Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever!
-Ephesians 3:20-21 (NIV)
I’ve been reading Jonathan Storment’s latest blog post and thinking about a man named Gene Arnold.
So, first, Jonathan writes this in his post, titled Generationally Generous:
I think so much of the Church problems that we have today can be summed up by the fact that we have generational divides that are being addressed, not by working through problems together and reconciling, but through just creating different churches.
One of the by-products of the individualistic society that we have created is that we have carved up the world so many distinctive ways that we no longer have to share life with people who are different from us. This is true racially, economically, educationally, and generationally.
This is the great tragedy of modern American Churches.
I think Jonathan’s right, which doesn’t mean he is, but just go with me for a minute here. When churches start talking about this problem we seem to have of keeping and/or attracting younger members, how does the conversation usually go? We start talking about changing the window dressing. Let’s have a coffee hour. Let’s change the music. Let’s add a band. Let’s throw out the liturgy. Let’s put in a liturgy.
Of course, the existing members of the church like things as they are pretty well. We don’t want to alienate them. So what do we do? Well, some churches solve the problem by having two different worship services. Traditional and Contemporary, they might call them. Others just plant a different church, one better suited in location, style, etc. for younger people. And some — most, maybe — just kind of give up and decide they’ll appeal to one demographic or the other. Usually, the one that’s already filling the pews and giving the money.
In all of those cases, though, what you’re left with is two different churches. As Jonathan says, instead of working through problems together and reconciling, we’re carving up the church so we don’t have to share it with people who are different.
In that, we look very much like our world: we’re pretending we’re tolerant and accepting of others by doing our best to associate mainly with people who aren’t very different from us at all.
In our world, young people are lazy, spoiled, demanding, oversensitive, image-obsessed hipsters. In our world, old people are cranky, boring, out-of-touch, behind-the-times codgers. In our world, old people and young people live, work, shop, and eat in different places. They watch different TV shows, on different devices. They listen to different music. They get their news from different sources. They use different social media.
I have one question. Answer it, and you can stop reading now: Why isn’t the church different?
Maybe it’s because we haven’t given this idea of carving the church up into generationally homogenous segments a whole lot of thought. We inherited grade-level Sunday school from those who went before us. We inherited youth ministry segregated from the rest of the church. We just don’t have a lot of experience that tells us how to live and worship and serve together. So, instead, we argue and fight and end up dividing over the “right” music, preaching style, dress code, or something equally asinine — as though there is a “right” any of those things. As though what we’re talking about isn’t just what we like best, what pushes the right emotional buttons, what makes us feel like we’re in our kind of place.
Listen; if we’re trying to create generationally-specific churches, then we’re trying to do something that the church has never done in any other time or place. Something that seems very much like the co-opting of Christianity to cultivate an image that we want the world to see.
And, by the way, say you do find the perfect image that makes your church attractive to younger people. That image that seems so new and cool now will seem old and irrelevant to your kids and grandkids. Good, Good Father will, one day, be Just As I Am. One generation’s Oceans is the next’s Be Not Dismayed Whate’er Betide.
The problem is that churches don’t know how to be generationally generous. We don’t get that love demands listening to one another and caring for one another. We don’t get that church is supposed to consist of older believers and younger believers serving and working and growing in Christ together.
Which is why I’m thinking about Gene Arnold.
Gene was a longtime minister at the church where I grew up. He was there for some of my most formative years. When I think of Gene, the last thing I think of is hip or cool. At church, Sunday or any other day of the week, he would be in a conservative suit and tie. (He’s the main reason I still can’t bring myself to wear jeans on Sunday morning.) He wore a fairly obvious toupee. His jokes were corny, and he was old. (Like, in his 60’s!) There was little obvious reason for a teenager to become friends with him. All the same, I like to think that’s what we were. I can tell you this: I really don't see how I’d be doing what I do today if I hadn’t known him.
Gene loved me, and it showed. He was patient with me. His joy in my growing faith was evident. He asked my opinion as though it mattered to him (because it did). We would talk about the Bible, and life, and he had the humility to appreciate my point of view. He took me under his wing. I went with him to visit hospitals. I learned theology and languages and homiletics in school. I learned from Gene how to minister.
The church will be so much the poorer if we don’t learn generational generosity. If older believers don’t learn to be thankful for the energy and new perspectives of younger believers, we’ll miss out on so much. If younger believers don’t learn to be thankful for the wisdom and patience of older believers, what we lose will be irreplaceable. If we can’t learn to sing each other’s music, listen to each other’s opinions, value each other’s points of view, and give of ourselves for one another, the damage to the church will be catastrophic.
I heard someone not long ago disparage some older hymns by saying something like this: “I can’t sing songs that don’t sound like the way I speak.” I get what that person was saying, but it’s just wrong. As the church, we don’t speak to ourselves through our music. We speak to one another. If we can’t learn to speak each others’ languages, how can we hope to embody the good news of the One who gave himself for all of us?
Of course we can learn. The problem is that we don’t want to. That’s why our churches struggle to attract anyone that doesn’t look just like us. That’s why people come in, and sit quietly for a service or two, and then leave. That will never change until we decide to love each other, whatever our age, as we have been loved.
Reach out to someone at church who’s older or younger than you. Ask them about a favorite hymn or worship song. Invite them to your house. Listen to their stories. Tell some of your own. Pray with them. Serve together. Sit together in worship.
They’re part of your family in Jesus, and you don’t want a church without them.