Our Church is aging. Results from the five-yearly National Churches Life Survey taken in New Zealand and Australia from 1997, 2001, 2006 and 2011 reveal that Uniting Church Congregations have a low percentage of members who were born after World War II. This presents us with a number of challenges, not least of which is how to offer styles of worship and ministry appropriate to different generational values.
The Uniting Church in Australia was formed in the 1970s by people whose faith was formed in the 1940s and 1950s. Those who were 30 to 40 years of age in 1970 are now 75 to 85 years of age. Baby boomers tend to be looking for an environment that will provide a sense of intimacy and transcendent experience associated with transformation. Retiring baby boomers moving to new locations may check out the local Church, only once to be reminded that indeed the local Church is irrelevant to their generational values. Compared with the pre-war generations, few Gen X and Gen Y people in Australia consider themselves to be formally associated with the Christian faith or community of faith.
Trying to make our churches “one size fits all” can lead to conflict and frustration. Such an approach also can lead to an exodus of capable leaders, to more hospitable environments — or from the Church. Many have been trying to better understand these pressures and what it takes to be a Church that nurtures emerging generations. Among them are Uniting Mission and Education’s Bradon French (Next Gen consultant) and Duncan Macleod (Uniting Learning Network director). Bradon and Duncan are part of a network focused on supporting Uniting Church leaders as they develop intergenerational communities.
They realise that, as tempting as it might be to try to attract young people by merely employing a youth worker, or to attract families by appointing a young minister, such moves are not viable long-term “solutions” for Congregational health — without doing the hard work of adjusting Congregational life.
Recently, Bradon and Duncan sat down with two others who share their passion for sustainable development of intergenerational Congregations — North Rocks Community Church’s Minister of the Word Phil Swain and youth worker Katelyn Stevenson.
We’re not the Church we were in the 1950s, and we’re not the Church we thought we were going to be when the Uniting Church was formed in the 1970s. To work that through we need to face the loss honestly. We’re not going back there any time soon.
Leaders of Congregations have the challenge of helping people express the pain of loss in ways that are life-giving and not destructive. Anger and sadness, when not worked through, end up in chronic depression. We have to give ourselves permission to live through times of emptiness and uncertainty, often the places where creative approaches to the future are nurtured. Then, we can start adjusting to a future that looks quite different.
One of our challenges is helping people from different generations be in conversation with one another. The first step is being aware of our own experiences and how they’ve shaped us, being aware of the people who helped to form our values, and the people who became our peers and who will continue to be our peers. We need to know who we are before we can help nurture an emerging generation.
I have found that people carry their young adult experience with them through life. We form many of our core values in life in those young adult years. You see people saying ‘I’m not going to be like my parents. I’m going to be like this instead.’ Forty-year-olds in 1975 are not the same as 40-year-olds in 1995 or 2015. We actually have different values based on our experiences of life.
Baby boomers coming to retirement have values they’ve carried with them all through their lives; connected with their experiences of young adulthood in the 1960s. And now we have Gen X and Gen Y coming through as leaders in the Church, offering to take a role in shaping the way we operate. In many cases, they just leave saying, ‘There’s nothing for me here.’
When we take these things seriously and bring people together, we’re going to find points at which people disagree.Or put another way, we discover opportunities for learn from each other — about the way we make decisions, the way we plan the budget, or the activities of the Church.
How do we teach? How do we learn the faith? And what is the faith? What is the Good News for all generations? What is it that binds us together?
I think we need to reimagine ourselves. We are the people of God gathered. We have more in common than what divides us. If we’re clear about our task at any given point, whether it be management, governance or just celebrating and learning together, we would do better as a community.
We can be enriched by the perspectives of all generations, rather than just the ones who have gone before us or those who have organisational power.
I was teaching a Sunday school group where I asked them to put together a list of things that frustrated them about the Church. They quickly named the issue of ‘Jan’s office’. A year earlier, our Church had agreed to renovate her office but we’d struggled to find someone to do the painting, to pull up the carpet. [The Sunday school group] said if they send one more notice about it, they would cancel Sunday school and just go and do it themselves.
How do we find the balance between making well thought-through decisions, and just getting on and doing stuff?
What would happen if a Church community for a whole year acted with youthful exuberance and, out of childlike naiveté, responded to needs, with creativity and imagination, and allowed themselves to follow through on their instincts? Exciting and terrifying.
At the heart of what it means to be an intergenerational Church is having different generations reflecting on what it means to follow Jesus, and helping each other out with that. There is incredible insight to be gained from listening to others as they explore and experience the story of Jesus. What makes sense for them?
Together we’re asking how God’s vision for humanity is equipping us to live differently. Being an intergenerational Church is challenging. It requires hard work, huge amounts of diplomacy and patience. But it’s worth it. It’s an incredible privilege to be part of that.
The Easter story includes the reminder that God is with us in times of endings and new beginnings. God is with us as we are confronted with the fragility of many of our expressions of Church. God is with us as we learn to live again with a new set of companions.
What are your thoughts on the issues of intergenerational Church? Send them to us: firstname.lastname@example.org