Last week was Pentecost Sunday, and being that Pentecost Sunday is my favorite Sunday in the church year and I missed it, I’ve decided to share my thoughts on Pentecost today. Perhaps you remember from last week the words Peter spoke:
This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
At that first Pentecost Sunday so many years ago, Peter believed that he was seeing first hand the vision imagined by the ancient prophet Joel long ago. And, as we continue to celebrate Pentecost Sunday, I believe we are seeing that vision fulfilled even more so today, a time when young men will see visions and old men will dream dreams.
For the first time in the history of the church—which as we celebrated last Sunday on Pentecost Sunday, the birthday of the church, goes back nearly 2,000 years—never before has there been five generations present in which before, yet that is exactly what we have in American Christianity, and especially in our very church. First we have the “traditionalists,” born before 1945, folks who are 70 years or older, then we have the “baby boomers,” those born in 1946 through 1964, then the “Gen Xers”, born 1965 through 1980, then the “millennials,” born 1981 through 2000, and finally, the generation some are calling the “digitals” including everyone born after 2000. So we’ve got five generations in the church for the first time!
We need some young people to see visions!
Perhaps you saw on the news the other day that the so-called “Millenial” generation, those born between 1981 and the year 2000, have overtaken the Baby Boomers as the largest generation in America. For those in the church, this is somewhat troubling, because church attendance among the Millenial generation is fairly poor, with only two-in-ten believing that church attendance is important. There are many people quite concerned about the future of church in America. With so many of the older generation passing away, there are simply not younger persons coming into church to replace them in the pews. To those doing the math, the future looks a bit scary.
In so many churches across America, especially older mainline churches, there are far more gray-haired folks than younger persons in the pews. Recognizing this coming problem, many churches have gone all out in seeking to appeal to the younger generations, changing their music, their worship styles, even their building in hopes of attracting these people. Yet, the problem with these attempts is that it seems to alienate everyone involved. First, the older generations become frustrated that the style of church they’ve known for so many years has changed. And second, so many of the younger generation see through inauthentic efforts aimed only at bringing in more people.
Countless authors and commentators have thought long and hard about trying to reach the younger generations. Trust me, if you could come up with a solution to attracting and retaining these folks, you could become quite famous! So we find ourselves in a seemingly impossible situation, trying to incorporate the younger generation into our churches without offending the older generation. And in many cases, it’s not working.
Seniors, don’t stop dreaming about tomorrow
Even if we figure out how to reach millennials, one commentator asks, “what we do with their grandparents? They’ve still got another 10 to 20 years’ worth of life, and nobody wants to be put out to pasture for 10 or 20 years.” What are we going to do after we make the changes to reach the younger generation? I’m reminded of my own grandparents, who left their church that they had been members of for several years after their church changed their music and worship style. This is really unfortunate. It seems as if we are in a lose-lose situation, capitulating to one generation while alienating the other. Yet one author suggests there is a ready-made, perhaps God-given solution.
“One of the beautiful things about the millennials is that they really want to know what older generations think, and how they’ve sorted things through. You’ve got older people who are living longer and want to know how to make an impact on their retirement. You’ve got younger people who are wanting somebody in addition to their parents that they can go to, and think out loud with, and sort through all the new choices that previous generations didn’t have and didn’t have to make. We’ve got a match made in heaven here between them and older people who are looking for something more than just folding bulletins or singing in the choir in their retirement. The field is ripe to harvest.”
Certainly we’ve heard this same sentiment expressed by folks who are new to this church, the desire to learn from those who have experienced life.
How to fulfill Joel’s vision?
So we are worshipping with this five different generations in church, something experts call “intergenerational worship.”One real dilemma of intergenerational worship is that it engages differing, and often competing, generational cohort values that live side by side in the congregation. People of different generations often like and enjoy being with one another. They may even see themselves as similar to one another, coming from the same families or living in the same community. Nonetheless, because of the cohort differences, discomfort below the surface commonly makes sharing worship, program planning, or decision making difficult across generations.
I’m reminded of my freshman year of Bible college at move in day. My grandparents, along with my mom, had driven me out to Springfield, Missouri in their RV. Those from the Midwest probably have experienced what I did that first day at college; blistering heat and humidity. That day in August was a hot one, with temperatures over 100 degrees and high humidity. It was a brutally hot day in which my family and I had the task of hauling my stuff up to the third floor without the aid of stairs or air conditioning. Yet, before we knew it, guys were coming to the RV and asking for my stuff and where to take it. As I would learn, each move in day at the college, local churches would come and volunteer, helping the newly arriving students. So here we were, sweating like a pig, huffing and puffing, and a young man came into the RV to grab some of my stuff. My grandmother noticed that he had an earring in his ear. Setting aside the task at hand, my grandmother asked this guy why he felt the need to have an earring in his ear. Of all places to ask, when this guy is kindly sacrificing his time and energy to help us out, my grandma wanted to know why he as a young man would ear an earring! It was quite a sight!
We do have different generational values and perhaps my grandmother handled it as best one could do, asking this young man for his perspective rather than condemning him as “wrong” for choosing to have his ear pierced. Though, she sure did pick an odd time to do it!
A generational cohort is that group of people who were born around the same time as one another and who learned the same life lessons because of their shared historical location in the culture that shaped their expectations. The lessons each generation has learned, the values it has adopted, and its way of seeing serve as a lens or a filter through which the world is experienced and understood. One author writes that “Such generational filters lead to a natural conclusion, arrived at by each successive generation, that there is a “right way” to be in the culture. It is this assumption of a ‘right way’ that leads to so much tension and misunderstanding between generations.”
Basically, when one group thinks there way of doing things is THE way to do things, we have problems. Whether it’s reading out of the King James Version Bible or singing traditional hymns or worshiping with loud music and video screens, whenever we think our preferred style of worship is THE right way to worship, we’re missing the boat and not living into the vision Peter saw of young and old worshiping together, both adding vital contributions to the church. One author suggests that for a churches to live into Peter’s vision, we must practice something called “Intergenerational worship.”
“Intergenerational worship, programming, stewardship, decision making, and faith formation… is a way of seeing and being with each other that goes deeply beyond politeness to true hospitality, where we see God in one another and shape a new community because of what we see.”
“Envisioning what the church will look like in the next twenty years, I imagine a body that gathers together to worship God, strives for social justice, and cultivates tribes. Even the smallest churches—especially the smallest churches—have the resources to respond to young adults in meaningful ways when they understand their contexts and make a place for them.”
We have incredible resources here, incredible amounts of life experience that are priceless, stories and experiences that the younger generations want to hear and learn from. Can we imagine, like the Peter, a place where our sons and daughters will prophesy, our young men will see visions, our old men will dream dreams. Even on both men and women, God will pour out the Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
Are we willing to walk together into this vision?
Old and young, men and women, we all have an important part to play in the future of this church, in the vision the Spirit of God seeks to enact here.
God is inviting us, I believe, into this future.