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The Value of Intergenerational Ministry

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[Paper submitted to SEBTS for Doctor of Ministry seminar: Contemporary Issues Facing the Church; Spring 2014]

 

America is in transition. The cultural landscape is changing rapidly with the influx of immigrants and multi-ethnics being born in the United States. The nation’s moral and spiritual fabric is shifting due to a variety of reasons. Values and behavioral practices that were accepted multiple or even a single decade ago are becoming abnormal and offensive. As America launches further into the twenty-first century, every cultural category from politics to parenting, from economics to education, technology and other disciplines of study are facing unprecedented and rapid change. Certainly there could be a plethora of reasons for these and multiple other transitions but perhaps one that stands out is the evolution of generation demographics. Changing generations always creates space for increased information and innovative ideas.

Inside the Christian faith movement is a similar struggle of change to keep in touch with its surrounding culture. Certainly, every Christian and church must first make the decision that cultural relevance is an aspired goal.[1] In brief and not to stray from this paper’s topic one may affirm cultural relevance is biblically necessary on the basis of 1Corinthians 9:22b-23 and more so in the Great Commission to reach all peoples. Cultural relevance does not mean and should not equate to compromising doctrinal truth. Believing these principles leaves the church to explore a key to impacting culture while managing generational change. One can explore the social importance and Scriptural significance of intergenerational ministry and mentoring to have positive impact on the church through revitalizing the biblical model for perpetuating faith and renewing the focus on the Great Commission mandate.

Generations have been grouped into approximately twenty year spans. [2] The dating timeline differs somewhat among researches but the categories are generally agreed upon with the Builders (1900-1945), Boomers (1945-1965), Busters (1965-1985), and the Millennials (1985-2000). The two largest generations are the Boomers and the Millennials. The Boomers are a generation of social reformers and skilled workers. In just over a decade into the twenty-first century they are still able and active in terms of intellect, life savvy experience, marketable job skill and not to mention financially stable. Many more are on the cusp of becoming senior citizens, though they would not use such a label. Nearly every seven seconds one turns the age of fifty, and hat’s twelve thousand people in a single day or nearly four and a half million people a year.[3] Likewise, the Millennial generation is on the cutting edge of social change and cultural impact. As a group, the Millennials are the most sought after by political strategists and commercial advertising unlike any other youth generation in living history as “they are more numerous, more affluent, better educated, and more ethnically diverse.”[4] They are active and vibrant with technological awareness, digital communication and have a sense of hopefulness for the future. While both generations appear to have similar characteristics there is often separation and division amongst these age groups, and most specifically in the church.

Family and generational separation in the church occurs most often through age-segmented ministries. The ministry programs may include Sunday School, Bible Groups, Children or Youth Ministries, and a variety of other programs or events. This is the ministry silo approach, or “segmented-programmatic” structure, where “hired hands provide spiritual sustenance for each age-grouping by means of separate organizational structures.”[5] Age-segmenting is not negative on its own and has benefits for content instruction or addressing mature topics at an appropriate understanding. Further, it can create peer identification and mutual accountability. There should be a “co-championing”[6] model between family and church so that each generation is appropriately discipled at their life stage but not to the exclusion of parents and the wisdom of elders in the community of faith.

The church has struggled to reach younger generations. Steve Wright says there are at least four gauges that speak to a growing problem: 1) Student retention rates, 2) Student baptism rates, 3) Student pastor tenures, and 4) Student Bible literacy.[7] Each of these are in decline in the North American church. More specifically, Barna Research indicates that “Americans in their twenties are significantly less likely than any other age group to attend church services, to donate to churches, to be absolutely committed to Christianity, to read the Bible, or to serve as a volunteer or lay leader in churches.” [8] Thirty-one percent of adults in the United States in their twenties attend church in a typical week, compared to forty-two percent of adults in their thirties, and forty-nine percent of age forty and older.[9] A more recent survey agrees saying that “Nones” are on the rise with one-fifth of the United States public – and a third of adults under thirty – are religiously unaffiliated, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.[10] Generational replacement in the church is lacking among those who are religious and, perhaps obviously, increasing more so among those who had no religious affiliation to begin. In all, the church is not matching or keeping up with the population growth rate. Simply put, the passing of faith from one generation to another is being neglected. This must change if the church is to advance with spiritual effectiveness and social impact in the twenty-first century. Yet, it is important to note that intergenerational ministry and mentoring is important for more than just a pragmatic reaction to alarming statistics. “The goal of the gospel is not a human ideal of retaining members in a visible community; the goal is to call people to Jesus… Retention rates are not the launching pad or the end-point of God’s plan; Jesus is”.[11]

