Eight Ways to Bridge Generation Gaps in Churches

I’ve heard phrases like these dozens of times as I do church consulting: “Those newer folks just don’t understand the way we do church” or “The older people are in the way of our growth.” In many churches, the generation gaps – between young and old members or between longer-term and newer members – are still wide.

I’ve learned, though, that the generations often resist one another without knowing one another. You see, it’s easy to blame others when you don’t know their names or their stories. Here are some practical ways to close those gaps by guiding the generations to get to know each other.

  1. Intentionally invite older, long-term members to attend the church’s membership class. The goal here, of course, is to introduce new members to older ones. Invite the older members to assist in the class by telling some of the church’s history or leading a facility tour. Not only will the new members learn to appreciate the long-termers, but the older members will also be re-introduced to the church’s vision and doctrine.
  2. Include testimonies in the worship service. Most church members know the testimonies of only a few other church members; that is, we often attend church with large numbers of people whose stories we do not know. Start to correct this problem by inviting selected members to share their testimony during the worship service – and be sure to vary the generations.
  3. Start a cross-generational prayer ministry. Unite the student ministry or the young adult ministry with the senior adult ministry by connecting prayer partners from each generation. Imagine what might happen if each senior adult were linked to a younger member, and they prayed for each other. Informed praying would require that they get to know each other and their families well.
  4. Create a “grandparenting” ministry. One of my former students pastored a church with several older folks whose children had moved away, in addition to a few young families who lived some distance from their parents and grandparents. Recognizing that both groups missed their families, he connected these groups and encouraged them to support one another. In fact, he trained older folks to invest in and pray for young families as soon as they joined the church.
  5. Start a mentoring program. By definition, mentoring takes considerable time to build bonds between generations – but the work is worth the effort. Jesus invested in others, and Paul did the same. Indeed, the Apostle expected older believers to teach and train younger believers (Titus 2). When we do what the Scriptures mandate, we can expect God to bless it.
  6. Develop multi-generational small groups. Educationally, I still affirm age-graded or life stage groups, but I also believe a church needs small groups that intentionally bring together the generations. These groups might be ongoing home-based groups, short-term study groups, or leadership groups (e.g., committees/teams). Regardless of the type of group, plan significant times of teaching and fellowship to facilitate developing relationships. It’s amazing how much relationship building takes place during a shared meal.
  7. Do social ministry and servant evangelism. My guess is that younger folks will get on board quickly, as they want to do hands-on, relevant, transforming ministry. They want to feed the hungry, free those caught in human trafficking, and stand up for orphaned children. Older folks, too, recognize these responsibilities, but they may need some prodding to produce the same passion as the young people. Here’s the point: we need to do the prodding so the generations can do this work together.
  8. Enlist a young leader to oversee the senior adult ministry. Most often, churches enlist older believers to lead the senior adult ministry. That direction, however, misses an opportunity to bring the generations together. If your church is near a Christian university or seminary, seek a young minister who can lead and learn from the older believers. If not, raise up a young leader in your congregation, and give him opportunity to grow. When the generations learn from each other, the church will be stronger.

What other strategies would you add to this list?

31 Comments

  • Gary B. Jennings says:

    Thank you! I, as a youth minister many moons ago, used the older prayer warriors to intercede for my students. I would give one pray-er a name of one student to pray for them during camp or mission trip. That often opened doors for a wonderful relationship.

  • Landon Coleman says:

    #1 is a fantastic idea!

  • kathie kania says:

    I admire your determination to correct matters in churches that nobody has dared to talk about.

    One thing that has NOT bridged the age gap over the years is the contemporary music: First of all, the music chosen is often taken from some gasping, oddly-syncopated song that is not really well suited for congregational singing. The words are shown on a screen, and the younger people know the songs because they listen to them at home; The older folks try to follow the words and are perplexed.

    My present church solves this by having less contemporary music, and more traditional-style ones when they do, and mixing this with familiar older hymns. I think it works very well.

  • Ken says:

    I’ve been worried that our churches are becoming too fragmented along generational lines. It’s true that some churches are so concerned with the status quo that they’re leaving out the younger generation, but some churches go to the opposite extreme: they’re so focused on reaching young people that the senior adults are all but disregarded. These sound like some great ways to bring things back into balance, so thank you for this article.

  • Keith says:

    My observation and experience has been that those over the age of 40 begin to become invisible in many church families. Churches continue to worship and chase the young with no attempt to intentionally build multi generational church families.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Thanks, Keith, for your thoughts. What you’ve seen does happen, but I’m seeing many churches today work hard at bridging the generations.

  • Mark says:

    May I suggest:

    Have an older person who is still/has been a professional (banker, lawyer, physician, etc.) and church member lead the Sunday school class of highly-educated, young professionals on keeping the faith throughout one’s professional career.

    Put some younger people on the church governing board and let them see older people in action and stop selecting based on marital status, parental status, and gender. Make sure that both groups get equal time to talk and that ideas aren’t summarily rejected based on the age of the suggester.

