In the ’90s and early ’00s the prevailing belief was that a good youth ministry would be a “golden ticket” to growing a church. To some extent, that was true. A “successful” youth ministry could bring an influx of families to a church that was struggling to find “new blood.” But, like many fads, once the new feelings faded so would the church’s success, leaving behind a generationally segregated and wholly disjointed congregation.
Today, it can seem next to impossible to keep up with every new trend among teens. Knowing the latest slang and most relevant meme is a dangerous game if one doesn’t always stay on top of current trends. Often the life cycle of a meme reaches the “dead” stage by the time Jimmy Kimmel picks it up. If the outrage over the term “OK boomer” shows us anything, it’s that the relationships between our oldest and youngest generations are more strained than ever.
I’ve served as a youth pastor for the last several years, and the main thing I’ve learned in that short time is that my job title doesn’t really define the ministry I actually do. It’s true that a large part of my day-to-day work is ministering to the teenagers in my congregation, but, more and more, I’ve come to view my place in the church as an ambassador between all age groups. I spend a significant amount of my time around congregants who have long since graduated high school. My ministry is as much to the Boomers as it is to the Zoomers.
Early on in my current role, I had an idea that pairing older women in our church with teen girls as pen pals may help foster relationships between the generations. What I didn’t know at the time is how much fruit that would bear.
Nearly two years later, many girls still keep in touch via snail mail with their ladies. Teenagers using snail mail; who would have thought it? Granted, not every relationship was a booming success, and many fizzled out after several exchanges. But what did happen was that every one of our girls had a woman in the church praying for them, even if they didn’t know it. Teen girls who had never been to church on a Sunday morning began to engage with church for the first time; 50-, 60-, 70- and 80-year-old women stopped by my office each week to tell me how they were praying for their teen. One woman even took it upon herself to begin praying daily for each and every teen in our ministry by name. There was no division, no outrage, just love.
I share that as just one example of the value that intergenerational relationships can bring to a church body. Often we think our teens want nothing to do with the body at large, but I’ve found that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Teenagers now, more than ever before, are searching for a place to belong, and the affirmation of a church family can make a lasting impact. We may even think that our old folks want nothing to do with the younger generation because they can’t understand that “new-fangled technology.”
But the truth is that many of those folks are searching for meaningful relationships that they may not have had for a long time, and sharing life with a teen can spark a new joy in their lives. My new goal in my ministry is to show my teens they are part of a larger body full of rich traditions. Likewise, I want to help the adults in my congregation understand that beyond Sunday mornings there exists a whole new harvest of disciples and leaders.
The body of Christ is meant to be a communal experience. Look at what the prophet Joel foresaw about the church to come: “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28–29).
The prophet predicted a church that crossed ethnic, gender and generational lines. The more barriers we can break down between the generations of the church, the better off we will be for it. Not every broken barrier will seem like a huge win. Sometimes the smallest gestures speak the loudest volumes.
Senior pastors, your job is not simply an adult ministry role. Acknowledge the teenagers in your body, even by just learning their names. Nothing says “we see you and value you” more than simply knowing someone by name.
Youth pastors, your job is not just to laugh with teens. Seek out the adults in your church. Ask them to pray over you. Ask them to join you in the ministry! Some of my best volunteers have been 60-year-olds.
Worship pastors, your job is more than just engaging millennials through the latest Christian chart topper. Remember the hymns and traditions of your older members, and teach them to your younger ones.
This is not a mission one staff position can accomplish alone. It’s not even a mission the entire staff can solve. No one person or group will be the golden ticket to grow our churches. It will take a conscious and coordinated effort on behalf of the whole body. If our churches cannot bridge the generational gap within society who else can?3