He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children.  Psalm 78:5-7

 A word being bandied about frequently in church leadership circles is “Intergenerational”.  It’s a big word but it speaks volumes when it comes to reaching the next generation.  From my vantage point and experience, churches that realize that mixing the generations in their activities and worship is a key ingredient to a healthy church.  The churches that miss this emphasis are dying in America.

Why is that?  The future of a church is based on raising up the next generation and “passing it on” to them. But, the millennials  today are often self-absorbed and narcissistic.  As such, they are hard to engage.  At the same time, they are spiritually attuned, but often don’t know where to turn.  In her book “Millennials in Ministry”, my friend Dr. Jolene Erhlacher has a chapter entitled “Disengagement Epidemic”.  The title of the chapter should make anyone in an older generation shudder.

Jolene starts the chapter noting that millennials are often hard to pin down and get engaged in any structured or formal activities of a church. And, because they rarely become members, they don’t participate in leadership teams or committees. A very frustrating phenomenon.

Jolene cites several factors, the first of which is that millennials want to evaluate all choices because they are used to having more options than prior generations. She goes on to say, in effect, that too much of a good thing may have negative consequences.  Studies show that the greater number of options creates a tendency to defer a decision – “sometimes indefinitely.”

Bottom line is that millennials appear to be indecisive because they have so many “possibilities pulling at them.”  They often defer commitment or choice because of some sense that there may be something better later.

Add to that, most millennials distrust institutions – any institution, such as a church, the government, education or corporations. When it comes to the church, millennials perceive that doctrines are impersonal, intolerant and inflexible. Jolene quotes one young adult: “Church to me is religion, a set of rules, a structure, a tradition.” Alternately, many young adults fail to see any value of religion and therefore they are “religiously indifferent or disconnected.”

The studies bear this out.  According to a study by Pew Research. the “Nones” have grown from below 16% to almost one in four of the millennials. These are young adults that indicate that they are not affiliated with any faith. Yet, they are not unspiritual.  They just don’t connect with formal religion and the established church.

According to Jolene’s research, generic spirituality “allows for greater openness and flexibility.”  Popular culture has stereotyped Christians as “narrow minded, judgmental, or bigoted” so by avoiding a commitment, they are able to maintain a system of personal beliefs and relationships.

Which brings me to the intergenerational topic of this post. Despite the studies and data on disengagement and self-absorption of the millennials, my experience shows that the millennials are looking for mentors and not finding them. This is a real opportunity of the church – to create an inter-generational ministry based on personal interaction of different generations. Mentoring works – it worked for Jesus with the Disciples, and it works now.

Reaching across generational lines may not happen in a church context. It might be a Starbucks, or, in my case, a Panera. As Tim Keller, from Redeemer Presbyterian has said, “We have enough churches. What we need is more Starbucks.”  Effectively, he was saying that if the millennials won’t darken the door of a church (for whatever reason), then we must meet them where they are.  Good stuff.

I recently visited a well-known church in southern Florida, and it had two services on Sunday mornings. One was described as “contemporary”, meaning that the music and worship would appeal to a younger generation.  The other service was described as “traditional” meaning that the style of worship would be more attuned to the generation that grew up with the classic hymns and organ music.

The only intergenerational interaction happened in the foyer as the two generations passed each other going in and out of the church.

This is not the only church that does this, mind you. What bothers me is that they are unintentionally creating walls between the generations.  Instead of trying to mix the generations together (thus, a true “intergenerational” gathering) they are separating them solely based on music and worship preference.

I think this is a mistake. I might be wrong, but that’s just my $.02. You cannot connect with another generation by going to separate services, even if they are in the same building.

One only has to look at the decline of Christianity in France as an example of one generations not passing it on to the next. In the period of two generations in the last half of the 20th century, France went from 75% Christians to just 5% today. It can happen anywhere, not just France.

Just recently, I agreed to go to sub-Saharan Africa which will now make my third visit. This time, I will go to Cameroon to do leadership training with my friend Dibinkap Benvictor Ojongmanyinkhongo.  No, that’s not a misprint.  I jokingly call him “Benvictor Alphabet”.  The second leg of the trip is to go to Togo for a gathering of west African pastors from approximately 12 countries.

Togo will be quite different. For the first time, I have invited two young “Timothy’s” to go with me – young adults that they can experience interacting with different cultures and hang around some very godly men and women. This is intergenerational ministry at work. I was inspired by a pastor in my church, Andrew Spangler, who wrote that he will always take a young “Timothy” with him on all future mission trips.

The challenge is clear: we need to reach out to the millennials, but perhaps in somewhat unconventional ways.  Just inviting them to church may be a non-starter. Interacting with them at work or in a coffee shop may be your venue instead. They want relationships that are authentic and are open to interacting with the older generation as mentors.  That’s one strategy that I know works.  It has worked for over two millennia, and it can work now.

MENTOR TAKEAWAY:  If you are looking for someone to mentor, widen your search to where they hang out instead of in your church.  They’re out there, looking for you to connect with them. Don’t be shy.

FURTHER STUDY: For the Pew Study in 2015 about the decline of religion:

For what has been described as the “me” generation:

Jolene Erlacher’s book “Millennials in Ministry” may be purchased on Amazon:

In my research, I came across the Journal of Intergenerational Relationships that had some interesting articles:

WORSHIP:  Listen to Meredith Andrews sing Open Up the Heavens:

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