The state of intergenerational ministries

Finding Answers



Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part essay series, “The State of Intergenerational Ministries” written by Melissa Cooper, program coordinator of the Life Enrichment Center of the Florida Conference.

In a list of “phrases frequently heard in the local church,” toward the top of anyone’s list is, “Why aren’t there very many young people in our church?” followed closely by, “The church is dying.”

It’s true that there is a significant decline in church membership and worship attendance across all of American Christianity. No matter the denomination, location or theological viewpoint, the numerical measurements of congregational vitality are not looking up.

With congregational vitality a key issue in today's church, ministries attending to children and youth are being given added resources. Yet, Fuller Institute findings suggest 40 to 50 percent of youth group graduates are leaving the church.  

At the same time, the engagement of the church with young adults is declining. Often the conversation centers on young adults with focus on creating new opportunities for them or putting resources into campus ministries to regain the participation of 20-somethings in our congregations. These efforts are certainly to be celebrated.

But if we look a little deeper, we begin to ask the question—why did they leave? What if the absence of young adults (soon to be middle adults) in our churches is not necessarily about them, but about the church?

More resources are being put into ministry with children and youth than ever before. We have more part- and full-time employees than ever focusing on young people. Our budgets include larger-than-ever chunks devoted to the discipleship experiences of children. Our youth camping programs are booming and serving more and more young people each year.

And yet, there is a void in many of our churches from ages 18 to 40.

In the last decade, research has shown that looking at how we do church may provide not only an explanation for “why,” but also an answer to “What now?”

The Fuller Youth Institute found that 40 to 50 percent of youth group graduates are leaving the church. At best, half of those might return later in life.

Pew Research concluded one-third of millennials have no religious affiliation. So when these young people are leaving our churches, they’re not choosing an alternative. They don’t see a need for any affiliation at all.

A group of young people recently joined together at a lineage retreat September, 2016. The stated goal was to help facilitate a conversation with Christians that felt distant from God or the church.

Kenda Creasy Dean’s evaluation of the National Study on Youth and Religion found that, effectively, the product of our ministries with young people is not a passionate life following the person of Jesus, but an understanding of Christianity as knowing right from wrong and utilizing God as a therapist when life gets tough. Other than that, God isn’t involved in their lives.

This is not good news for “church as usual.” This is not representative of our intentions or desires for young people. When we’re putting more resources than ever into these ministries, why is the outcome so bleak?

The answer comes in two areas: inclusiveness and leadership. And both of those answers share one common theme: they must be intergenerational.

First, we look at how churches can be most inclusive of young people, and inclusive in a way that leads to lifelong faith and not mere participation in a church program. The Fuller Youth Institute followed up on their original research by studying churches across the U.S. that are “growing young,” or doing quality, meaningful ministry with young people ages 15 to 29. Both in depth of faith and in participation numbers, these churches are growing.

The folks at Fuller were able to identify characteristics that emerged as common among these outstanding churches. But first, they identified a few “distractions” that did not correlate to growth.

Size, location, age of church, denomination, “cool” factor, building quality or size, budget, worship style, “seeker-friendly” teaching and entertainment did not play a role in a church’s ability to “grow young.” Their exemplary churches came from a variety of denominations, practiced a variety of worship styles, operated at a variety of financial levels, met in a variety of locations and buildings and had been in existence for a wide span of time frames—from less than five years to more than a century.

Churches often focus on these “distractions” rather than engaging deeply with evaluating operational structure and content.

What helps a church “grow young?” Fuller found six characteristics: unlocking keychain leadership, empathizing with young people, taking Jesus’ message seriously, fueling a warm community, prioritizing young people and their families everywhere and being the best neighbors (for a full treatment of each of these topics, check out Growing Young by Kara Powell, Jake Mulder and Brad Griffin).

What do all of these have in common? They require relationship. And not just relationship with youth pastors or children’s ministry volunteers, but relationship with the whole church—for both inclusiveness in the church’s programs and operations, as well as developing leadership—relationships are essential.

Young people learn to worship God by being present when the community is worshiping. Young people learn to lead by working alongside leaders. Young people find their passions and callings when those of us more chronologically advanced get to know them and recognize giftings in them that they might not see for themselves. Relationships are key, especially relationships across generations.

Research from the Search Institute—a Minneapolis nonprofit and pioneer in using social science research to understand the beliefs and values of young people—recommends that every young person should have a minimum of five unrelated adults in relationship with them. Our churches should be able to meet that quota with little work at all!

More and more, we’re seeing both in theory and in practice, the answer for many of the church’s current and future challenges come in the form of intergenerational relationships.

So the question for the church is, how are our structures and programs preventing or facilitating those relationships? Is the multitude of resources we are directing to ministry with young people helping engage them with church and community, or is it separating them into a silo of their own and preventing interaction with the folks who could most impact their faith lives?

And the real secret is: It’s not just about the children. All those churches that are “growing young?” They’re growing at all ages and stages as well.

So how can we best meet the needs of everyone in our churches? Let’s be sure they meet each other.

Editor’s Note: In part two of this series, Cooper focuses on the challenges of leading the church with four distinct adult generations.

Click here to read part two in the series »


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