the shape of leadership

Overcoming the Church Generation Gap

Three steps for ministering across the age divide.

Ah, the giant elephant in the room.

For years, research and conversations have focused on generational differences. There have been fascinating studies on how each generation reacts and responds, with corresponding hope that one day the local church will unify the generations.

Yet there is still tension between the young and old. The repetitive and exhausting conversations on styles and traditions continue, but lines of division remain.

As a young church leader, I became conditioned to view the older generation in a negative light. This attitude reached a tipping point one Sunday morning when I was an associate pastor at a traditional church trying to transition to a more modern atmosphere.

We had just concluded the first song of our morning worship service when I felt a tap on my shoulder. An older gentleman who happened to be on our church board signaled me to the lobby. He put his face in a close, uncomfortable proximity to mine and demanded that I tell the worship team to play more softly. (This type of confrontation was becoming more frequent.) I calmly told him that it would be impossible for me to do that with worship already starting and the sound controlled on stage.

His next statement was the volcano moment. He pointed in my face and said, “You are going to run the old people off. Matt, you know they pay the bills. We need to cater to them.”

Message received. I pointed back and said, “Look around. Tell me how many people under 60 are here. If you all don’t change, this church will die and be a Mexican restaurant in three years.”

We walked away. The problems never resolved, and we both eventually transitioned out of our roles.

Early in my ministry, confrontations with older people were the norm for me, and it led to built-up resentment toward an entire generation. I mentally wrote off everyone over 60 years of age as delusional and resistant to change.

I spent an enormous amount of energy and time disagreeing and trying to convince the older people I was right. They did the same thing. We fought a constant battle in which there could be no winners. Neither party intended to budge. It was a lose-lose situation.

I knew something had to change — and that it had to begin in my heart. Acknowledging that before God set in motion a healing process. I started dismantling the age barriers in my mind and considering ways to engage in healthy conversations with a generation that doesn’t see things the same way as me.

You can’t effectively lead others if you don’t first show them you care.

Here are some ways I handle conversations with older individuals and church leaders now that I’ve stopped looking to be right.

First, Listen
This is a universal principle. Everyone wants to engage with someone who will listen to what they have to say. We all want people to care and interact with us. There’s a time to talk and a time to listen.

A lot of my mistakes in leading people three times older than me arose from a compulsion to change and challenge before listening and understanding. I’ve learned that the first step is to listen. Using my ears helped me gain influence among older individuals and earn the right to speak into their lives.

You can’t effectively lead others if you don’t first show them you care. I’m sure John Maxwell said that somewhere.

Understand the Why
Chances are, the very perspective or “church thing” you’re trying to change is significant to someone. It is essential to discover the why. Why are they so passionate about it? What experience did they have? Why do they love Sunday School, hymns, pews, song specials or Sunday night service?

John Lindell, pastor of James River Church in Ozark and Springfield, Mo., told a story about the drastic dress code change at their church. For many years, most people wore suits and business attire. As Lindell started the culture shift, he and his team talked with those who had been wearing suits for years. Those people mentioned that they grew up with parents and grandparents who dressed up for church. When Lindell and his team found out the why, they gained perspective.

Lindell pointed to the culture of previous generations, who lived in a time when people wore suits and dress clothes every day for their jobs. People back then even dressed up for sporting events — never mind putting on the team colors. These people simply dressed in a way that was typical for their time. So, Lindell proposed, “Why not do that today? Why not wear what people wear daily in our current culture?”

When both sides understood the why, it created a positive environment and mutual understanding.

Take in the Good
We may never dress the same or agree on music. We may have different ideas about how the church should function, but we can always learn from one another. This was something I had previously failed to capitalize on.

I no longer conclude that everything someone over 60 says is old fashioned, outdated or irrelevant. I look for opportunities to take in the good — to glean knowledge and insight from them. These days, I’m not trying to change anyone; I’m trying to grow from their experience.

I recently started engaging with an older pastor about various areas of ministry, in the hopes of becoming a better leader. This pastor leads a church smaller than the one in which I serve, and his ministry style is vastly different from mine. Aside from our passion for Jesus, there are few similarities, but he has wisdom and experience in areas in which I’m weak.

The funny thing? In a recent conversation, he asked my wife and me questions about something his church is working on that he knew little about. He wanted our insight. It works both ways!

For me, engaging with the older generation hasn’t always been easy, but I understand there are challenges on both sides of the age divide. Perhaps you are feeling frustrated about the younger generation. Thankfully, there’s beauty in starting that conversation as well. Wherever you are on the generational spectrum, reach out to someone who is in a different place. Listen, understand and take in the good.

I may be a little naive, but I believe that if we can grasp these three elements, the gap would begin to shrink, and we could all become more effective leaders and communicators for the kingdom of God.

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