Crossing the Great Generational Divide

By Rev. Mindi

Sometimes we lament the fact that our children grow up and then don’t go to church. Or sometimes we lament the fact that they do go to church, but not to our church anymore. I’ve written before about how we can sometimes treat young adults as if they are still children, but I see this happen more and more in the churches I serve: we remember people as we once knew them, not who they are now. We still remember when they were kids, and sometimes we still treat them like they are children.

More importantly, however, we do not see how we have grown and changed. And aged. In this time, when 50 is the new 40, 40 is the new 30, etc., we have forgotten that 40 year olds are not young adults, but we treat them that way. And sometimes those of us pushing upper 30’s and early 40’s forget that we are technically middle-aged, not young adults. And I’ve heard retirees feel that they are still much younger than they are. Heck, I know people in their sixties and seventies dying their hair weird colors and getting tattoos just like twenty-year-olds are doing.

What does this matter? Aren’t these all just labels anyway?

In the structure of the church, this can matter greatly. It probably shouldn’t, but it does. Teens and younger adults who were part of the church and are now in their 40’s and 50’s are still treated like children. They are still treated as if they cannot make a commitment or be dependable in the life of the church, and sometimes are not offered leadership positions or their offers to volunteer are not taken seriously.

There’s been so much written about churches and generation gaps and Millenials, Millenials, Millenials—while the next generation is getting ready to graduate high school and we aren’t ready for them—that I think we have completely missed the boat on this conversation.

We need to change the conversation from being about one generation, or about how one generation relates to another, but rather how we see ourselves. Are we truly the Church, the Body of Christ? If so, we are one of the last multi-generational organizations in existence. We are one of the last places where inter-generational community can take place.

But it doesn’t. Instead, we tend to stick with those in our stage of life as we have been seen in the church. I believe that these “stages of life” as I am calling them here come into play more often than actual generations.  These are some generalizations coming up, but see if your church doesn’t generalize based on these “stages” either: children and youth (those under the age of 25) young adults (i.e. those who are single and under 50), young couples (those couples without children that are under 50), young families (single and coupled parents with children whose children are under the age of 25 and the parents are under the age of 60), grandparents and those close to retiring (ages 50-70—can be single, coupled, can be parents or grandparents), recent retirees (70-80) and Seniors (80+).  There is some wiggle room in this, but I feel it has less to do with generations as defined in society and more to do with stages of life. And as more and more people live longer, the age range for these younger “stages” has widened. Look at that: all of the stages under 50 are mainly considered "young."

You might think this, just like generation definitions, is just a bunch of baloney. But as more and more people wait for marriage and children, as more and more people choose second careers and go back to school in their 40’s (or 50’s and 60’s), these age ranges are becoming greater. What seems to have happened is that Gen X, Millenials and the upcoming generation have been lumped into one: the “young adult generation” or “young adult stage.”

What does this mean for leadership in the church?  It means that even though you have aged, you might still see yourself in the same stage, or close enough to it. It means that your definition of young might have changed, because you are no longer in your thirties but your fifties. It means that a search committee looking for a “young” pastor 40 years ago was looking for someone in their 20’s, maybe their 30’s. Today, a “young pastor” could be anyone under 50!  It means that sometimes pastors are turned down who are under 50 because they are seen as not having enough experience.  It means that in regional and national denominational committees and boards, one persons’ definition of young may be very different than another person’s definition of young.

My spouse, who will be turning 43 soon, is still called a “young pastor” and a “young adult.”  I am very close to 40. I am still often am asked if I am serving in my first church (I’m at my third call). I'm in a very different place than I was at 24 and out of seminary, but I'm often not seen that way. And my colleagues coming out of seminary are in need of church positions to move into and that can't happen if those of us in our 40's and 50's are still considered young and still being hired for those positions that young clergy need in order to begin following their calls to ministry.

While in larger congregations some of the age ranges in these stages may be smaller (I know some churches that would not call adults in their 40’s young adults, nor would they call families with teenagers young families, but I have seen and experienced this in many churches both as a pastor, as a visitor, and as a consultant), these stages do set our points of view in a certain way. For folks who are in the “grandparent and close to retiring” stage, the “young families” and “young adults” and “young couples” really could be pushing 50 and they would still think of them that way, as “young.”

So what does this all mean? I’ve just created yet another system of categorization and labels that are not helpful, right?

Maybe. Maybe though we can use this to help deconstruct the myths around age and what is “young” and “old” in the church. Maybe we can stop referring to people in their 30’s, 40’s and even 50’s as “young adults” and think of them as adults in the life of the church, capable and gifted for leadership. And yes, maybe some of us on the “younger” side could stop looking at those over 60 as too old and too traditional and too set in their ways, and we can stop making side comments when they dye their hair or get tattoos. We need to find ways of crossing generations and life stages to be the Church, the body of Christ.

The lectionary Gospel text this Sunday is Mark 3:20-35. I wonder if maybe Jesus, who was in his 30’s, was still just seen as a “young adult” or even “Joe and Mary’s kid.” When Mary and his brothers came and called to him, maybe Jesus was tired of still being seen as a young adult or child. Jesus says, after looking around at those who have sat with him, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Maybe we truly need to start seeing each other as our mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, kindred in Christ. If we could see the person who seems too young to be moving into that leadership position as my sibling—if we could see each other as equals in relation to each other—we could give up our need for control and power, our need to put down others as not having what it takes just yet. If we could see each other as part of the body of Christ, as equals—we could let go of these generation gaps and be truly intergenerational, interconnected, integral to the body of Christ.