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Remembering the birthdays of his wife

Can generations grow together?

YOUNG PEOPLE WHO KEEP THEIR PARENTS’ FAITH are increasingly rare, national studies show. Do differences among age groups in congregations play a role? Can churches foster intergenerational ministries that will rekindle growth?

Five generations of Phil Wilson’s family have worshiped with the Otter Creek Church of Christ.
His great-grandfather J.W. Brents preached for the Nashville, Tenn., congregation when it met on Granny White Pike. Brents also worked alongside Marshall Keeble at the Nashville Christian Institute, a school for black ministers in the days before desegregation.
Through the decades, Brents’ family has stayed in the church. Wilson worshiped elsewhere for a time, after his parents’ divorce, but returned to Otter Creek about 17 years ago.
“It is home,” he said. “My family belongs there. My kids have friends there. My wife and I have relationships there that are deeper than dissatisfactions that we might feel.”
Multiple generations of the same family often worship at the same church — sometimes on the same pew. As life spans increase, age diversity is on the rise in faith groups.

“In some cases, there are as many as five different generations trying to function together as one body,” said James L. Knapp, professor of sociology at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and a member of the Western Heights Church of Christ in Sherman, Texas. (One “generation” includes people born in a span of about 15 to 20 years, Knapp said.)
“I think the Bible is very clear that God expects churches to have multiple generations in it,” Knapp said, citing Moses’ call in Deuteronomy 6 for the children of Israel to teach God’s commands “so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord.”
But ministering to multiple age groups at once is challenging, Knapp said, “because, with five different generations the church is dealing with five different sets of expectations and preferences.”
And recent statistics show that Churches of Christ — and religious groups across the nation — are failing to retain their youngest generations:
In the past six years U.S. Churches of Christ have lost more than 78,000 members, according to Nashville-based 21st Century Christian, publisher of Churches of Christ in the United States. The 2009 edition of the directory also lists 526 fewer churches than the 2003 edition.
Flavil Yeakley, director of the Harding Center for Church Growth in Searcy, Ark., noted a 7 percent drop in the number of children in Churches of Christ in the past three years. He calculated the figure by subtracting the number of baptized members reported in the directories from adherents — the total number of adults and children on church rolls.
The number of Americans who call themselves Christian has dropped more than 11 percent in a generation. The latest American Religious Identification Survey, or ARIS, produced by Trinity College, also identifies 15 percent of the U.S. population as “Nones” — people who claim no religion of any kind. Since the previous survey in 2001, “the Nones are the only group to have grown in every state of the Union,” researcher Ariela Keysar said.
A minority of Americans have a “biblical worldview,” according to a recent survey by the California-based Barna Group, which conducts research and produces materials for Christian ministries.
Only 9 percent of adults agreed with Barna’s definition of a biblical worldview — absolute moral truth exists, the Bible is accurate, God is all-knowing, Satan is real and salvation can’t be earned.
“Young adults rarely possess a biblical worldview,” Barna researchers said in a news release. “The current study found that less than one-half of 1 percent of adults (ages 18 to 23) have a biblical worldview, compared to one out of every nine older adults.”
The failure of the young to “secure their hearts,” in the words of an old hymn, has church leaders searching for reasons why so many leave the faith of their fathers.
Some cite differences in how age groups approach technology. Young adults are as likely to find community in social networking Web sites as church fellowship halls, one researcher told USA Today in a feature on the ARIS results.
Others point to social mobility — the degree to which families can change social classes between generations. As social mobility has increased in the United States, new generations have felt less attachment to family traditions.
“It’s hard to leave the church of your parents if you’re still living in the same town as your parents,” David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, told The Christian Chronicle.
But as generations have removed themselves from each other — in physical distance and social standing — a
kind of “religious mobility” has emerged, Roozen said.
Baby boomers and their descendants have demonstrated “a much greater propensity to move not only from religion to religion, but out of religion and back into religion,” he said.
Tim Tripp, family minister for the Northeast Church of Christ in Cincinnati, described himself as “a witness to both the dividing and the strengthening potential of the generation gap.”
“Each generation has the desire and the opportunity to ‘remake’ the church, according to their understanding of what church means to them,” Tripp said.
Young Christians are willing to question the Scriptural authority for long-standing practices, said Sam Coy, a church member in Monmouth, Ore. Too often he’s seen “their honest requests for honest answers … met with standard responses with no room for thinking,” he said.
Terry Bonner, a member of a Church of Christ in Indianapolis, said that older Christians must be willing to “talk to — not at — the youth” in their congregation.
“We all must have a healthy line of communication open at all times,” Bonner said. “The young people are the future of the church — preachers, elders, deacons, teachers.”
To help diverse age groups function as one body, Knapp speaks to church groups about differences in beliefs among generations.
Members of the pre-World War II “builder” generation, for example, differ from younger generations on issues from worship styles to whether men should wear ties on Sunday morning.
The point of the presentations is not to allow church members to say, “I told you we can’t get along,” Knapp said. “Instead, it’s, ‘Now, where do we go from here?’ Let’s create opportunities for different generations to interact with each other.”
In Cincinnati, the Northeast church has hosted fellowship events with the goal of mixing different generational groups — with mixed results, Tripp said,
“It is much more effective for one group to serve the other,” he said. “If the teens sponsor and serve a meal to the elderly, it is a much more effective way to promote positive perceptions between members of both groups.”
In Neosho, Mo., the Rocketdyne Road Church of Christ recently added a music minister to its staff, said Denny Kruse, the church’s pulpit minister. “We have observed that vibrant, worshipful singing bridges the gap between the generations like nothing else,” Kruse said.
To keep younger generations coming back, churches must “put less emphasis on the assembly and more emphasis on being assembled together,” said Jonathan Williams, a member of the Pomona, Calif., Church of Christ.
“Just being there isn’t the goal,” Williams said. “We discover our commonalities, our binding ties, when we interact and get to know one another, not when we sit disconnected in the pews and go through the order of service.”
Even when intergenerational efforts fail, it’s possible for churches to experience what church elder Barry Poyner calls “regeneration,” thanks in part to increased life spans.
“We used to say that the church was always one generation away from apostasy or extinction,” Poyner said. “I no longer believe that is true.”
The Church of Christ in Kirksville, Mo., had dwindled to about 10 people, most in their 60s and 80s, when Poyner moved there in 1990. He and his family prayed and worked, and now the congregation has elders, deacons and a Sunday attendance of about 80.
“Small congregations take heart!” Poyner said. “Bless those widows and godly women who keep the doors open. It could be … that you are one, two, three or even four generations away from rebirth — not extinction.”

