the shape of leadership

A Church for Babies and Boomers

Creating a welcoming environment for people of all ages

Mike Santiago on June 5, 2018

At age 29, I became the lead pastor of a congregation that consisted of a large percentage of baby boomers. I was one-third younger than the average age of the attendees. Many of them could have been my grandparents, while the younger ones could have passed as my parents. The fact that they would even act like they were listening during my sermons was somewhat of a surprise.

The first Sunday we used a haze machine in worship, I was concerned we would lose more than half the church. We didn’t. No one even complained. I realized they will deal with the smoke as long as the service is not void of the Spirit.

One of the first people who requested a meeting was Nancy Davis. Her name even has a baby boomer ring to it. Nancy is full of life. She was serving in this church before I was born. It would be easy for her to disregard me as pastor, and for me to overlook her as parishioner, but Nancy loves our church. She is one of many who have not lost their love for the Lord and who continue to serve faithfully in the local church, despite how much the church has changed.

Nancy is not alone. According to Pew Research Center, 69 percent of boomers believe in God with absolute certainty. Talk about low-hanging fruit. This means that, with a little more attention, our reach can extend beyond the younger demographic today’s church models seek to attract.

Nancy serves our church by ensuring that every tablecloth is laundered and stored. She finds joy in washing the towels we use during our baptism celebrations. This woman of God makes sure people are comfortable immediately after going public with their faith. This job might seem insignificant to many, but to our church, it is immeasurably valuable.

The same is true for Ethel — once again, a very boomer name. Ethel serves faithfully. She rarely misses a Sunday. Her passion is Communion. She cuts bread into pieces with such precision that anyone who didn’t know better would think we bought the cubes from the store that way.

Ethel is a mom to our staff. She is a grandmother to my kids, and I thank her every chance I get.

Real growth happens when we move beyond sitting next to someone decades removed and begin serving someone decades removed.

I remember when she opened her home to host our youth ministry. Ethel didn’t mind having 15 teenagers gathered around her kitchen table, eating and playing games. It was her wisdom and care, not to mention the carrot cake, that kept these kids coming back every week.

Many pastors place a high priority on growing the church by bringing the median age downward. In doing so, they often neglect the generation who has been faithful for so long.

Shifting ministry programing toward a younger demographic is frequently at the top of the to-do list for new pastors, but the process can alienate the groups within the congregation who have been gathering for years around old songs and great cooking.

Fortunately, there are countless opportunities for all people of every age and stage to do more than just attend church together. The real growth happens when we move beyond sitting next to someone decades removed and begin serving someone decades removed. This goes both ways. The boomers serve the babies, and the babies serve the boomers.

It really is a beautiful thing to shepherd demographic diversity.

As pastors, we tend to create a church environment that reaches people like us. We must work harder at reaching those who are different, including those of different generations.

Young pastors can gravitate toward a vision of a church so geared to young adults that we unintentionally leave out those who don’t fit our target demographic. Yet it is possible — and biblical — for every generation to coexist and flourish in a local church.

Ministry environments should promote deep relational connection. Senior members can help young families feel even more connected. The wisdom that comes from decades of following Jesus and navigating parenting and marriage is indispensable.

Be intentional about welcoming people of all ages. Along with the latest choruses, include music in the set list that appeals to boomers. Music brings back memories. As people connect with God through songs they remember, they are more likely to share their stories with others.

Clarify the reasons for change. Explain why the stage wall is black and why the recorded services are moving to a digital platform. Boomers feel out of the loop when they don’t understand the rationale behind such changes.

Distribute the same message using multiple mediums. Combine new methods of communication, like social media, with traditional methods of information delivery, such as the printed bulletin.

These are just a few practical ways to reach the boomer generation. There are more people like Nancy in your community than you realize — people who are looking for a place of purpose. Is there room for them in your church?

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2018 edition of Influence magazine.


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