The Generations Project is a study that Graceworks embarked on seeking to improve the unity within our churches by increasing the empathy between the different generations. Our hope is that this can be achieved as each generation understands their own formative experiences while also appreciating that of the other generations. Having concluded our research into both Millennial and Baby Boomer Christians in Singapore (we will eventually study the other generations) our team compared the findings and identified some potential areas of conflict and convergence in the way that the two generations experience and view church. This is the first in a series where we will present our insights and provide a tentative biblical critique on each issue. We invite feedback and constructive conversations on these issues.
Boomers’ and Millennials’ Attitudes Toward Church Services
In our conversations with the Baby Boomers, there was a very strong sentiment that physical attendance in church is something that helps us to build reverence and awe for God and is seen almost as a way for us to “come back to God”. While Boomers recognise the value of small groups, these were perceived to be more suitable for the building of horizontal relationships among believers while one’s vertical relationship with God is better nurtured together with the larger body in “sacred spaces” like church buildings and during “sacred times” like formal worship services. Millennials, on the other hand, view community and relationships as the more important aspects of church. With a didactic, almost performance-like approach, most church services are viewed as not being conducive to the deepening of relationships. In addition, since church services also tend to be a key vehicle for evangelism, the current format is seen to be appealing primarily to people from a certain socio-economic status (middle, upper-middle class) which inevitably leads to the exclusion or the overlooking of the marginalised in society.
Going beyond what our interviewees said, an analysis of the broader systemic influences on each generation revealed other relevant insights. We observed that a large proportion of Boomers are first-generation Christians who often had to fight for their right to go to church due to parental objection. Thus, for them, attending church is a privilege and not something to be taken lightly. Furthermore, in a pre-internet age, church meetings were the primary places where they could receive Christian teaching and instruction. The majority of Millennials, however, had an entirely different experience, especially those who were born into Christian families. They faced parental pressure in the opposite direction when they expressed their reluctance to go to church. Essentially, Boomers paid the price to go to church while Millennials were often chided when they wanted to skip church meetings. Combine this with technology that has put a world of information at their fingertips, Millennials no longer need to depend on their churches for “feeding”. It is not difficult to see why the two generations have very different perceptions of the importance of attending church services.
Even without the seeming conflict surrounding this issue between the two generations, the current pandemic has forced the church to seriously reconsider how we should move forward in this area. It is therefore crucial for us to seek biblical guidance with regards to this issue.
Some Biblical Reflections on Church Services
- The Christian faith is a communal one. To belong to Christ is to belong to His people. (1 Corinthians 12:12–14; Acts 12:40–47)
- The life of the early church was a communal one. The church met up on a regular basis to live out their faith. (Hebrews 10:24–25; Acts 2:42)
- The early church met in homes with around 30 people forming each of these churches. Buildings designated for church worship did not appear till the third century. (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19)
- At their gatherings, both the horizontal and the vertical dimensions of church life happened. (Colossians 3:16–17; Romans 12:1–8)
- The early church was an inclusive community of people from different races and social backgrounds. Since families were key church comprised different ages as well. (1 Corinthians 12:12–13; Galatians 3:27–28)
So, what can the different generations learn from the New Testament picture of church life, especially where worship gatherings are concerned?
- First, the Boomers’ concern that the church should meet up in person is correct. We are physical beings and we are meant to connect in person.
- However our usual modern worship services of people sitting in rows in a hall is nothing like the experience of the early church and addresses only the vertical dimension of church life.
- While we are not calling for a return to early-church structures, we need to recapture the early church’s commitment to both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of church life.
- One of the ways we do this is through the intentional use of big groups and small groups.
- The usual big-group worship services will be gatherings that foster a sense of being part of a larger community; for instruction and inspiration.
- Small-group gatherings are where we live out the command to love one another in the context of authentic relationships.
- While we support the Millennials’ emphasis on community, they do need to be careful that they don’t end up purely as peer groups, where people meet and interact with people who are just like them. They will then miss out on the intergen, inclusive nature that a church should be.
- The Covid crisis has meant that many churches have not been able to meet in their large-group gatherings. Some churches have taken the time to rethink how they do the vertical and horizontal dimensions of church life. Some churches have decided that their small groups would now be their main gatherings as relationships are at the heart of the Christian faith. When it is ok to gather in large groups again, they will do so, but maybe not that often and with the large-group gatherings as a support to the small groups and not vice versa.
- Beyond the usual small groups and large groups, some churches are now thinking of other types of groups. For example, when we could only meet in very small groups some had intentionally used micro gatherings of whatever numbers were permitted (3? 5?) as platforms for mutual support and discipleship. And when larger gatherings are permitted perhaps there can be church meals or love feasts (Jude 12) where the diverse nature of the church is celebrated and where there will be opportunities for meaningful interaction among people from different backgrounds.
- By now, most churches will be connecting on online platforms like Zoom. Meeting on Zoom should not be seen as a threat or a replacement of physical meet ups. They are a real help in augmenting and strengthening the communal life of the church. Indeed, they have allowed us to reach out to some whom we otherwise would not have reached.
- As we slowly return to physical gatherings, we will see some not coming back to physical group worship. This raises two questions:
- Are people committed to an event (Sunday physical worship) or to a community?
- Have we, as a church, structured the church in a way that makes sense to people and so helps them to come back?
- At all times we want to remember that the New Testament use of the word “church” refers to people and not a building.
It has been very useful to see how Boomers and Millennials think of physical worship services. Both generations remind us of different elements of church life. Ultimately, however, we want to structure our church life not on the preferences of any particular generation but on the Bible.