Intergenerational ministry benefits the church by revitalizing a biblical model for perpetuating the faith. Passing on faith from one generation to the next is a significant command and theme throughout the Scriptures. To start, this is profoundly theological in reflecting the character of God as one in Triune-community of Persons. What God is in character, His people are to become so that His character might be formed in them.[12] God’s communal nature is ideal in relating one to another in faith, love, and service. Therefore, biblical images for the church “have an underlying community dimension as a fundamental feature: ‘the people of God,’ ‘the Messianic community,’ ‘the body of Christ,’ or ‘the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.”[13] The foundation for intergenerational ministry flows from the theological concept of God with His divine and unique Personhood.

The biblical storyline of the Old Testament opens with the creation account and God’s cultural mandate for Adam and Eve to reproduce godly generations (Genesis 1:27-28). This same mandate was given to Noah following the flood (Genesis 9:7-8). Noah and Abraham are introductory examples of intergenerational family and faith passed along. The rest of the Old Testament portrays a variety examples of passing faith from from one generation to another or with parent to a child: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Genesis); Moses with Jethro (Exodus 18); Ruth and Naomi; Samuel and Eli (1Samuel 1 – 3), and others. The Old Testament Law promised blessing to those who were committed to growing godly generations (Exodus 20:6). Further, the religious life was communal in focus for the nation of Israel. The feasts and festivals were held regularly and included entire families with children and adults, worshiping through sacrifice, preparing and eating meals together, along with instructive singing and celebratory music.[14] These included festivals were Passover, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Booths, and the Feast of Trumpets all created a multi-generational heritage. The Psalms were filled with history of a nation to perpetuate faith intergenerationally.[15] God’s desire for Israel was “godly offspring” (Malachi 2:15).

The New Testament provides more examples of intergenerational mentoring both formally and informally, with Mary and Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56); teachers of the temple with a young Jesus (Luke 2:41-47); Paul and Timothy (1 & 2 Timothy), among others. Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God (Matthew 18:1-7; 19:13-15) reveal mindset of faith, learning and practice in the relationships between adults and children. In fact, Jesus states strong words about misappropriation of intergenerational mentoring would result in condemnation (Matthew 18:6). The apostle Peter inaugurates the church by preaching the gospel with a promise of intergenerational blessing (Acts 2:38-39). In the apostle Paul’s letters are expected intergenerational relationships, ministry and mentoring to occur among parents (Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:21), older men with younger men and older women with younger women (1Timothy 5:1-2; Titus 2:2-7). The church of God is like an intergenerational household or community that would have existed in the typical Graeco-Roman extended household context (cf. 1Timothy 3:15).[16] Such households would have been vital sources of identity as “patrilineal kinship groups”, where persons were nurtured, job skills were developed, marriage relationships were arranged, childcare was provided and care for the sick and elderly were maintained.[17] Paul’s purpose for writing was commanding believers and families across the generations to grow together in knowledge and practice of the Christian faith. The power of the gospel and glory of God was to be on display in the church “to all generations, forever and ever” (Ephesians 3:20-21). In fact, each letter of the New Testament was addressed to entire churches and would have been read before all. The initial reading of these letters and likely additional readings for instruction and doctrinal accountability would have undoubtedly occurred intergenerationally.

Beyond the biblical model are practical Scriptural principles for the church’s disciple-making strategy to have an intergenerational model. A first reason is that it supports the biblical charge to parents as primary faith nurturers (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:18-21; Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:20). Parents and churches can encourage children to experience worship and relate with all generations in the congregation by minimizing or strategically organizing the age-segmented ministries through a certain age. In this manner, parents accept their God-given responsibility and churches are not usurping parental authority but are instead partnering with parents to equip them for the task of perpetuating faith.

The Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) performed a College Transition Project with over five hundred youth over a six year time span. The closest “definitive silver bullet” to finding lasting faith among this young age generation was that “High school and college students who experience more intergenerational worship tend to have higher faith maturity.”[18] In fact, this group of surveyed college students looking back at their youth ministry experienced wanted more “1. Time for deep conversation, 2. Mission trips, 3. Service projects, 4. Accountability, 5. One-on-one time with leaders.”[19] Notice that at least three of the five desires directly involved relationships with the implied element of intergenerational connection. Likewise, the spiritually mature teens do not just want to receive from an older generation but they want to give to the next younger generation, with those students who “participated in leadership with middle school or elementary kids showed stronger faith three years later than those who didn’t.”[20]

Also, intergenerational ministry enhances the biblical principle of unity in the church body. Across the generations there is one Lord, one faith, one mission (Ephesians 4:2-6). Young people need the encouraging fellowship from each member of the church body just as much as adults. When children are absent from unified worship experiences, both the children and adults miss a key ingredient God expects in His church. When children are never with the whole church they may not sense that they are a part of a larger ‘church family’. Also, in significant moments of the church community life such as baptism, communion, leadership installations, parent-child dedications, mission trip testimonies, etc., children will have curious questions for which parents can use in explaining and discipling them. Children who are not present during these moments will miss such experiences. Furthermore, when children are not present, adults can miss a fresh perspective that children often have to a worship practice long taken for granted.

One other principle that supports intergenerational ministry is that it enlarges the younger generation’s awareness and understanding. When younger generations relate to older generations they sense something larger than themselves. Each generation is reminded they are part of the universal church and God’s grand plan at work through the ages and around the world. Younger generations are able to accelerate maturity and skill development than if they were isolated only to their peers with the same knowledge as themselves. Early exposure to advanced vocabulary, advanced concepts, and modeled mature behavior all accelerate the rapid development of younger generations. Likewise, the opposite is true! Children who remain in the segregated context of their peers have slower growth and development. The formative years for intellectual, social and spiritual development all begin early. Likewise, older generations are honored through their involvement and participation in the community of faith. The Boomer generation has value and vitality, which is why they are known as “Generation Encore” or “The Second Half Adventure Generation”.[21] They view retirement as an opportunity to still make a difference beyond work into meaningful life service.

A second way intergenerational ministry benefits the church is by renewing the focus on the Great Commission mandate for disciple-making (Psalm 78:4-7, 145:4; Matthew 28:18-20). Every congregation needs to be reminded of its future and their responsibility to make disciples and develop the next generation of faith. The presence of young and older generations is a tangible reminder to keep a church from becoming self-absorbed in only meeting their one set of immediate needs. The church should strive to value all age groups that make up its community. There are two practical and biblical ways to put this value of all generations into practice; these are providing models and mentors.

One’s ecclesiology is important in speaking about disciple-making. The modern church often thinks in terms of programs, classroom curriculum or participation in events at a building. Yet, disciple-making is about life on life; it is about people. Therefore, one of the main and simple roles of the church is providing role models to follow and imitate. The apostle Paul often instructed believers to consider his life and doctrine as a model worthy of imitation (1Corinthians 4:16, 11:1; Philippians 3:17; 2Thessalonians 3:7-9; 2Timothy 1:13). The biblical word μιμητής [memetes] provides a context for the English word mimic and the application to provide a copy for others to pattern their life after. In essence, intergenerational ministry is about welcoming and investing into each other’s lives that our actions influence each other toward Christian faith and spiritual maturity. The FYI’s survey showed that by far the number one way churches made teens feel welcome and valued was when adults in the congregation showed a genuine interest in them.[22] A genuine interest goes beyond the typical youth group experience to adults asking questions, developing relationships, cultivating trust and rubbing shoulders together through ministry service together. College students do not want to be out of sight of their home church but want to be contacted by adults in the church and when such relationship occurs there is a statistical difference in “sticky faith”.[23] FYI advocates reversing the stereotypical youth ministry ratio of one adult for five kids so that the intergenerational role models are multiplied in the life of a young person.[24] In these manners, church members become surrogate or extended family.

