Forging Intergenerational Relationships

Churches have practiced a ministry model for years that moves people of similar age, life experience, or grade into groups together, leaving them devoid of significant intergenerational relationships. Some intentional and strategic ministry and teaching among such groups can be and is warranted. However, the practice of too many churches makes hyper-age stratification the norm and intergenerational connectivity the exception, resulting in a lack of meaningful, discipleship-focused relationships between generations.

Student ministries, along with other next-generation ministries, often resemble this structure as teenagers gather with peers during planned meeting times with a few adult volunteers. Sunday morning worship services can be the only time the generations of the church are together. Even then, these services are often not conducive or focused on fostering intergenerational relationships.

Hyper-age stratification ministry has left the church and younger generations worse, not better. This practice has been responsible, in part, for harming the faith of the next generations. Chap Clark claims, “The loss of meaningful relationships with adults has been the most devastating to developing adolescents.”[1]

David Kinnaman reveals that 18- to 29-year-olds with a Protestant or Catholic background “do not recall having a meaningful friendship with an adult through their church, and more than four out of five never had an adult mentor.”[2] The impact of these missing relationships was revealed by the Barna Research Group, who indicated that only 31 percent of millennials who dropped out of church stated they had a significant adult friendship in the church, while 59 percent of millennials who did not drop out of church said they did have a meaningful relationship or mentorship with an adult in the local church.[3]

We cannot say that the singular cause of young people dropping out of church is the lack of significant relationships with adults. Yet, we cannot deny for those who remained in the church that these relationships were crucial in their continued engagement in the faith community of the local church. Therefore, Kinnaman asserts, “This is true of enough young Christians that we must ask ourselves whether our churches and parishes are providing the rich environments that a relationally oriented generation needs to develop deep faith.”[4] Of all people, places and organizations in this world, the church ought to be a family of people who live in reconciled communion with God that makes possible the intergenerational relationships with one another forged by the cross of Jesus Christ. The following are a few reasons we must embrace these relationships.

1. Intergenerational relationships are biblical.

Scripture must be the rule of our faith and practice. From the beginning, we observe that all people were made to live in relationship to God and one another.[5] Parents were blessed to be fruitful and multiply, thus bringing into existence an intergenerational relationship between parent and child. Though sin has fractured our relationship to God and one another, Jesus Christ came to restore what sin destroyed. John Stott writes, “[God’s] plan, therefore, is not to call independent, unconnected individuals to return to Himself in isolation from one another, but to redeem a people for His own possession.”[6] The picture of the New Testament church is a people joined “together,” living life in intergenerational relationship one to another.

2. Intergenerational relationships image God.

Living in community is one way we fulfill being image-bearers of God. God is one God in three distinct persons, with each member having a distinct role, though each Person is equally God. Bill Clem notes, “The God of the Bible is an eternal, triune community, loving each other and living in worshipful, belonging relationships.”[7] The church is to be reflective of God’s own relationship with Himself through living in community, including intergenerational community. When the church, in spite of differences and diversity even of age, lives in loving relationship and unity to one another by the Gospel, we more faithfully reflect God’s own nature.

3. Intergenerational relationships are necessary for the Great Commission.

Parents have been called to make disciples of their children beginning in Genesis. This first and primary intergenerational relationship was a Great Commission relationship for the purpose of leading children to follow God in worship and obedience as image-bearers of God. Even more, Paul’s letter to Titus called the church to intergenerational relationships, with older men and women teaching the younger men and women. Younger generations need older generations who are seeking to make disciples of younger generations. Kara Powell reports, “Specifically, churches with close intergenerational relationships show higher faith maturity and vibrancy.”[8]

4. Intergenerational relationships push back against rising loneliness.

Forty-six percent of Americans expressed a feeling of loneliness either sometimes or always, while 43 percent said they feel isolated and that their relationships are not meaningful.[9] Sixteen- to 24-year-olds indicated feeling alone more than three times that of people age 65 and older.[10] Though connected by various technologies of the digital age, young people are missing relationships with parents and other adults. Tragically, only 10 percent of individuals seek community in a local church, perhaps because they do not expect to find it there.[11]

All Christians, especially the next generations, need intergenerational relationships among believers in the church. What can we do to push back against the hyper-age stratification and foster these relationships?


[1]  Chap Clark, Hurt 2.0 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 35.
[2] David Kinnaman, You Lost Me (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 121.
[3] “5 Reasons Millennials Stay Connected to Church,” n.p. Retrieved online 18 October 2018: https://www.barna.com/research/5-reasons-millennials-stay-connected-to-church/#.UlQIwRBjMSS.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Brad House, Community (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 201), 32.
[6] John Stott, Basic Christianity (Chicago, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1964), 105.
[7] Bill Clem, Disciple (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 130.
[8] Kara Powell, Jake Mudder, and Brad Griffin. Growing Young (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016), 130.
[9]  Jayne O’Donnell and Shari Rudavsky, “Young Americans are the loneliest, surprising study from Cigna shows,” n.p. Retrieved online 18 October 2018: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/ 2018/05/01/loneliness-poor-health-reported-far-more-among-young-people-than-even-those-over-72/559961002/.
[10] Sean Coughlan, “Loneliness more likely to affect young people,” n.p. Retrieved online 18 October 2018: https://www.bbc.com/news/education-43711606.
[11] “Americans Divided on the Importance of Church,” n.p. Retrieved online 18 October 2018: https://www.barna.com/research/americans-divided-on-the-importance-of-church/#.UzwMlq1dW7o.