Like most families, churches can sometimes be dysfunctional. We don’t always get along. Sometimes we don’t even like each other. There are generational differences in opinion, practices, and dogma. The way we deal with those issues can mean the difference between success and failure. When the Kingdom of God is at stake, we need to get this right.
In the last three years, there has been a major shift in culture, and churches have felt the pressure. The pandemic caused a huge disruption in the way we “do church,” while cultural disruptions such as the BLM and Me Too movements as well as the conflict over abortion, LGBTQ+ and politics have magnified the differences in thought between generations.
Cultural arguments aside, there are many issues simply within church life where older members and younger members disagree. They can be anything from worship styles and Bible study curriculum, to the definition of terms like outreach and discipleship. Even church membership itself can be an issue of contention, with older members demanding membership before potential leaders can teach a Bible study or serve on a team or committee, and younger people seeing membership as an outdated “club” mentality. Some younger people question the need to attend church at all. According to a 2019 study by the Barna Group, 59% of Millennials who grew up in the church have stopped attending, and only 2 in 10 Americans under the age of 30 believe attending church is important.
In an age of technology, people can watch worship services online, access an online Bible study, listen to podcasts of sermons and Bible teaching, connect on social media, and grow spiritually without entering a church. Meanwhile, there are plenty of older Christians who are still uncomfortable with technology, don’t understand social media, and aren’t even sure how to handle worship lyrics being presented on a screen instead of in a hymnal. They find technology to be scary and difficult, while many younger people think it is an essential tool for today’s churches.
So how do we bridge the age gap? Are there common interests or goals that can unite the older and younger generations in church? Or are we destined to simply agree to disagree, work together the best we can, and hope our churches survive long enough for the old people to die off and the young people to become the new driving force? I sure hope not! There must be a better way.
It might sound overly simplistic, but the simple truth is that Jesus is the answer. He is our common ground. If his Spirit is truly at work within us, we can come together, acknowledge our differences, and use our various gifts to help grow the kingdom of God.
That may sound like a great statement we can put in our bulletins and on our walls, but what does it really look like?
It looks like family.
For my entire adult life, I’ve been a younger person in an older church. My husband has always been called to small churches with older congregations, so I’ve often found myself in Bible studies and Sunday School classes where I was the youngest in the class by twenty years or more. At times it’s perfectly fine, but there have been times when I strongly feel the difference, and it makes me feel uncomfortable. Like I don’t really belong.
I’ve had many friends in all age groups, so I understand people, regardless of age. I’ve learned that no matter how old they are, people want to feel loved, respected, and valued. They want their voices heard and they want to matter. They want to make an impact on the world.
I’ve often described church as a dysfunctional family. Everyone may have love for one another, but sometimes not get along very well. It reminds me very much of the churches in the New Testament with their nitpicky disagreements, questionable morals, chronic disorganization and petty squabbles about topics that may or may not impact the kingdom very much.
To address the most important issues, we have to go back to the beginning. What is your origin story? Not the founding of the church you attend, but the church itself.
We are born into this family through the Gospel. We are adopted into God’s family through his grace and Christ’s sacrifice. If we are truly saved, we all have this in common. It’s not just one thing. It’s the most important thing. Everything we do starts with Jesus. As Paul points out in Galatians 3, we also continue in him. We are reborn in Christ and empowered by his Spirit to fulfill our mission from God: to make disciples and grow his kingdom on earth.
It’s when we try to grow our own kingdoms and lose sight of God’s that we fail at our mission.
Instead of focusing on the ways that we’re different, we should be focusing on Christ. Who he is, who he’s called us to be, and how he wants us to treat each other and interact with the world around us. If we read and study the Bible together, have real conversations about life and Jesus and the Bible, and work to reach the lost, we learn to focus on what matters most, instead of on our differences.
When we worship, we worship Jesus. We might enjoy different styles of music when we listen on our own, but when we come together to worship, the style matters less than the words we sing and the heart we sing with. There is a fellowship and communion of spirit that happens when we sing together, and that transcends taste and style.
When we study Scripture, we are studying God’s word and learning his truth. Whether we do that in a traditional class setting with a teacher, outreach person, and printed study guides, or in a discussion group where everyone is free to share their thoughts and compare them in the light of the words of the Bible, the point is that we are seeking truth that we can apply to our lives, and carry into the world.
When we serve others, we follow Christ’s instructions to care for the poor and needy, who are always with us. We can do that in a Vacation Bible School, in a soup kitchen, in a community garden or car wash, or in a support group. When we hear of ways that other church members are serving, instead of criticizing or commenting on their choices or how we could do better, we can ask how we can join them and help. When we hear of people either in our church or connected to it who have needs, we can look for ways to meet those needs, instead of expecting people to always take care of themselves. Sometimes, they can’t. That’s why we have our church family.
Church culture is very focused on right and wrong, sometimes to the point of declaring some things to be “right” or “wrong” that really aren’t right or wrong at all. They’re just different viewpoints, or different ways to approach the same goal. When people disagree about something, it’s easy to think that one must be seeing it correctly and the other is seeing it incorrectly, and the solution is to argue the thing out until we see it the same way. But what if we’re just seeing it differently? When it comes to issues that are less important than the Gospel, can we agree to disagree?
When we focus on Christ, acknowledge that we are all humans who make mistakes, and grant each other grace as we grow and learn through those mistakes, we can bridge the gaps of age and culture and come together as a functioning body. A functioning family. The way God intended us to live.