When churches began to lose their young people, they started to take seriously the fact that we are living in a unique point in history. We now have many generations living and working together; generations which are culturally different because they have been shaped by different formative experiences.
Silent (Born 1928–45)
Baby boomer (Born 1946–64)
Generation X (Born 1965–1980)
Millennials (Born 1981–1996)
Generation Z (Born 1997–2012)
The Silent and Boomer generations were influenced by the Second World War, the younger ones by the internet and globalisation. Churches responded to this loss of their young in different ways. Some tried to make their worship services more contemporary, which sometimes alienated the older members. Some churches became or started out as single-generation churches, usually for young adults. Others adopted a Next Gen approach, letting the young set the agenda and lead the church.
While we thank God for these various responses, and God has used them to touch lives and helped some young people remain in church communities, we couldn’t help but wonder if there is something more the Lord wants to do. We were concerned, for example, that the mono-generational young-adult churches did not have to do the hard work of relating to other generations. Young adults do not remain young forever. In time, children and grandchildren will come, shaped by other formative experiences. How will the original generation of the church connect with them since they never had the need to be cross-generational before? And while Next Gen churches recognise the existence and value of the younger generations, one has to wonder what then will be the contribution of the other generations in such a model? While we don’t want the church to be dominated by Boomers, for example, is the answer then a church dominated by Millennials or Gen Zs?
Graceworks was often consulted by churches that were losing their young adults. We tried to help older Christians understand their young so they could minister more effectively to them. Along the way we felt this was not enough. Yes, older Christians need to understand the young, but surely the young need to understand the older Christians as well? We began to see that the different generations had different strengths and that God’s plan was not just to help the different generations tolerate each other or let one generation lead the way. One of Paul’s key metaphors of the church is the human body (1 Cor. 12), a metaphor that celebrates diversity in unity and teaches that all parts of the body can contribute to body life. Indeed, he stresses that no one is unimportant. Having different types of people working together is not easy, hence he moves on to 1 Corinthians 13 and the ultimate call — that God’s people are to love one another. If we are going to have lots of different generations working together, they must love each other. We believe that the ideal is neither mono-generational churches nor Next Gen churches as it is commonly understood. We believe we have to aim at intergenerational churches.
Here is one understanding of intergenerational churches:
Intergenerational — there is comprehensive mutuality, equality and reciprocity that makes individual or collective transformation more likely.
Intergenerational ministry occurs when a congregation intentionally combines the generations together in mutual serving, sharing, or learning within the core activities of the church in order to live out being the body of Christ to each other and the greater community. (Holly Catterton Allen & Chris Barnett, “Addressing the Two Intergenerational Questions”. In Intergenerate, edited by Holly Catterton Allen [Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 2018], 17–18.)
So Graceworks was convicted to start the generations project, one that sought to interview Christians from all the various generations and from various denominations to see how the different generations viewed the church and their faith. (A shout out to our colleague Wei-Hao who both came up with the methodology and did all the interviews.) We wanted the different generations to understand themselves first, why they were what they were, and then to understand the other generations.
The first major fruit of this project is the publication of a book, The Generations Project, to be launched this March 18th in St James Anglican Church. It captures all the key insights we have derived to date. It is our hope that it will give a vision of intergenerational churches where all generations feel at home and are allowed to contribute their strengths so that together we can be stronger for the Lord’s purposes in our time. We know that this will take work but we believe that this is what the Lord wants. The church is family, and all members of a family are cherished and encouraged to give of their best. The church is a family where the different generations learn from each other and where all help all grow in Christlikeness.
As it says in Acts 2:17 NIV:
In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
We need both visions and dreams. We need old and young to work together.