In my last commentary Messily Beautiful; Beautifully Messy, I left off with a string of questions on what it would look like if a church truly embraced the different generations and intentionally cultivated intergenerational relationships. Perhaps the real reason I left those questions unanswered was that I didn’t know the answers myself. And perhaps, like me, you too are convinced of the value of the intergenerational church, but struggle with the question: how do we build an intergenerational church?
As I reflected on the preliminary findings of The Generations Project, here are three initial thoughts I invite you to ponder with me:
1. Emphasise similarities, not differences
In the Generations Project, the archetypes of each generation reveal potential areas of conflict as well as empathy. As I looked at the various archetypes, I imagined, for example, how the Boomers’ traditionalists might easily disagree with the free spirits of the Millennials, and how the Gen Xs’ concerned realists might scorn the Gen Zs’ tip-toers. Those were just two among many more potential clashes that played out in my mind. Yet, I also saw archetypes that converged across generations: the Boomers’ traditionalists and the Gen Zs’ conservatives, the Gen Xs’ relational advocates and the Millennials’ community seekers; perhaps even the Boomers’ teachers, Millennials’ intellectuals, and Gen Zs’ inquirers; and many others.
These helped me to recognise that the different generations are not opposed to one another; “the other” is not the enemy, even if we may disagree. How then can we build an intergenerational church? By listening to one another in order to find common ground. As we “do” church together, and occasionally find ourselves in disagreement and step on one another’s toes, perhaps we can choose to listen for: What are the underlying needs, yearnings, and pain behind what “the other” is saying? And how is what “the other” is saying reflective of some of my own needs, yearnings, and pain as well?
2. Emphasise values, not methodologies
Findings from The Generations Project reveal seven areas of potential conflict among the various generations. As I surveyed these seven areas, I was struck by the fact that, in areas where we tend to disagree, no one generation has the “right answer”. It’s hard to be definitive, for example, about whether church service attendance is crucial for the faith or not, or whether it is more important to be set apart or to embrace the equal sacredness across the sacred-secular divide. In most of these cases, the Bible promotes a both/and, rather than an either/or, approach.
In fact, I realised that underlying these disagreements is often a common value, something that all generations prioritise. For example, Boomers who argue for the need to be set apart and Millennials who champion equal sacredness both prioritise the living out of their faith in the world, it is how they do it that differs.
Perhaps, then, greater synergy can be found in emphasising our common underlying values rather than focusing on the methodologies that tend to divide. Moreover, potential areas of conflict could also be areas of collaboration, learning, and growth. It is okay—good, even—for different generations to worship the same God in different ways, and to learn from one another while doing so. And, as an extension, we should also give space for the different expressions of worship during our communal time.
3. Emphasise relationships, not programmes
When thinking of how to build an intergenerational church, we often think: What programmes can we organise to bring the generations together? This is not wrong, but The Generations Project highlights the need for relationships. Personally, I have found that whether an area of disagreement ends up in conflict or collaboration depends primarily on relationship.
One thing the different generations have in common is primacy of relationships: Christians of all generations value their relationship with God, and with others. The methods they employ to preserve and prioritise these relationships differ, but the priority is unmistakable. It is little wonder then that the answer to how to build intergenerational relationships is, well, relationships!
The question, “What are the different ways we can nurture relationships across the generations?” should take precedence. It recognises that there are different ways to nurture relationships, and no single programme is the solution. This may be both good news and bad. But if we’re truly serious about intergenerational relationships in the church—whether we are church leaders or “ordinary” members, young or old—perhaps it is time to stop brainstorming programmes and activities for the church, and start having conversations and building relationships with our brothers and sisters from different generations.