    Form committees with real authority, legal & policy, finance, physical plant, etc. and put younger people on them who are working in the fields where their expertise will be beneficial.

    Go directly to older people ask them to not automatically reject someone because of his/her age. Remind them that some people will need to run the church in 5-10 years. Some of them will not want to hear this but they need to. This is less common in progressive congregations but prevalent in more conservative ones.

  • I personally like number 6. A couple years ago when we were looking for a new “home” we kept running into what I thought was a strange demographic issue. We were in our early thirties, so we didn’t quite fit into the young people group, and everything after that was split into just men’s and women’s studies. It meant that we wanted to try to assimilate into the culture of the congregation, we weren’t invited to do it as the couple that we were but as individuals. It felt odd.

    I know that is a separate issue, but I have never really liked the idea of cutting up the congregation into it’s demographic groups. We probably do that enough as it is.

    I probably have a personal bias in this as it is, as I have a tendency to gravitate toward people that are a bit older than me for some reason anyway.

    I think that diversity in the body is one of the strengths of the ekklesia, and when we do things to sift that out we are doing a disservice to the body.

  • Mark says:

    Here is another issue that is similar.

    How many years must one attend before one is really accepted into a congregation? 5? 10? 20? 50?

    One other cause of a generation gap is that younger people are often transient. They live and work in an area for a while and then they leave for various reasons. Many jobs today are not permanent. Older people may not accept or believe that. Thus, younger people aren’t always wanted because they might leave soon. Talk to a sister congregation in a university town for advice on handling this situation and being welcoming and inclusive of people for a period of time.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Even older folks are sometimes transient, actually. I like your idea of talking with church leaders in a university town. Thanks, Mark.

  • Scott says:

    We’re a 70 year old church with many senior adults and some younger families. After a recent church split, the church lost most of the young families. The split also revealed a deep generational divide that the church mostly ignored before.

    We just completed a new visioning process by walking through portions of the book Church Unique by Will Mancini. Out of that process, we realized that uniting the generations needs to be core to our mission as a church. So we created this missional mandate: “Uniting all generations in Christ by declaring and demonstrating God’s love”.

    We plan to see that mandate manifested in a few specific areas. First, we’re going to redesign Sunday School to be multi-generational. Second, we’re going to appoint committee members from each adult generation. Third, we’re going to redesign worship services to go beyond “blended” and simply be a “true picture of Jesus’ church worshipping together”.

    We’ve barely begun this process, but there is a tangible sense of hope that God is leading us in this direction and that he will produce fruit as long as we steward the opportunity well.

    • Scott says:

      By the way, I’m the new associate pastor, I’m 30, I have tattoos, and I’ve never been a part of a traditional Baptist church, so the church body has already taken a giant leap toward bridging the generational divide simply by hiring someone like me. They’re a wonderful group of people of love Jesus and want nothing more than to leave this church in capable hands when they finish their race.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Thanks, Scott. Just prayed for your congregation. Sounds exciting.

  • I have noticed a tendency in my own church to apply the homogeneous unit principle in the organization of small groups–couples with children, single, young adults, and so on. The rationale offered is that the group members have more in common and people are more comfortable with people like themselves. I personally prefer mixed groups, young and old, married and single, childless singles and couples and solo and married/cohabiting parents with children. The logistics may be more difficult–for example, child care., but the experience is far richer and the opportunities for forming relationships greater. With one exception all of the small groups in which I have been involved as a leader and a participant have been mixed. I also don’t like the practice of segregating men and women into separate groups. I have found that men and women can benefit from the perspective of the opposite sex. If the women in the group are uncomfortable with discussing a sensitive topic in front of the men or visa versa, the group can split into smaller sub-groups for this discussion and then come back together again.

    • Chuck Lawless says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Robin. Blessings!

    • I find that we do a really good job of segregating ourselves, so we really don’t need any artificial structure to make that happen. We also don’t have to have a prescribed ministry for everything. Just because we don’t have a women’s fellowship meeting once a month doesn’t mean that a group of women may not organicallt decide that they are going to get together on some Thursday evening.

      We have to keep in mind that we are developing community, rather than building ministries or scheduling events.

  • louise says:

    My husband used to teach on Biblical finances and the groups were always multigenerational, from all walks of life. Topical small groups are a real advantage and keep things from becoming too clique-y, with the group members learning and sharing their experiences around a specific Biblical topic, rather than simply around their current age/place in life.

  • Srevs says:

    http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/243639-five-reasons-millennials-not-want-pastors-staff-established-churches.html. So true, I know an older successful church planter who went to an established church and got completely burnt out because the older crowd would not support change. I’ve seen similar attitudes in many churches. I think that a lot of younger people are sick and tired of hitting internal walls and are more willing to stick with their own generations to get ministry done.

  • Tom Kline says:

    In our church, the two biggest factors in bringing generations together have been ending age-graded SS classes; we offer several elective classes, and our small groups; most of which have a very good mix of young to old. As a result of these two things, I, as an older person, have developed rich friendships with several college age and young adult people in the church. It has led to mentoring opportunities for myself and several other older folks, as well.

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