequences of losing this next generation are too dire to stop giving our best.
For me, this is the bottom line. Since becoming a grandfather five years ago, something wonderful has happened. I have experienced a love I had not known before. (Would you like to see their pictures?) I’ve since wondered if this God-given grandparental love isn’t part of his grand design to sustain the future of his church.
I have never been more passionate about the future need for a healthy intergenerational church. I’m at a stage in my life where no one is going to convince me that my faith in Jesus Christ is a waste of time or energy. I know better. The longer I live, the more convinced I am that he lives and has a plan for the ages.
My grandchildren, however, are not there yet in their understanding or commitment. They desperately need a healthy, relevant church where they and their generation can fall in love with Jesus. I want to do whatever it takes now to ensure the church of their adulthood will be strong and vibrant, because I cannot bear the thought of them not being in Heaven, too!
Tom Ellsworth serves as senior minister with Sherwood Oaks Christian Church in Bloomington, Indiana.