Ministering to the So-Called “Generation Gap”

My wife, Tracy Mickle, who is a keen observer of how we do ministry, offers her thoughts here on “Ministering to the So-Called ‘Generation Gap.'”

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One of the significant challenges facing most churches is what many people are calling today “the generation-gap.” This generation-gap refers to those who are approximately between 20 and 35 years of age. Churches today find themselves concerned and perplexed as they seem to have a harder time drawing, connecting with, and maintaining this age group. Because I find myself within this age group, and have friends who are there too, I would like to comment on some of the methods churches have used to try to appeal to this group.

The usual wisdom of today in dealing with this enigmatic group has been to try to make church less formal, more approachable, and more relevant. In short, churches have tried to become friendlier and less austere. While some of this is probably appropriate and good, discussions I have had with many of my friends and acquaintances shows that this is not always the best way to reach out to these singles, students, and young professionals.

I have been very surprised to find that most people my age want the same things I want! They find church too informal with not enough hymn-singing; music that is too loud, and a real lack of reverence in many of our evangelical churches. Lest we think this is only coming from people who grew up in Christian homes and evangelical churches, I recently had a very interesting conversation with some friends who could be categorized as “seekers.” While they are attending a very contemporary church, they are disappointed in the overly relaxed atmosphere, informal dress of the congregation, and a general lack of awe and reverence they would expect to find in a church. After all, they believe church should look different then the everyday world in which we live. Among the population of “churched” young adults, one can find a similar sentiment. After a difficult church split at my home church in Pennsylvania, there are still young adults wandering around visiting churches and wishing they could find some place that “sings a few more hymns.”

What are we to make of all of this? After all, aren’t we giving people what they want when we try to “meet them where they are?” I am no church-planting or church-growth expert, but let me humbly suggest some points to ponder based on my own observations.

First, most people want to feel a sense of awe and reverence when they attend church. While we would all agree that everyday and every event in a Christian’s life is “sacred” (we must avoid at all costs the dichotomy of sacred verses secular in our lives), it is also appropriate to set aside the time that we meet with God’s people to worship corporately the living and all-powerful God of the universe as a special time. We want to approach and treat this time with the respect it deserves. Perhaps we all should consider entering the sanctuary with a more reverent attitude. Maybe we need to tone down our loud conversations and boisterous laughter and focus on preparing our hearts for worship. Fellowship and enjoying one another’s company is wonderful, but maybe some of the noisier parts of that should be left for after the service is over. Some formality in the structure of our services also gives people a sense of routine and tradition. It is a connection with the saints of the past as well as a foundation upon which to plant our feet for the future.

Second, in my experience it is not true that young adults only want to sing choruses. Most people I speak with would enjoy a blended service, but we typically find the blend to be rather out of balance. My experience with blended services is that there is usually a ratio of about 80-90% choruses and 10-20% hymns. While everyone agrees that there are some excellent choruses and modern worship music out there, we would like to see a more balanced approach with approximately equal time for both choruses and hymns. Expanding our hymn repertoire would also be wonderful. Our evangelical churches tend to love the gospel hymns of the late 1800s and early 1900s, but let’s not ignore some of the wonderful chorale hymns of the 1500s through the 1700s. Hymns like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and “All Creatures of Our God and King” speak tremendous theology which is much needed in our day. The bulk of our hymnals contain gospel hymns, so we may have to go searching for some of these older hymns, but I think we will find the search well worth the effort.

Third, let’s consider turning down the volume on the drums and guitars. While additional instruments are wonderful and can add much to the service when done well, they often are so loud they drown out the singing. The truth of the matter is that the louder the music, the less people will be inclined to fully sing out because they can’t hear themselves singing! Too much noise in the service is a distraction.

Fourth, let’s consider resurrecting the “king of instruments”—the organ. While the organ is not necessarily appropriate for every song we sing in church, there is nothing like it for inspiring reverence, awe, and wonderful singing from a congregation—again, when it is played well. Surprisingly, there is a longing for this standard “church instrument” almost every time I discuss these issues with people.

Fifth, people my age are hungry for solid, though-provoking, challenging sermons. We don’t want to hear pat answers or short, simple sermons. We want to grow and be changed. We live in a complex world with many challenges and difficulties. Young adults are longing for solid answers from the Bible on how to live a consistent Christian life in today’s world. Anything less insults peoples’ intelligence and leaves us without hope that we can grow and change and “work out our salvation” (Phil 2:12).

Doing church is quite a daunting task in today’s world and I hope I am sympathetic to the struggles. Everyone is concerned for the future of the church, and realistically it is the “generation-gap” of today that should be in training to take up the work of the church and be tomorrow’s leaders. It is important to reach out to this group of people and do what we can to bring them into our churches and hold them accountable to faithful attendance. For those who are in the household of faith, we need to realize that some tradition, reverence, and awe are good things and need to be resurrected in some of our churches. Even the “seekers” whom we are so desperate to reach innately realize that it is a serious matter to fall into the hands of the Living God (Heb 10:31).

By God’s grace, I believe we can maintain the best of what has been good in the past while we expand and use the best of what is good today. Let’s make sure that in the attempt to update our services and keep them relevant and spontaneous, we don’t lose the tradition and solemnity that has always marked the church and set it apart from the world. If we can keep these two extremes in balance, we may find that the very group we want so urgently to reach will find what they are looking for in our church services.

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