A church for every generation?

Do you want to be part of a local church made up of every generation? I’m sure you do. But such churches require hard work, sacrifice, grace, and understanding. A church where everyone wants things done ‘my way’ will never be an inter-generational church.

In church we share our lives with one another. And so, whenever we gather, our generational differences show themselves, sometimes in unexpected ways. Those differences affect how we respond to preaching and teaching, show commitment, care for one another, evangelise the lost, and cultivate holiness.

Responding to preaching and teaching

Pre-war Pauline, like most of her generation, had nine years of education (from 5 to 14). University was never an option. She sat quietly at her desk, part of a neat row, being taught reading, writing and arithmetic alongside needlework and domestic duties. In a few other subjects, Pauline learnt facts by rote and was assessed in strict exams.

Millennial Max spent twice as long in education (from 4 to 21). In his classroom, the children worked together in small groups. His teachers rarely addressed the whole class but taught him to discover things for himself. Many of his assessments were self-directed projects he completed at home. Like most of his friends, he went to university, where he learnt critical reasoning.

In church, Pre-war Pauline loves to sit under the preaching of God’s word. She trusts the preacher, knowing he has studied hard (and more importantly, been called by God). Pauline loves to be reminded of the ‘old, old story of Jesus and his love’. She absorbs all the teaching, only questioning if the preacher seems to contradict things she’s earlier been taught.

Millennial Max loves interactive Bible studies. He respects the study-group leader and his calling but knows everyone is fallible, and every believer has the Spirit who illuminates the Word. So Max makes up his own mind about what the Bible says. He appreciates practical biblical teaching that equips him to live out his Christian life day by day. Max finds there’s a lot in the Bible that contradicts the values of his friends and those he follows on social media. That means he’s always got plenty of questions, often about complex issues like sexuality and gender.

I’m not here to argue we should all be like Pre-war Pauline or all like Millennial Max. The New Testament provides many examples of both authoritative declarative preaching and group discussion and interaction.

Nor should we put on preaching meetings for Pauline and interactive Bible studies for Max, so they can choose where to go. The Bible doesn’t call for choice, but for unity. While children often need age-specific help, adults ought to cope with variety. Besides, Max needs Pauline’s wisdom, knowledge and experience, just as Pauline needs Max’s engagement, curiosity and willingness to challenge.

A church that wants to be inter-generational needs to provide Bible-teaching for all its members that is both authoritatively declared and open to discussion. It needs teaching that expounds the ‘old, old story’, and that addresses the complexities of 21st-century life.

Showing commitment

Pre-war Pauline is a stalwart of the church. Apart from a short spell in hospital, no-one can remember a time she missed one of the two Sunday services or the midweek prayer meeting. And that’s how it’s always been.

Millennial Max is there most Sundays, sometimes for both services. When he’s not too busy, he might make the midweek meeting. So he’s upset to hear Pre-war Pauline thinks he’s not committed to the church.

Why the difference? When Pre-war Pauline was young, she was given no choice about being in church three times each Lord’s Day. She didn’t mind — after all, there was little else to do on a Sunday. She was taught that commitment and sacrifice go hand-in-hand, especially during the war. She remembers the commitment the whole nation made — the rationing, her father going to fight, her mother working long hours in the munitions factory. Once her father returned home, he got a job in a steel mill and remained there until he retired. Ten years later her parents celebrated their golden wedding anniversary as Pauline recently did herself.

Millennial Max hasn’t had the same example. After years of loyal service, the factory his father worked in suddenly dumped him and shifted production to China. After that, his mum had several short-term, part-time jobs. Then his parents split up, his dad moved out, and life was never the same. Max did, however, always look forward to Sundays — that’s when he used to visit his dad, who’d take him to football matches, or even theme parks.

Compared with the example he’s been given at home, Max is committed to the church. Is ‘relative’ commitment good enough? Perhaps not. A mature Christian might realise that Scripture paints a higher level of commitment to Christ and his church than either Pauline or Max are giving. But then again, Max isn’t yet a mature Christian. He’s a young man, and he’s not been converted all that long. It would be best if he sticks around and is encouraged (rather than criticised) by Pre-war Pauline. He might then learn from her example, maturing and deepening his commitment to her and the church.

Caring for one another

Pre-war Pauline is a stoical and private person. She doesn’t believe in making a fuss, to the point that she rarely asks for prayer for herself. She has close friends in church who she loves to meet on a Sunday. If they’re unwell, she may call to see them — but she rarely, if ever, invites even her closest friends to her home.

