The Challenge of the Inter-Generational Church is Only Growing

Earlier this month on an episode of the Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast, guest Haydn Shaw shared a fact that he sees as a major challenge facing churches as we head into the future. Thanks to increased life expectancy over the last half century:

Churches are seeing and serving 5 generations at one time.

Shaw is a researcher and coach that helps organizations understand and bridge differences between generations. In his mind, this fact brings into focus the challenge of intergenerational churches.

It has long been said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America. This usually refers to racial segregation, but it is not uncommon to see segregation of generations as well. This can be the result of congregations that attract people similar to themselves — younger attracting younger and older attracting older. It is also common to see generational segregation between different worship services within the same church.

No matter the reason, leading a truly intergenerational church requires intentionality and strategy. The challenge only grows when there are more generations to integrate.

I looked up the numbers behind Shaw’s statement, and here’s what I found:

  • According to the United Nations, in 1950 life expectancy in the US was 71 years for women and 66 years for men.
  • According to the US Social Security Administration, for those who turn 65 in 2016, women can expect to live to 86.6 years old while men can expect to live to 84.3 years old.
  • The SSA also estimates that 1 in 4 current 65-years olds will live past age 90.

That increase in life expectancy essentially equates to a whole extra generation living at the same time — from the “Greatest Generation” (ending in a birth year of 1946) through the generation after “Millennials” (beginning in a birth year 2005). If you picture it, it is not unrealistic for a church to have over–70s and under–11s.

Nieuwhof and Shaw noted that in the past the transition of leadership and responsibilities within churches happened more often. Churches were quicker in adapting to and making space for new generations because people didn’t live as long. Increasingly over the last 50 years, however, people have not only been living longer, but quality of life is extended as well. There are extra years of energy and ability.

Practically, this means that the same people could sit on the same committees, lead the same ministries, and run the church for decades. The potential result is entire generations being skipped over — and that’s the outreach problem. This may be a complaint that is common among Millennials, but we will see if this generation puts its money where its mouth is when the next generation hits college and young adult years within the next decade. Will the Millennial-focused churches and new church plants be faithful to adapt and make room?

We know from experience that if there is not a place for people to connect, invest, and serve, they won’t stick around. But that is true for both ends of the generational spectrum! When older generations make room for younger generations, they still need a place and a purpose too!

The challenge of intergenerational church is often reduced to worship style, and it is honestly difficult to plan and lead a worship service that appeals to the tastes of 5 generations all at once. But that misses the point. The biggest challenge is not appealing to everyone at once — Jesus wants disciples, not fans. Instead the challenge is finding ways for every generation to participate in the mission and vision of our churches.

Header image by Flickr user Glenn3095. Used under Creative Commons License. Edited/Cropped from Original.

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