Bridging the generation gap
Experiences and expectations differ markedly across the generations in our churches. In this extract from his new book Bridging the Gaps, Baptist minister Trevor Neill highlights some of these differences, and reflects on how churches may go about overcoming them
Significant differences in experience and outlook are rarely spoken of in our congregations but they manifest themselves in a number of ways, leading to tensions and confusion which need to be brought to the surface to enable many in our churches to understand each other properly.
As I survey the faces and listen to the stories of some of the churches I know, I perceive an increasing divide between two groups of people.
On one side, I see an older generation who can be described as follows:
• They are grieving the decline of many of the churches of which they have been members for most of their lives. Often, this decline is a numerical one, but it also manifests itself in other ways, such as the capacity of a church to maintain the breadth of programmes which existed in the past, for example the loss of Sunday-evening worship services or the closure of certain types of children’s work which can either no longer be resourced or which are losing their cultural relevance. Sometimes this sense of loss is compounded by a disappointment in younger people who have neither the time nor the inclination to keep these older ministries going.
• Sometimes such grief expresses itself in a desire to get back to how things were in the past. This might reflect a longing for older practices, but also a harking back to a time when the church seemed to have more status and when life seemed more straightforward, when theology and belief were more fixed and the routines of congregational life more predictable. Such longings are no doubt accentuated by the natural inclination many of us have to remember the past through rose-coloured lenses. For many parents some of the most challenging years are spent with the sleepless nights and seemingly endless demands of looking after babies and toddlers, but years ahead we edit out the memories of our exhaustion and cherish what we regard as a special season in life. In the same way, many in our churches fondly look back on the time when everyone was fitter and could do more and when younger families shared together in watching their children grow.
• In many cases, they may also be the generation who are giving the majority of the money needed to sustain an inherited model of church. Partly this is a reflection of their greater financial resources, but I suspect that it also points to their faithful adherence to disciplines such as tithing and a loyalty to organisations and institutions which is not so prevalent among younger people. This raises an important question about who will pay for church programmes and who will volunteer for leadership when final-salary pensions disappear and when people can no longer retire at an age which leaves open the opportunity for many years of good health and time to serve.
This group differ in several ways from younger generations, about whom the following observations may be made:
• They are equally passionate about service, but their first commitment is often to a cause and not an institution. They care deeply about issues such as justice and equality, and this will lead them to look for churches where they serve in ways which enable them to live out their values, working, for example, to run a foodbank or debt-counselling project. However, they may come to regard the church as a means to this end, hoping it will facilitate their own desire to make a difference but without wanting to support all of the other structures of the institution. These generations want to serve in specific ways, but without the added pressure of attending an evening service or listening to the treasurer’s report at a church members’ meeting.
• They are confident, sometimes bullishly so, about their ability to lead and are keen to step forward, setting the direction of a church’s worship life or its mission activities. From the millennials onwards, younger people have been brought up with a confidence about the difference they can make. Where they feel an older leader is blocking the way, their response may be to withdraw or to take their gifts and abilities to another church where more opportunities are available. This generation will not attach itself to one denominational model: people do not feel the need to always worship in a Baptist or Anglican congregation, they are attracted to churches not because of structure but on the basis of where the energy is or where the Spirit is perceived to be at work.
• This lack of denominational loyalty is sometimes accentuated by the practice of accessing more teaching online and less in the context of gathered worship in the local church, creating the idea of a division between where people learn and where they serve. In the same way, there are more opportunities available to volunteer time and gifts outside the local church, for example, at a night shelter or a mentoring and befriending project. This may suit a younger generation who are used to flexible working hours and accessing services (such as banking and shopping) at a time which is convenient to them, who don’t want to be constrained by traditional church programmes when a certain activity has to take place at one time on one night of the week.
• They are under more pressure in their employment and finances, working longer hours than previous generations, often not for the reward of long-term advancement but simply to hold on to a job. In many young families, two parents need to work to earn the level of income required to maintain payments on the average mortgage. Gone are the days when churches could rely on one partner working and freeing up the other to work on its programmes.
For anyone under pressure or dealing with disappointment, it can be difficult to look beyond one’s own problems and empathise with the challenges or concerns faced by people in different circumstances. The best starting point for many churches faced with these issues would be a resolve to act more graciously and look more generously upon each other. What would change if the old decided to focus less on youth’s lack of institutional commitment and more on its passion for causes? How would the tone of our conversations alter if younger generations made a greater effort to value the loyalty and wisdom of those who have gone before them, resisting the temptation to write off as ‘tradition’ any note of caution about change?
To do this, however, is only a beginning.
How can our churches become places where different generations are drawn closer together, with an appreciation of what each can offer to the other? A starting point might be an attentiveness in worship and preaching to the various changes we all encounter on the journey of life.
At whatever stage we’re at in our journey, questions to ask ourselves, and for churches to help answer, ought to be ones concerning who is speaking into our lives, who has walked before us and knows us well enough to be able to speak wisdom or encouragement into our present circumstances.
An older couple or family, for example, could walk with a younger one, and there is no reason why an individual negotiating the challenges of retirement could not be supported for that season by someone who has been through the same experience a few years beforehand. Such a culture could offer enormous potential for personal growth, but it would also require investment on the part of churches who would need to teach people skills which go beyond biblical and theological study. How can we help people to become more effective in processing their own emotions, skilful in listening and gentle in passing their wisdom on to others?
In a recent book on the necessary relearning of conversational skills, the psychologist Sherry Turkle draws upon the wisdom of Rowan Williams:
For Williams, the empathetic relationship does not begin with ‘I know how you feel.’ It begins with the realisation that you don’t know how another feels. In that ignorance, you begin with an offer of conversation: ‘Tell me how you feel.’ Empathy, for Williams, is an offer of accompaniment and commitment. And making the offer changes you. When you have a growing awareness of how much you don’t know about someone else, you begin to understand how much you don’t know about yourself. You learn, says Williams, ‘a more demanding kind of attention. You learn patience and a new skill and habit of perspective.’
It is this kind of empathy which is needed in our churches if they are to become places where the generations can properly understand each other, overcoming divisions between themselves and offering hope in a society where the young and the old seem increasingly estranged.
Trevor Neill is lead pastor of Selsdon Baptist Church, London. This article is adapted with permission from Trevor’s first book Bridging the Gaps, which was published earlier this year by Instant Apostle
This article appears in the Summer 2020 edition of Baptists Together magazine
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