40+ And The Church: What Pastors & Leaders Have To Say (Part 2)

The first post in this series offers a look at the demographics of those who responded to my survey of pastors and church leaders in search of their insight about how they’re ministering to and with congregants over age 40. (Click here to read it.)

I’m sure the call to pass on our faith from one generation to the next predates the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), but the words given to Israel before they crossed into the promised land after 40 years in the desert crystallized how to best do this – and why. While the family is the primary way in which the essentials of faith are transmitted from parents to children, the community plays an essential role in the formation of next generation disciples.

For followers of Jesus, the church is meant to that supportive community. I asked the sixty (and counting) pastors and leaders who took the survey to describe their church’s philosophy toward intergenerational ministry, I also asked how they’d each characterize the level of relationship between members of different generations within their congregation. Here’s what some of them had to say:

The Sunday morning worship service is intergenerational ministry for one respondent:

“We are a multi-generational parish. There are three to four generations of the same families who worship on a Sunday morning.”

Other respondents reported that the generations mix well in many areas of congregational life:

“Our church is VERY intergenerational. Choir, book club, different events are attended by all generations. Older members welcome and are accepting of young families and children in worship.”

“We are naturally very intergenerational, because we are a farm community and everything is family oriented. I don’t know that we have a philosophy about it.”

“We have had a strong focus on intergenerational worship. Our congregation is highly homogenous and biased towards people over 60. They like having younger people around, but do not necessarily reflect their values.”

“In a small church there is strong recognition of the stimulus and value of intergenerational involvement at as many levels as appropriately possible.”

Worship styles have segmented other congregations:

“We certainly love the ‘idea’ of multigenerational ministry but in practice it’s quite difficult. We’ve had lots of conversations and debates around music volume, and we’ve adjusted it down partly for the sake of 40+. (Partly for the sake of young children too, however.)”

“We desperately want intergenerational ministry. But worship music has divided is too much. However very encouraged that when we care for the marginalized (and we do a lot) we all serve alongside each other. Also have many older adults investing in large student and college ministries!”

“They desire to do things together but generally speaking their worship styles and preferences drive them apart. One way we have addressed this issue is by providing two distinctively different worship services on Sunday morning.”

It’s not just music that divides:

“More interested in protecting their age group than reaching the younger.”

“I would say it’s not good. The service segregation of the 90’s has led to there being little to no interaction, even though we all ‘love’ each other.”

“There is a lot of segregation due to youth needs.”

“Our church is not supportive of intergenerational ministry.”

Other leaders are working against the grain to shift stratified demographics in their congregations:

“We highly value intergenerational ministry, although we face challenges like other churches in this area. We choose not to do much ‘segmenting’ of the congregation (e.g. no ‘singles’ group, or groups centered around age or gender). There are many fairly strong relationships between generations in our congregation, although some express to us that they feel one group or the other gets too much attention. We encourage intergenerational small groups, and try to draw people of all ages into opportunities to serve in the church.”

“There is little intergenerational ministry or programming but it really hasn’t been tried much. Our congregation is over 130 years old and has a very diverse age range with lots of social relationships between generations. We are trying to slowly do more intergenerational ministry, but it goes against the grain of ‘what we’ve always done’.”

“Striving to broaden the intergenerational groups that exist. The younger adults (under 40) that do connect with ‘older’ adults (over 40) seem to appreciate it and value it. They ALSO want peer friendships!”

I’ll save my thoughts and conclusions for a later post. For now, though, I will say that we in the church have not merely been called to either aping our culture or trying to invent a counter-culture. We are members of an entirely new, kingdom-shaped culture that has the Shema in the very oxygen of the “place”. I will also add that though the nature of my questions about those over 40 may seem to imply a bias toward generational segregation of some kind in order, that is not my intent at all. In fact, the opposite is true. Stay tuned to this series for more on this.

The next post in this series will take a look at what I’m hearing about the joys and challenges of working with and ministering to those over 40. After that, I’ll make an attempt to think through how these attitudes intersect with what I heard from the people who took my first survey. 

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  • Boyd

    “The Sunday morning worship service is intergenerational ministry….” I am having a hard time understanding the logic of this unless it means the simple act of gathering together in one space at one time that creates ministry. It may be intergenerational, but is it ministry? Did the questions ask respondents to flesh out their definitions of ministry prior to asking about being intergenerational? Just curious.

  • Boyd

    Would be interested in knowing about this: “There is a lot of segregation due to youth needs” since I would at least assume that there are significant needs of other age-related groups as well. Squeaky wheel syndrome where the over 60 group is small so doesn’t make too much noise?

  • Boyd

    Also, did any respondents indicate whether or not they had received any kind of formal training in creating intergenerational ministry? Were there any questions about what kinds of resources they use to help them create intergenerational ministry?

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Great questions, Boyd! The question I asked on my survey was “How would you describe your church’s philosophy toward intergenerational ministry? How would you characterize the level of relationship between members of different generations in your congregation?”

      I had one person (not a part the survey’s respondents) point me toward this book (http://www.alban.org/uploadedFiles/Alban/Bookstore/publishing_press/PR_ChurchAllAges_Jan2008.pdf), but as I didn’t query beyond these questions about general attitudes, I can’t provide an answer to those questions. If you know of any resources, training or organizations that coach leaders on these issues, please send the resources along.

      Regarding your first question below, I did some defining of church involvement prior to this intergenerational question. (You can click on the survey link in my posts to look at the questions.) Right now, I’m just trying to keep the conversation moving, but there is most definitely a need to talk about this topic. Our focus on youth has actually cost many evangelical churches their young adults, it seems – and is costing them their older members as well.

      • Boyd

        I don’t have data to prove it, but my own sense is that many Seminaries stress evangelism rather than what to do AFTER people have heard the Gospel. Church Planting seems to have been the focus rather than formal instruction as to how to “tend the garden” after planting it. So I’d wager that at the end of the 5 or 6 year mark, there are quite a few church planter type pastors who have no resources to help figure out how to “be church” in the long-run. And any advice the church planter would seek often comes from other church planter types, so not only is there little formal training in Seminary beyond “how to do evangelism” but also very little in terms of a pastor-to-pastor network where more “seasoned” pastors train the church planter types.

  • Very interesting Michelle, and these results and feedback spark too many thoughts and questions to communicate in a comment. But I’ll try. I’ve always known, of course, of the divisive issue of music style. (I intentionally do not use the phrase “worship style” because worship is far more than a few songs sung in a church service.). However, I’ve never thought about how that division affects general integenerationsl interaction within the Body of Christ. This is clearly a problem of the tail wagging the dog. I would love to see churches creatively break the music molds and learn to lead excellent music of many styles while challenging their members to graciously learn to appreciate the variety. And each other. I also notice an underlying framework if thinking about all of this in terms of “programs” rather than relationships. I know that ministry requires organization and leadership and that busy life schedules complicate this tremendously. But, perhaps there is a way to imagine ministry from within a different paradigm. Easier said than done, I know. Well, I could go on, but this is enough for one comment! Thanks Michelle.