  • Feedback
    I was told about an article in the chronice that was written by preacher from a different denomination on his observation of a traditional service of the C of C. He seemed to be impressed. Is that article availabele online?
    larry rider
    columbia blvd
    glasgow, ky
    March, 2 2012

    The Christian Chronicle recently reported the numbers of members and adherents of the Church of Christ have declined. In the corporate business world insanity has been defined as doing the same thing while expecting different results.
    Neither generation is evangelistic.
    We are losing the war it is time we change our battle plan. The church huddled together on Sundays, offering “the invitation” to people who are not there serves no purpose.
    Let’s stop telling others they are wrong and just do what we find in the New Testament. Making the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles (found in the Bible) central to our lives all generations can grow together.
    April, 8 2009

    Multiple generations can worship togather effectively. However it requires that each generation loves each other. When the old people (like me) love the younger generations, we will learn to enjoy their style of music. And when the young people love the older generations they will learn to enjoy the older music. There is nothing as beautiful as a “Blended” service where they love each other as commanded.
    April, 3 2009

    Kevin: The second bullet point references the latest figures from ARIS, which shows an increasing number of ‘Nones’ and other stats that point to children leaving their parents’ faith. See <a href=”http://www.americanreligionsurvey-aris.org”>www.americanreligionsurvey-aris.org</a> for more info. <i>USA Today</i> also ran a good piece on ARIS that includes quotes that directly address the issues you’ve raised. See <a href=”http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2009-03-09-american-religion-ARIS_N.htm”>the article</a>. — Erik Tryggestad
    April, 3 2009

    Relevant reporting, as always. But without questioning the article’s basic premise (i.e, the title), I didn’t see any research cited that indicates “Young people who keep their parents’ faith are increasingly rare, national studies show.” “Increasingly rare”? Or “becoming less common”? I ask because I’d like to know. Too, I guess I’d rather not be disheartened by negative news spun even more negatively.
    April, 2 2009

Filed under: By The Numbers

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