Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting with a group of young adults at a church here in Houston. They are part of a young adults group at a long-established church in the area. As with most established churches, this one has a solid older generation of leaders, men and women who have faithfully served for decades. The young folk with which I was meeting found themselves in a conundrum. Many had not grown up in this church but began attending because they moved to the area. They love their church. In fact, as all decent Christians should, they have a desire to serve their church, one day lead their church, and aid their church in fulfilling its disciple-making mission.
Enter the confusion brought on by the transition between generations.
To be clear, the situation I heard was not unhealthy. In fact, I heard much mutual respect and love between the generations that exist in this church. Many situations are not so grace-filled. Nevertheless, the stereotypes about a generational disconnect are there for a reason. This church, like so many others, is headed toward a generational transition in leadership. And I am not talking about pastoral leadership, mind you. I am talking about lay leadership, ministry leadership, deacons, and outreach leadership. I am talking about those who lead out in service in the local congregation.
Perhaps I am naive, but I am not convinced these generational gaps are as malicious as many on either side often feel. Of course, there are instances where they are. There are a lot of unhealthy churches out there. That said, I do wonder how often motives are misunderstood and assumptions are made. In his book, Cross-Cultural Conflict, Duane Elmer writes, “The mind naturally seeks to understand conflict situations… When facts are not immediately forthcoming to explain ambiguous situations, the mind tends to fill in the blanks… The fatal flaw is that we provide the understanding from our cultural frame of reference, not from the cultural frame of reference of the other person, of the situation in which the conflict exists” (18). He goes on to say, “Here is the curious part. The interpretation we provide virtually always attributes a negative characteristic and motivation to the other person” (19-20). In other words, when we do not understand how a different group of people are communicating, our minds attempt to interpret it anyway and usually in a skeptical manner. Perhaps, much of the generational conflict that occurs in local churches (and even at the denominational level) is more miscommunication and ascribed motive than actual malice.
Of course, the Bible would have us approach this generational divide differently. Paul repeatedly reminds us to bear with another (Col 3:13, Eph 4:2), and that admonition has no exception built in for people from a different generation. Furthermore, the New Testament is clear concerning cross-generational relationships. In short, they are not optional. Paul’s letters to Titus and Timothy both spill ink concerning inter-generational relationships. They should be marked by mutual respect, the younger learning from the older, and both honoring one another. Young and old, men and women, we are in this together.
I wonder if previous eras in the church saw the same distance between generations in their relationships. Is this a modern phenomenon, perhaps created by age-banded ministries and spending so much time around those like us?
So, to all my younger friends out there, let me ask you this question: What have you done to understand the older generation in leadership at your church?
My advice to the young adults around that table last week was simply this, spend time pouring yourselves into relationships with the older generation. I am convinced that strengthening the interpersonal bonds with those in your church who are different than you will provide both better understanding and more grace.
I hear of many young folk in the churches today frustrated with the direction of their church, anxious to get the reigns of leadership. Yet, I hear of very few young people spending a lot of time with those currently leading. Being quick to ask for the microphone but slow to ask someone to lunch may be one of our current issues. Instead of defaulting to criticism, it is our responsibility to realize the wealth of wisdom that we often overlook. When did we stop thinking we had something to learn from our seniors? Have you ever had lunch with a deacon, elder, or long-standing member of your church?
Now, to all my younger friends out there, let me pose this challenge: Ask an older couple in your church out to lunch this Sunday. Oh, and offer to pay for it!
First, thank them for what they have done for you. Fact is, the older generation in your church is why you currently have a church to be a part of in the first place. Assuredly, they have not done ministry perfectly, but they have done it enough to get you there.
Think about the fascinating conversations you can have. These people have been in this church for decades. Ask questions. Why did they become a part of your church? Why have they served so long? What about your church makes them smile? What are their concerns?
For those of you in long-established churches, this assembly had life before you. It has a history, it has a story, and you are only a small part of what God has done, is doing, and will do through the life of that church. Learn to love those who know the previous chapters.
If we forget where we came from, it is hard to know where we need to go.