how to have an intergenerational church

Dear Bible-believing Church of Jesus:

I love you, and God is working in you. I see it every day. You also listen to me and honor me and pay me; thanks, I am blessed to be one of you. This letter comes from my pastor’s heart, even if it carries a prophet’s tone. Church, we are failing in some key areas. 

Honestly, we are too often proud and hard-hearted. We think we have “church” and God all figured out. Too often we are self-centered consumers looking for personal “oh” and “ah” moments on Sunday instead of craving real transformation from God. Worship is not fireworks in the park!

Or we are fearful, pulling back inside our brick castles to keep the changing world away. “We always do it this way. Raise the drawbridge!” Others are so insecure in the Power of God’s gospel that we are trying to market Jesus. We package church like auto insurance, hoping we can up our share. What’s in? What do they want? How do we get them in the door? How do we draw people to buy into our church? Our staff meetings sound more like people opening a new, trendy restaurant than shepherds serving the Lord of Lords.

A tinge of conviction in you? Church, we need to humble ourselves. We need to cry out for forgiveness. We need to ask God to open our eyes and direct our paths. We need to pray. We need to read. We need to listen. We need to be open to all sorts of ideas. We need to be more teachable. We need to care more about others. We need to ask God how to be the authentic church of Jesus here and now. 

Storm clouds over the Duomo Cathedral in Sienna, Italy, built in 1215 AD (photo by Brad)
One reason–not the only one, btw–we need to be spiritually growing is to better serve students, millennials, and young adults (and others loved by God) who are not currently engaged in our churches. Almost every measurement confirms that their hearts are adrift. It seems they find much of Christianity “inauthentic”, shallow, and rote. Or–on the other end of the spectrum–too “star-centered”, showy, and performance based. Either way, Sundays are too disconnected from both life and from the wild mystery of an eternal God. They find sleeping in or riding their bikes to Starbucks more restorative.

Honestly, some of the issue is inside them. They have been raised as skeptics, nursed on sarcasm, and fueled with dystopian tales over coffee or beer. Scraped by broken families, ever-present news media, and school lockdowns, they don’t trust well. Some don’t trust at all. Sadly, they, too, can be focused on themselves and their preferences too much. Could it be that they value, perhaps, their tribal flannels, IPAs, playlists, and hair too highly? (But doesn’t every generation?) As each generation before them, they can carry their certainty and pride closer than their cell phone.

No matter. Most of the issues are with us, Church.  We are often stuck shaping sandbox churches to fit our own comfort zones and history. “Look Daddy, I made my church!”

The answer comes, loving yet firm. “I can see you worked hard, my beloved child. But why did you push your little sister out of the sandbox? I love you both, and it disappoints me when you don’t share.”

God cares about each generation. God even names himself in generational terms. “I am the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” True Christianity is always a pass-it-on, generational faith. Always.

So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come. – Psm. 71:18

This doesn’t mean we cater what we do to the culture, or necessarily kill our ancient traditions. A lesson from a generational God is that some things endure. But if we don’t get better at passing on the legacy, we will fail one of our primary calls from Jesus. To be generational.

Some concrete ideas I’ve gained from listening to wise millennials (1):

  • Stop trying to have the worship style do the hard work of being the church. It isn’t really about music. It is about living like Jesus, and loving like Jesus.
  • Passion trumps polish. Don’t seek to entertain, but seek deep and ancient heart-and-mind connections to God. Appropriate liturgy actually shapes and conditions us to meet God.
  • Don’t target people, or groups, or focus on attracting them. No one likes to be hunted or hooked. Simply be yourself, and genuinely welcome all people. All people.
  • Welcome the hardest, most skeptical questions. Let people wrestle with theology while they still belong. This means that torn jeans, torn families, and torn souls are to find a “no judgment zone” in the pews.
  • Make faith about life. Preach about life. Use stories which connect to today’s world. Make church a part of a connection experience.
  • Be less about activity or programs, and more about Jesus. Stress mission over program. Be clear each day about why you do what you do.
  • Be thankful and trusting, not fearful. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at life. Be grateful. People are starved for a spiritual environment which creates honest peace and joy.
  •  Church should inspire our resting in God, and be a place to recover from the frenetic pace of life. When we become like Jesus, other parts of our life–like justice and relationships and work–always change for the better. Remember that God really in charge of all this.

Jesus is building his church, and he will sustain us. We endure with his power, not ours. But we play a part, because he shares the Kingdom with us. It takes a lot of effort to grow and change. A lot. I know. But legacy is critical to pleasing our Lord.

Now, brush the sand from your fingers, church, and go look for your little sister.

And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. – Luke 1:50

(1) Worth reading: Jonathan Aigner; Marian V. Laiutaud; and Carey Nieuwhof.


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