Editor’s Note: This is the second 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.
One would think after 2,000 years of Christian history, there would be “nothing new under the sun” in the way of challenges facing the church. From councils to schisms to crusades to reformations, it feels like we’ve seen it all.
And yet, in the 21st century, the church is facing a new challenge. For the first time in history, our society includes at least four distinct adult generations. Never before have we had this many generations sharing leadership in society, in the workplace and in the church. Just a century ago, average life expectancy in the U.S. was about 50 years old. Today, it’s nearly 80.
|One of the challenges the church faces in the 21st century is sharing leadership that is represented by four adult generations, each with its own unique culture.|
Longevity is something we should celebrate, but it doesn’t come without its shadow side. We really are facing an entirely new challenge: four generations trying to share leadership in the church.
In 2016, we saw the most controversial U.S. presidential election in memory. We discovered just how starkly divided our population has become. And data shows us that the most significant political divides come along the lines of age and generation, more so than other more politicized factors.
This discovery comes as a shock to some, but to students of generational theory, it’s not as surprising. Instead of seeing multiple generations within one American culture, we have to refocus, understanding that each of the generations in our communities is actually its own unique culture.
The experiences, practices, language and customs of each generation are as distinct from region to region as they are from country to country. When someone says “I don’t understand kids these days,” they’re probably exactly right. The experiences and worldview of an 18-year-old and a 68-year-old are, by definition, foreign.
So what do we do about this? Can the church be a place of unity and reconciliation?
Ideally, we are working to include all adult generations in leadership in ways that use gifts and talents to benefit the Kingdom. Often, though, instead of sharing power, our church leadership experiences division between generations, sometimes erupting into contentious debate over worship style, music, age-level programming (or lack thereof) and even facility usage. These conflicts stem from more than preference or personality differences. Sometimes, generational differences are the root cause.
When four adult generations try to lead together, there are not just interpersonal factors at play but also cross-cultural issues. And in order to cross cultures in a way that appreciates what we all have to offer to the Kingdom, we have to do some work.
|Adult relationships are considered just as important as those with our children when it comes to bridging cultural divides. Melissa Cooper, program coordinator of the Life Enrichment Center, suggests relationships should be a core priority.|
If you caught the first part of this series, you already heard me call for a more intergenerational approach to ministry through relationships. That call is easily understood and communicated in relation to child development, but the same need is present in our adult relationships as well.
In order to bridge the cultural divide between generations, we have to spend time learning each other’s customs, priorities, perspectives, language and experiences. Instead of finding differences threatening, we should learn about our unique characteristics—embrace the different perspectives each generation brings and learn from one another—so that we can offer the best of ourselves to the church and the world.
Are there common characteristics that carry on from generation to generation? Certainly. But we must be sure to also learn about our distinctiveness. We need to learn the perspectives of other generations, and we must also spend time learning more objectively about our own generational perspective.
Often, when I’m teaching groups about generational characteristics, participants show up with the intention of learning more about other generations. What usually happens, though, is they find themselves even more interested in the content related to their own generation. Biases they didn’t know they held are brought to light; perspectives and priorities they assumed were shared among all generations turn out to be unique to their generational tribe.
Always, though, people walk away with a better understanding of where lack of generational understanding has created a barrier in their ability to collaborate with others. A little knowledge can go a long way.
At the heart of all of it, though, is a core priority on relationship. If we are living in communities that value relationship as the foundation, we will seek to know one another better, generationally and individually.
So how are you seeking to know others and be known in your community? How are you building the relationships that lead to the best Kingdom work possible?
Editor’s Note: To set up a workshop for your church or leadership team, contact Melissa Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Technically, in our culture, we have six total generations. The Greatest Generation (born before 1925) are only present in our communities in small numbers. The youngest generation (born after 2001), yet to be named, is not yet in adulthood and is currently undefined. The four "adult" generations currently sharing power are the Silent Generation, born between 1925 and 1945; Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964; Generation X, born between 1965 and 1981; and the Millennial Generation, born between 1982 and 2001.
2. To explore this topic further, check out Haydn Shaw's books Sticking Points and Generational IQ.
« Click here to read part one in the series