In addition to intergenerational models, mentoring also helps the church revive its focus on the Great Commission. Mentoring is taking the next step beyond a role model. It is an intentional effort that can be either informal or formal to make disciples who make disciples. Sometimes mentoring also has the emphasis to develop one’s leadership qualities. The term mentor is actually derived from the name of a character in Homer’s The Odyssey. ‘Mentor’ served as an educator, counselor and a substitute father to a younger child who’s father went off to war. This image of the older and wiser educating the younger and weaker has lasted for centuries. Andy Stanley says, “A mentor is usually an older and more experienced person who provides advice and support to a younger, less experienced individual in a particular field.”[25]

The increasing numbers of the Boomer generation are ideal candidates to mentor because they not only have the competent capability but they also have the time available, as many are retired or semi-retired. Further, Boomers want to continue a sense of life purpose and not be sent away to wrinkle and rot. Boomers can share their knowledge and train the younger generations with skills, and therefore validate their own sense of identity and experience. Mentoring is fulfilling because it gives, as Jesus said “it is more blessed to give than receive” (Acts 20:35). And yet, in the mentoring relationships one who gives may receive more blessing than what they feel they are giving away. Ironically, when intergenerational mentoring occurs there seems to be a reciprocal aspect of learning. “While children have much to learn, they also have much to teach us, if we are humble enough to listen to them and to observe them. Their simple faith that takes God at his word, their believing prayer trusting God to do what they ask, their willingness to explore new things and to follow the lead of another – these are but a few examples of qualities in children that adults will find inspiring and worth emulating.”[26] Age and time have a way of creating blind spots from doing the same thing the same way. So, not only does the older generation gain a sense of purpose but they also receive new perspectives that aid them personally. Fresh insights and growth can be a mutual benefit across the generations through the mentoring process.

Ministering and reaching across generational lines is a challenge. The challenges relate to music and communication styles as well as learning and leadership styles. Understanding these differences can help create unique appreciation and a united affirmation of one another.[27] A sincere effort with intentional organization for intergenerational ministry can help build bridges rather than burn bridges. Further, it helps to gain understanding not just of the social insights but the biblical support for why multigenerational and intergenerational ministry matters. If the church segments and isolates then it will continue to suffer in decline. However, as each generation sees the identity of one another in the body of Christ there can be a beautiful and effective expression for faith and hope toward the future.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barna Group. “Twentysomethings Struggle to Find Their Place in Christian Churches” Barna Group (2003) <https://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/127-twentysomethings-struggle-to-find-their-place-in-christian-churches&gt;.

 

Carson, Donald, Christ & Culture Revisited, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B. Eerdmands 2012.

 

Catterton, Holly “Bringing the Generations Together: Support from Learning Theory Christian Education Journal, Vol.2, no.2 (Fall 2005

 

Hammett, Edward H. and James R. Pierce. Reaching People Under 40 While Keeping People Over 60: Being Church For All Generations, (Saint Louis: Chalice Press, 2007.

 

Harkness, Allan G., “Intergenerationality: Biblical and Theological Foundations” Christian Education Journal series 3, vol. 9, no.1 (2012

 

Holmen, Mark A. Building Faith At Home: Why Faith At Home Must Be Your Church’s #1 Priority, Ventura, CA: Gospel Light, 2007.

 

Jones, Timothy Paul, Family Ministry Field Guide: How Your Church Can Equip Parents to Make Disciples,. Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2011.

 

Kӧstenberger, Andreas J. and David Jones God, Marriage and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004.

 

Lanker, Jason “The Family of Faith: The Place of Natural Mentoring in the Church’s Christian Formation of Adolescents” Christian Education Journal Vol.7, no.2 2010.

 

Parrett, Gary A. and S. Steve Kang, Teaching The Faith, Forming the Faithful, Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009.

 

Pew Research Religion & Public Life. “‘Nones’ On The Rise” The Pew Research Center (October 9, 2012) < http://www.pewforum.org/files/2012/10/NonesOnTheRise-full.pdf >.

