When Kelly and I first got married, one of our first goals in our new city was to find a church. Like most couples, we had official criteria and unofficial criteria. In other words, we had our theological standards and our social standards. Put another way, we had priorities and preferences. Our first priority was that the pastor preached the Gospel and that the church confessed and lived out the Gospel. But we also preferred those people to be near our stage in life. We’d both been part of churches that did not seem to welcome young families or where the average age was well above ours. In those churches, young adults can often feel isolated even amongst believers. For one reason or another, many of these churches became infatuated with keeping their own conservative culture alive and less concerned with contextualization for the sake of growth and evangelism. We were looking for something else.
When we finally found a church home, we loved it. It was filled with young families who valued community, hospitality, and the accountability of the body. We understood one other. We empathized with each other’s struggles. Our vision for a church was similar. But like all churches, it had its weaknesses. Something was missing. There were no older people. Those folks we’d encountered in the traditional churches were nowhere to be found in this modern church. We didn’t know it at the time, but this is a scene that plays out quite frequently in churches across America. Today, young families are often forced to choose between older, traditional churches filled with seniors and younger, progressive churches filled with millennials. Between “Sunday School” churches and “small group” churches. Between contemporary worship and hymns. Theological gaps between churches can often form along generational lines such that churches with steeples can represent intransigent conservatism and churches in shopping centers can represent casual acceptance. This is a stereotype. But of course every stereotype is born out of a degree of truth. And America knows it.
How can churches minister to both older and younger believers? Are we simply destined to offer different services and different experiences to accommodate the widening age gap? Must every new church plant necessarily offer a contemporary alternative to the traditional church down the street? Behind so many “movements” in American Christianity is the generational divide. The American church says, “Take your pick.” But so many feel as if something is missing. Grandparents don’t worship with their children or their grandchildren. Older deacons don’t study God’s Word with the young men they’re called to disciple. Sometimes the only occasion that brings older and younger Christians together is a holiday or a funeral. Ironically, what turned off so many believers to the traditional church experience is the same thing pushing them away from contemporary churches now: me-centered, culture-driven, tactic-laden, Gospel-less Christianity. It produces large buildings filled with people of common worldly interests, and it shuns those who don’t fit the cultural mold. Is there a middle ground? Is there a way to establish churches with as many older couples as younger couples? Where is the well-rounded church?
As a pastor, I must always be aware of my tendency to show partiality to believers my age, or as James writes, to make “distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts.” (2:4) As saints, our new tendency is to love because of the love shown to us. (1 John 4:19) But as sinners, our fleshly tendency is to love only those who can give us something in return. (Matt. 5:46) In other words, we naturally congregate with those who can mirror what we want. When a church is built around a certain generation, it will naturally tend to neglect the generations which do not conform to its own interests. Even worse, it will also begin to view different demographics of people as spiritual inferiors. In one form or another, a single-generational body will inevitably descend into Pharisaic tribalism, no matter the age. And this is precisely why Paul went to such great lengths to stress the diversity of the body. “If all were a single member,” Paul asks, “where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.” (1 Cor. 12:19) Far too many hip young churches are composed of small groups full of eyes and no hands. Far too many Sunday Schools are filled with hands who love other hands. But this misses the beauty of Christ’s body. On certain days in my church, I pray that my older brothers and sisters would value intimate community and spiritual transparency like many of my younger members. I pray that their commitment to old habits and traditions would surrender to a fresh, honest reading of Scripture. But on other days, I pray that my younger couples would imitate marital faithfulness like many of my older brothers and sisters. I pray that their authenticity and community would never overshadow the sense of Christian duty that I see imitated so well in my older saints. Each one needs the other. Each sharpens the others. Sometimes I laugh when I see my younger believers teaching my older believers theology, to which my older believers remind the youngsters that they have to read their Bible in order to get their theology. What a beautiful church it is.
Above everything else, a well-rounded church ultimately presents the beauty of Jesus. The goal of a multi-generational church isn’t the church itself. It’s not community itself. So many churches today miss this. Instead, age diversity is a collective declaration to the world and to one another that Jesus is more valuable than our music tastes, our curriculum preferences, and our own natural desires. We worship God by denying our own interests for the sake of godly unity. Age diversity is good for evangelism and good for our souls because it speaks to the supremacy of Jesus and the power of God to bridge one of the widest canyons in American culture: the age gap. And when the church denies itself, the world notices. The greatest indication that a church loves Jesus isn’t found in its hymnody or its amps or its Easter service, but in its commitment to preach Christ crucified…to itself. (1 Cor. 1:23, 1 Cor. 9:16) The well-rounded church is a church that preaches the cross of Jesus to all generations, and calls all generations to carry their crosses.
Obbie is the Pastor at The Church at Haynes Creek