by Tom Eggebrecht
I recently heard that a friend’s 20-something daughter had moved to another city. In her first few weeks there, she decided she would give the local Lutheran church a try. Her verdict? The church wasn’t much to her liking because the only people there were “old people.”
On the one hand, I can understand this young woman’s hesitancy to return. We all like to be surrounded by our generational peers. It’s more comfortable. Friends and even potential spouses are easier to find among a large group of people close to one’s own age. Nobody wants to be a part of what they think is an old or dying organization. Some — for right or for wrong — come to church for an energizing faith boost. When they look around and see mainly gray or white heads, they may (especially if they are young or in the prime of life) feel less than energized and want to look elsewhere.
In a recent study by LifeWay Research, young adults reported that the number one reason they stop attending church is because their life situation has changed. They may go to college or simply move away from home. Out from under Mom and Dad’s roof, they have the freedom to sleep in on Sunday morning, and so they do. In light of this, I give my young friend a great deal of credit for at least giving a church in her new city a chance.
What if, however, she had decided to go back the next week? Then the week after that? And the week after that? What might she have found? How could she have contributed to a fellowship of mostly older people? What might the members of that congregation have done for her?
Suggestions for a younger person
If you’re a younger person entering a church with mostly older people, I encourage you to give it at least a few months. Make an effort to get to know the people in the church. Listen to their faith stories. Watch the ways in which they live out their Christianity. Sit around a table with them at a Bible study. Listen closely for words of wisdom. See if they don’t love you in ways you never expected.
Bring your youthful energy. Volunteer to help out in ways that might be difficult for those who are older. Bring some friends along with you and introduce them to the members of the church. Ask the pastor how you can help him. Lead a Vacation Bible School or help start a food pantry. Give of yourself — and see just how much you receive.
Suggestions for an older person
If you’re an older person who is a member of church made up of mostly older people, and you see a young person walk through the door, welcome her or him with open arms. Introduce her to your friends. Make sure the pastor knows his name. Don’t overwhelm her but do encourage her to stick around for coffee hour. Tell him about the history of your church and let him know how he can get involved.
Don’t make a fuss if she brings her mocha latte into the sanctuary. Don’t give him a sour look if he’s wearing jeans. Make an effort to get to know the personal details of her life. Show that you care about his vocation and relationships. Get her cell phone number and surprise her with an encouraging text message in the middle of the week. Listen to his ideas about ways to enhance the life of the congregation. Give of yourself — and see just how much you receive.
Embracing the generation gap
Instead of just bridging the church generation gap, what if we embraced it? From both sides? What if both young and old took on the attitude that we can learn from those of the other generation and be enriched by them? What if we cared less about ourselves — our needs, our preferences — and just a little bit more about the others sitting in the pews near us?
What if we all took heed of the words from Proverbs 20:29: “The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair”? What if we lived out Psalm 148:12-13: “Young men and maidens together, old men and children! Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven”?
The Rev. Tom Eggebrecht is senior pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church in Casselberry, Fla., where he enjoys watching young and old support one another in the faith. Follow his personal blog at www.tomeggebrecht.com.