 

Powell, Kara E., Brad M. Griffin, Cheryl A. Crawford, Sticky Faith: Practical Ideas to Nurture Long-Term Faith in Teenagers, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

 

Stanley, Andy Next Generation Leader: Five Essentials For Those Who Will Shape The Future. Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2003.

Stromm. Kay Marshall. The Second Half Adventure: Don’t Just Retire. Use Your Time, Skills, and Resources to Change the World, Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009.

 

Wright, Steve and Chris Graves, reTHiNK: Decide For Yourself is Student Ministry Working? Wake Forest, NC: InQuest Publishing, 2008.

 

 

 

[1] For approaches see: Donald Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B. Eerdmands, 2012).

 

[2] Gary A. Parrett and S. Steve Kang, Teaching The Faith, Forming the Faithful (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 308.

 

[3] Kay Marshall Strom, The Second-Half Adventure: Don’t Just Retire – Use Your Time, Skills & Resources TO Change The World (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009), 15.

[4] Neil Howe, William Strauss, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (UK: Vintage Press, 2000), 4.
[5] Timothy Paul Jones, Family Ministry Field Guide: How Your Church Can Equip Parents to Make Disciples, (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2011), 126.

 

[6] Steve Wright with Chris Graves, reTHiNK: Decide For Yourself is Student Ministry Working? (Wake Forest, NC: InQuest Publishing, 2008), 75. And contra National Center For Family Integrated Churches <www.ncfic.org>.

 

[7] Ibid, 17-40.

 

[8] “Twentysomethings Struggle to Find Their Place in Christian Churches” Barna Group (2003) <https://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/127-twentysomethings-struggle-to-find-their-place-in-christian-churches&gt; (Accessed on May 27, 2014). The publisher of this site is The Barna Group, Ltd.
[9] Ibid.

 

[10] “‘Nones’ On The Rise” The Pew Research Center (October 9, 2012) < http://www.pewforum.org/files/2012/10/NonesOnTheRise-full.pdf >, 9. (Accessed on May 27, 2014.). The publisher of this site is The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
[11] Timothy Paul Jones, 52.

 

[12] Allan G. Harkness, “Intergenerationality: Biblical and Theological Foundations” Christian Education Journal series 3, vol. 9, no.1 (2012): 126.

 

[13] Ibid.

 

[14] Holly Catterton, “Bringing the Generations Together: Support from Learning Theory” Christian Education Journal, Vol.2, no.2 (Fall 2005): 320.

 

[15] Psalm 22:22, 28-31; 45:17; 71:15-19; 78:4-8; 102:12, 18; 103:17-18; 105:8; 109:9-14; 115:14; 119:90; 135:13; 145:4.

 

[16] Harkness, 125.

 

[17] Jason Lanker “The Family of Faith: The Place of Natural Mentoring in the Church’s Christian Formation of Adolescents” Christian Education Journal Vol.7, no.2 (2010): 270.

[18] Kara E. Powell, Brad M. Griffin, Cheryl A. Crawford, Sticky Faith: Practical Ideas to Nurture Long-Term Faith in Teenagers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011): 75.

 

[19] Ibid, 141.

 

[20] Ibid, 142.

[21] Kay Marshall Stromm. The Second Half Adventure: Don’t Just Retire. Use Your Time, Skills, and Resources to Change the World (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009).

 

[22] Kara Powell, 77.

 

[23] Ibid, 78.

 

[24] Ibid, 79. According to a Lifeway study, teens who had five or more adults from the church invested in them during the ages of fifteen to eighteen were less likely to leave the church after high school. “Lifeway Research Uncovers Reasons 18 to 22 Year Olds Drop Out of Church” <http://www.lifeway.com/article/165949&gt;

[25] Andy Stanley, Next Generation Leader: Five Essentials For Those Who Will Shape The Future (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2003), 108.

 

[26] Andreas J. Kӧstenberger with David Jones God, Marriage and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 114.

 

[27] Edward H. Hammett with James R. Pierce, Reaching People Under 40 While Keeping People Over 60: Being Church for All Generations (St. Louis, Chalice Press: 2007), 30-44.