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Two Secrets of Successful Multi-generational Churches
by Tom Goodman
October 28, 2010

"I was looking at church websites not long ago and noticed a fascinating dynamic," John Ortberg wrote in a recent church leadership article.  "Many new churches have been formed with 'multi-cultural' as part of their DNA and a stated value.  But I have not yet seen a new church plant with 'multi-generational' in its vision statement."

Maybe because being multi-cultural, with all its challenges, is still easier than being multi-generational.

Ortberg knows the joys and challenges of leading many generations in a single church setting.  He is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, a 135-year-old church with a wide span of ages in the congregation and the leadership team.

"Churches do not hit the multi-generational crisis until after their first thirty years or so," Ortberg observed, and added, "The real challenge comes when the core that the church was built around begins to age, and the people the church needs to reach are different from the people the church already has."

In churches with a wide age span, it's no surprise that worship services become a major arena where generational differences have to be worked out.  Ortberg wrote:

I was visiting a large church in southern California not long ago.  The band was leading a worship song that wasn't just pushing the envelope, it actually left the envelope altogether and was Fed-exing itself into tomorrow.  The senior pastor was flushed with irritation that they would do a song that so obviously interfered with everyone's worship.

Until he looked at his daughter, who happened to be visiting that weekend.

Tears were streaming down her face.  She told him later how that song resonated with and expressed the worship of her heart like nothing she had ever heard.  She told him how proud she was that the church would allow worship that resonates with her generation.

Successful multi-generational churches do two things.

One, they build relationships beyond the Sunday morning worship service.  To be multi-generational isn't accomplished by choosing a particular music style -- or about tossing together a hodge-podge of variant styles in hopes that everyone will like at least one song from the mix.  Instead, it's about how we're relating to each other beyond the Sunday morning worship hour.

In other words, a worship service is the place a multi-generational church comes together as a family instead of the place a multi-generational church becomes a family.

And that means that generational differences can't be solved by stylistic choices within a worship service but by the relationships that are being built beyond the worship service.

Here's a second thing that successful multi-generational churches do:  They joyfully accept the task of baton-passing.  What runner in a relay race approaches the end of his lap with resentment that he has to pass the baton to another?  No, he runs well, does his part to make a successful pass, and then watches with joy as his teammate carries the baton.

Together the generations of our church form a relay team in a vital race.  Biblically, the task of those who are older is to get the baton of faith in the hands those who are younger.

So, building relationships beyond the Sunday morning worship service, and joyfully accepting the task of baton-passing.  These are the secrets of successful multi-generational churches.

"Sooner or later every church hits the generation issue," Ortberg concluded.  "God's plan is not for the church to be a one-generation operation with a 30-year shelf life."

Hear, hear.


Read John Ortberg's entire article, "The Gap."

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