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To stop the flow of young people leaving Churches of Christ, intergenerational relationships are vital

David Kinnaman has confirmed what many of us have long suspected: The church is losing too many members of its younger generations.
Why is that?
In “You Lost Me,” Kinnaman tells us, “It’s a disciple-making problem. The church is not adequately preparing the next generation to follow Christ faithfully in a rapidly changing culture.”
This is no new problem. After visiting congregations across Kentucky in 1843, Barton Stone concluded, “There has been more labor expended in reaping down the harvest than in preserving it when reaped.”
Societal changes since the time of Stone have worsened the situation. Labor laws and public schools have shaped a better world for children while unintentionally complicating day-to-day, intergenerational sharing of faith like that described in Deuteronomy 6.
As a fellowship, our response to these changes has been inadequate.
“So many of us think that when we’ve baptized our children, we’re done,” says Dudley Chancey, associate professor of youth ministry at Oklahoma Christian University. “We tend to forget the second part of the commission from Jesus: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.’”
Accelerating change in all areas of life over the past decades has made it even more difficult for churches to help young people seeking to build a coherent faith. For young disciples, the church seems overprotective, shallow, anti-science, repressive, exclusive and doubtless.
In the years to come, churches that hope to turn this tide will build faith-shaping connections between generations. The very best children’s, youth and family ministries will be the ones that intentionally build lifelong, intergenerational connections.
How do we build these connections? There is much ongoing research, including that of the Intergenerational Faith Center at Oklahoma Christian.
So far, some of the common denominators appear to be connection, spiritual practices, shared experience, story and communal discernment.
When my daughter, Bailey, was 4, she began visiting the nursing home with a family friend, Phyllis Morgan. On Wednesday afternoons, my wife, Ann, would fix a basket of goodies for Bailey to share, and Phyllis would drive by our house to pick her up. Together they would spend an hour or two talking with their friends at the home.
Afterward, Phyllis would take Bailey out for something to eat and catch up with the rest of us at Wednesday evening services. Later they would tell us stories of their adventures.
Occasionally Phyllis would call the house: “Ron, I need to talk with Bailey. Sister S. passed away last night, and I need to talk to her about it.”
I would hand the phone to Bailey and watch while her grandmother in the faith helped her move through grief toward a shared hope and faith.
What keys does this anecdote give us for sharing faith between generations?
• Connection — Phyllis has her own flesh and blood. She chose, though, to treat Ann and me like her children in the faith and our children as her grandchildren. She persistently offered a connection to Bailey that was and remains an irresistible call into the community of God’s people.
• Spiritual practice — Phyllis and Bailey entered into spiritually formative practices together. Beyond Phyllis helping Bailey to learn to sing and pray in cradle roll, their later practice made visiting the elderly into a habit that shaped the virtues and values of both. In turn, their ministry touched the faith of everyone with whom they ministered. When we truly see ourselves as a priesthood of believers, then we allow all of the believers to serve.
• Shared experience — Beyond the church building, Phyllis and Bailey shared time. They ate together. They talked and laughed together. In my heart, I can still hear them singing alto together in worship as their experience led them into the presence of God.

• Story — As they shared time, they came to share their stories. Phyllis knows the story of Bailey’s life. Bailey knows enough of the life of Phyllis to love her and respect her for who she is. Together they have woven their combined experiences into the story of God. If, as Kinnaman says, “every story matters,” then we ought to show our love for each other by knowing each other’s stories.

• Communal discernment — As Bailey grew more experienced in walking alongside Phyllis, they began to talk more about what to do in their time together and how to do it. It was about more than having ownership of the decision. Bailey needed to hear Phyllis’ wisdom, and Phyllis needed to access Bailey’s insight. They could make better decisions together.
In the years to come, we can hope that ongoing research will improve our insight into the practice of inter-generational ministry.
Until then, we should approach these conversations with a healthy dose of humility. What works for one congregation may not work so well for another. What makes one young person soar may turn off another.
Whatever we do, we should attempt with the help of God to discern as a community what practices are wise for our own community.
RON BRUNER is executive director of Westview Boys’ Home in Hollis, Okla. He is collecting stories about faith-sharing across generations. Submit stories to [email protected].

  • Feedback
    A careful study of Mat 28:18-20, especially in the original language will reveal that What Jesus commissioned His Apostles to do,is the same things that evry disciple aught to do…to make disciples. Consider; …teach them to obey everything I have commanded you (to obey) Actually the meaning according to the grammar means to keep on making disciples. Immediately after being baptized not years later!That would change the statistics of a dying congregation, to save the young
    john Jansen
    Mainland Church of Christ
    Texas City, Texas
    U S A
    January, 20 2012

    I concur with others on the Tapscott youtube video. Thanks Ed for sharing that. There is some extraordinary food for thought about the church being a “collaborative community”. I would love to hear more commentary about that.
    Tim Tripp
    Northeast Church of Christ
    Cincinnati, Ohio
    January, 20 2012

    This is a good thought for cinsideration.The church should accept that we need the holy Spirit for guidance and just as we accept the commission in Matthew 28 : 18 – 20 we ought also to recognize the words of Jesus Christ in Mark 16 : 14 – 18. We ought to be doers of the word.
    We must also make the youth active and not just being protective. We must also stop being judgemental in our preaching.
    Ephraim Gondwe
    Lilongwe, Lilongwe
    January, 20 2012

    Tim, I agree that Dt 6 is a key passage for IG ministry. Parents do bear the primary responsibility for faith sharing, and ought to focus on the spiritual: deepening their own faith, sharing their stories, and learning from their children. At the same time, the words of Dt 6 are a call to a community: “Hear, O Israel.”
    Ed, I enjoyed the video, and say that the practices I describe (especially communal discernment) serve to build collaborative communities through ancient practices that are coherent with emerging social realities. The church that listens to its youth can learn how to bring the good news and reign of God to a world that, in many ways, the young understand better than we.
    May God help us learn together!
    Ron Bruner
    Westview Boys’ Home
    Hollis, OK
    January, 19 2012

    Thank you for the fantastic link, Ed Dodds! Required viewing by all!
    David Smith
    Missouri Street Church of Christ
    Baytown, TX
    January, 19 2012

    Change Gov 2.0 to Church 2.0 in Don Tapscott on Gov 2.0 with the U.S. State Dept http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPE03rTsDjE and one thing you’ll discover is that “the young folk” don’t practice geo-locking in their thinking; churches, employers, universities, politicians still do.
    Ed Dodds
    Woodmont Hills
    Nashville, TN
    January, 19 2012

    I agree with the author that intergenerational relationships are needed in the church to keep young people engaged. However, sometimes the most important intergenerational relationships are not centered on growing faith. The relationships of Parents and their children is what Deuteronomy 6 is referring to as that most vital relationship for growing faith. Churches need to continue to find ways to teach, equip and empower Christian parents to pass their faith down through the generations.
    Tim Tripp
    Northeast Church of Christ
    Cincinnati, Ohio
    January, 19 2012

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