The Clash of Generations in Church

Rachel Chimits

Discussions swirl around how to unify Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z in church, but is there an answer in sight, and how do we please everyone?

Pastor Matt Marcantonio described a poignant moment in his early church career, one that later defined his revolution in responding to the generation gap.

“As a young church leader, I became conditioned to view the older generation in a negative light. This attitude reached a tipping point one Sunday morning when I was an associate pastor at a traditional church trying to transition to a more modern atmosphere.

“We had just concluded the first song of our morning worship service when I felt a tap on my shoulder. An older gentleman who happened to be on our church board signaled me to the lobby. He put his face in a close, uncomfortable proximity to mine and demanded that I tell the worship team to play more softly. (This type of confrontation was becoming more frequent.) I calmly told him that it would be impossible for me to do that with worship already starting and the sound controlled on stage.

“His next statement was the volcano moment. He pointed in my face and said, ‘You are going to run the old people off. Matt, you know they pay the bills. We need to cater to them.’

“Message received. I pointed back and said, ‘Look around. Tell me how many people under 60 are here. If you all don’t change, this church will die and be a Mexican restaurant in three years.’

“We walked away.”

In many ways, this conflict represented not only the most common arguments made for and against church change but also exemplified the deeper issues at work between generations.

Searching for Balance

Rev. Adriun Van Giessen, a Canadian church leader, once perceptively commented, “There is a human tendency for each generation to believe and act like the church exists just for them.”

Nowhere is that generational-centric view become more obvious than in some of the issues that trouble the church and concern church overseers, namely the low attendance of younger people. Pew Research has found that Millennials are twice as likely as Baby Boomers to refuse any religious affiliation, and even those who are religious often don’t bother with attending a church. The jury is still out on Gen Z, most of whom are still teens, but they’re on track so far to be both the most well-educated and liberal generation yet.

“I think there's another statistic that somewhere over 20 percent of teenagers don't feel they can ask really challenging questions within the church,” Evan Wilkerson, manager of Faith Answers, pointed out on a podcast episode about generational division.

“I've seen some of those statistics play out firsthand when I go to different churches, and you just see such a burden of questions on their hearts, and they start bringing it up with you. They really want to be able to wrestle through some of the questions that they're having. I've seen firsthand how they're asking questions. They're not sure about everything in the Bible, and they don't really know the best way to bring it up, feeling they'll be judged.

“I think that can be a catalyst leading to leaving the faith…”

Many churches are trying to respond to this problem by re-integrating generations, as Rachel Boehm Van Harmelen noted in the Christian Courier, “Programs like girls and boys clubs, youth groups, women’s and men’s Bible Studies, seniors’ activities and Sunday Schools have sprung up over the years, targeting specific generations with age-appropriate programming. These programs are important and necessary in nurturing people along their faith journeys, but now many churches are seeking a place where they can bring the generations back together.”

Modern churches, however, seem to find themselves in one of two camps. They find themselves shedding the younger population and left an aging congregation that has real concerns about the future and survival of their church, or they’re missing the mature heads who could mentor young, up-and-coming believers that have shaky theology and no leadership or conflict-management experience.

The pressing question believers face is how we can acknowledge the older generations’ value while encouraging younger generations to stay.

Four Steps to Joining Generations

J. Lee Grady, a longtime church leader, wrote in Charisma Magazine, “God is always moving forward. He is not stuck in the past, so why should I be? Even though I'm 61, I don't mind if my pastor is half my age or if the music reflects today's styles. I want my church to reach younger people, not just my generation….

“God is ageless, and He isn't locked into one generation's viewpoint. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He transcends time. He wants one generation to declare His praises to the next. He wants the mantle that rested on Elijah to be transferred to Elisha. Why is this concept so difficult for us to embrace?”

Despite voices like Grady’s, these conflicts about how church should appeal to different age groups persist.

Discussing generational divisions on World Challenge’s podcast, Sarah Steffenson said, “God wants us to pray over it and continue to pray over it and to build perseverance, to have grit. I think that's one of the hardest challenges that we have.

“There's a real culture of ‘We can leave. We can cancel people; we can unfriend them; we can go to another church and start all over again tomorrow.’ But there's something to be said for staying and working through something, even in uncomfortable seasons. That produces a character that is valuable.”

As we push toward more age-diverse church communities, there are four important steps we can take toward finding a solution.

1.  Listen to Their Heart

People are much more willing to work with others if they feel as if their concerns and desires being heard and taken into consideration.

2.  Understand Their Why

Everyone has reasons for why they’re passionate about a certain aspect of church events, worship or sermons. Find out what their reasons are, and then help them understand your reasoning if you hold a different view.

3.  Find the Positive

Each generation has something to offer to the others. As soon as you think otherwise, you’ve missed something vital. Figure out what members of each age group have that benefits the church and value it.

4.  Be Open to Critique

Efforts to unify different groups of people won’t always go smoothly, and our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. If someone is willing to approach you and point out a way that your behavior has been careless or harmful, hear them out.  

As we take these steps together, we will end up having to compromise, work together and build a space for everyone to learn from one another.

That Unifying Force Among Believers

As long as we’re here on earth, conflicts over differences will always exist. In many ways, unity is one of the most notable and defining features of a group.

In the great words of Babe Ruth, “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”

The church’s ability to bring together people together no matter what they’re age, experience or culture is well worth noting.

The disciples and early church leaders spanned a wide age range. Paul was in his early 40s when he went on his first missionary journey and at the height of his ministry during his 50s; Timothy was instructed “Let no one despise you for your youth…” (1 Timothy 4:12, ESV), indicating that he was fairly young; Nicodemus, a ruler among the Jews and leader in the Sanhedrin, was doubtlessly a fair bit older than the disciples who may have been in their twenties or even teens when Jesus took them under his wing.

As we recognize our need for ours’ gifts and experiences, we begin to see the wisdom of the Bible’s command to be a unified body in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 where our differences help protect and provide for others, even as their gifts benefit us.

When people of all ages share a vision and mission, the ‘difficulties’ of age differences tend to take a backseat.