Millennial Max is open and transparent. He shares his life on Facebook and Twitter. He loves spending time with Christian friends outside church, often sharing his struggles and praying with and for them. He can find Pauline aloof and uncaring, while Pauline can find Max rather self-absorbed.

As a child, Pauline was seen and not heard. Her father rarely expressed emotions or spoke of his troubles. She was taught that even in the darkest situation she was to keep calm and carry on. Max’s childhood was very different. He was taught that he — like everyone — is special, and that a problem shared is a problem halved.

Both Pre-war Pauline and Millennial Max have learned some truths from their background that echo Biblical truth and some that do not. Max needs to learn from Pauline that we shouldn’t make ourselves the centre of attention. And Pauline needs to learn from Max that there should be openness and trust within the Christian family and that our lives and homes should be open to one another.

Evangelising the lost

Pre-war Pauline was converted in 1954 at Harringay under the ministry of Billy Graham. Like most of those converts, she was already a church-goer. Millennial Max was converted at a similar age, but in university. Even though he’d only ever been to church for a few weddings and his niece’s Christening, he thought he understood enough of the Christian message to know it had no place in modern Britain. But in university he met Christians who took their faith seriously yet seemed perfectly well-adjusted. Through their friendship and patient explanation of the gospel message, he was converted in his final year.

Today, Pauline laments the decline in church-attendance and longs for the day when churches would be full. She struggles to understand why her pastor doesn’t preach sermons like Billy Graham’s every week.

But Max sometimes gets frustrated with Pauline. He sees little point in his pastor preaching John 3:16 sermons in church when 99% of the non-Christians in the area never attend. For him, evangelism happens outside the church building, not inside. It’s what he does in his lunch break, chatting with his colleagues and praying for a gospel opportunity. He struggles to understand why the church doesn’t do more to support him in this as his University Christian Union did. And what would happen if his friends become interested? Church — with all its quaint language and traditions — might reinforce their view of the out-of-date faith he’s been working so hard to dispel.

Pauline needs to learn from Max that in 21st-century Britain, most evangelism needs to be done by ordinary Christians like her, as part of their everyday lives. And Max needs to learn from Pauline that while evangelism might be more than preaching, it isn’t less than preaching. He needs her prayerful concern for Spirit-filled evangelistic preaching, and she needs his practical concern for the lost.

Cultivating holiness

Pre-war Pauline has never smoked or drunk alcohol. She never watches a TV programme that has bad language, and certainly never one with sexual content. She grew up in a culture that reflected Christian values, and even today, she’s shocked by the thought of homosexual behaviour. She knows the Bible is clear we must keep ourselves pure, and views holiness mostly as abstaining from everything that could corrupt.

Millennial Max grew up seeing Christianity as counter-cultural. He views holiness not just as abstinence, but of actively showing God’s love to others. He enjoys a beer with his non-Christian friends — and he doesn’t bat an eyelid that some of them are gay. He’s committed to not crossing red-lines such as drunkenness or sex outside marriage but believes God wants him to enjoy his life and gives lots of freedom in doing so — so although Max wouldn’t watch pornography, he thinks it impossible to avoid all sexual content or bad language in films and TV.

Pauline may be right that Max doesn’t take purity seriously enough, perhaps especially in some of the films he watches. But she needs to recognise that it’s hard for him to adjust to the Bible’s absolute standards when for his whole life he’s seen relative values all around him. Max may be right that Pauline’s view of purity sometimes keeps her away from non-Christians who need to hear the gospel. But he needs to realise it’s hard for her to adjust to a rapidly-changing world that is so different from the one in which she grew up. Both need to remember Jesus Christ —the sinless friend of sinners.

What about us?

In real-life people are more complicated than Pre-war Pauline or Millennial Max, and every generation has its traditionalists and trendsetters who don’t fit the stereotype. And, as well as Pauline and Max, churches also have Baby Boomer Beverly and Generation X Gary.

But the point, I hope, is clear. God brings different people together because we need each other, and we need to learn that church is not just for people like me. As a young Christian, the more Millennial Max can appreciate and learn from Pre-war Pauline, the more he will grow as a Christian. But as an older Christian, Pre-war Pauline should also be growing in her faith, and the more she can appreciate and learn from Max, the more she too will grow.

Both Pauline and Max need each other. An immature or proud Christian might think they can help the other without receiving help themselves. Let’s pray that isn’t true of any of us, and that we all seek out Christians who are not like us so that we can learn from them and be useful to them.