By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
BRENTWOOD — The Greatest Generation. Baby Boomers. Generation X (Baby Busters). Generation Y (Millennials). Generation Z. Knowing the names assigned to the generations in today’s world can be confusing and hard to understand.
Only one thing is certain about each generation — they all need to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
An increasing emphasis is being placed on Millennials and Generation Z and rightfully so. Statistics reveal that Millennials are leaving the church in record numbers and that nine out of 10 children in Generation Z will likely grow to adulthood without knowing Christ.
These are sobering statistics and must be addressed. New churches are being started with Millennials and Generation Z as the focus.
But what about the churches that already exist? Do they gear everything they do at the expense of older generations who have given their lives to the church? Or, can churches effectively blend their ministries to meet the unique needs and challenges of each generation?
Pastors and leaders within the Tennessee Baptist Convention are convinced that churches can effectively reach Millennials and Generation Z without taking away from ministry to middle-aged and senior adults.
Steve Holt, TBC church services director, firmly believes that churches need to reach every generation, but he especially feels they need to do what it takes to reach younger generations. “I believe that older adults need to exhibit a higher level of spiritual maturity than those who are young in age and in their faith,” Holt said.
“It is our responsibility to adapt our preferences to be more in line with those of the younger generation — as long as those preferences do not compromise Scripture,” he stressed.
Holt noted that the question that must be answered is this: “What are you willing to put up with if it means your grandchildren won’t go to hell?”
Gary Rickman, TBC strategic relationships director, noted that churches can and should include everybody, citing the New Testament church as a good example. “It takes all of us to do the work.”
Churches need to understand that when they reach a younger generation for Christ and disciple them, they are preparing future leaders for churches in general. Young people grow up, go off to college, find jobs that take them away from home, or get married, Rickman observed. “We are training the future of the church. It just may not be the church they grew up in,” he said.
It’s a challenge to meet the needs of all generations, acknowledged Jim Collier, senior pastor of Kirby Woods Baptist Church in Memphis. “It’s an effort to keep folks together.” But Collier said the church bases its commitment to reach all generations on the admonition found in Titus 2 that “the older teach the younger.”
To do so, Kirby Woods has placed a renewed emphasis on being intergenerational especially on Sunday mornings, Collier said. The church intentionally involves people of all ages in Sunday morning worship by beginning every service with Bible reading and prayer. “We have both younger families and older adults involved in this,” the pastor said.
The church also has instituted “The Gathering” between Sunday School and worship where people of all ages can meet together for a time of fellowship. “We’ve tried to be intentional in reaching across generations and including one another,” Colllier said.
At First Baptist Church, Hendersonville, the congregation is certainly multigenerational and that is intentional, said pastor Bruce Chesser. “We attempt to reach various generations in a number of different ways,” he observed.
“The different ministry areas certainly help us accomplish that goal. If we have strong preschool, children’s, and student ministries then we will draw the young adults because of what we provide for their children.
“Frankly, there was a time when FBC did a great job in the preschool and children ministries, but maybe not quite as well in the student ministry. So, several years ago we put a renewed emphasis on student ministry and all that involves. We added student ministry staff and now have great leadership and what might have been a weakness is now a strength,” he said.
Chesser said the church’s preschool, children’s, and student ministry teams worked together to develop NextGen Ministries. “The basic concept is that those ministry groups do not work as stand alone ministries but, instead, they work in conjunction with each other.
“The preschool ministry knows what the goals are going to be when those kids are in middle school and what they are doing is helping them move along the discipleship growth pattern to get to where they need to be at various points in life.”
While FBC and Kirby Woods are larger churches in metropolitan areas, an intergenerational approach can work anywhere.
First Baptist Church, Watertown, is located in rural Wilson County but it is an area that has seen increased growth in recent years. The church has a good blend of all generations, said pastor Don Mathis. The church places an emphasis on friendliness and making guests feel welcome, he stressed.
“First Baptist has a great group of lay leaders who not only love and care for the youth and children but also the older adults. They work hard at reaching others,” Mathis observed. He noted the youth group also has grown over the years “because our youth are very good at inviting others to come and join in.”
“Many of our youth have been in our care since they were babies. We try to teach them they are loved, but we also teach doctrine and provide opportunities for ministry through a family missions trip and MFuge (a summer missions opportunity offered through LifeWay Christian Resources).
Worship can vary
There’s no one way to connect to the generations under one roof, the pastors noted.
First Baptist Church, Watertown, and Kirby Woods both offer one blended worship service while First Baptist, Hendersonville, offers both blended and contemporary worship services.
Collier said Kirby Woods intentionally has one service to keep everyone together. “I don’t want to split the church along generational lines,” he said. “We have a good mix.”
Mathis said the Watertown congregation has a blended service in which both traditional hymns and praise choruses are sung. He also has a “children’s sermon” at the end of the music time before his regular sermon.
First Baptist, Hendersonville, on the other hand, attempts to reach different generations by offering different worship styles on Sunday mornings, Chesser said.
“Our two early services (8:30 and 9:45 a.m.) are identical and are led by a choir and orchestra. While the music is upbeat, energetic, and often fairly modern music, it is done in a conventional format of a choir and orchestra. Those two services will have about 2,200–2,400 in attendance on any given Sunday,” he said.
“Our last service (11:00) is a little more contemporary. Rather than using a choir and orchestra, it uses a band, and is more modern in its approach. That service is markedly younger than the other two,” he noted.
Chesser said there are normally between 800 and 1,000 people in that service each week. “We do have some mature adults that choose to attend that service either because it fits their schedule better or they just prefer that style of music. The sermon is the same in all three services,” he added.
The tie that binds
The aspect of church life that appears to be common in each generation and brings them together is missions and ministry, the pastors agreed.
Chesser said First Baptist is intentionally trying to do more to “figure out ways to connect our older adult population in doing ministry with our younger people, and vice-versa.”
He noted that recently he and the church’s executive pastor Bruce Raley went to Memphis during spring break to encourage the church’s middle school students who were there on a missions trip. “We got to thinking how cool it would be next year to take a bus load of senior adults to take grills and spend an afternoon cooking hotdogs and hamburgers for the kids.
“The mature adults could see, first hand, what the teenagers were doing in ministry and, at the same time, do something for the kids,” he said.
Collier observed that Millennials are very interested in missions and opportunities to serve their communities.
He noted that Millennials who are interested in missions attend Kirby Woods. He also noted that there are Millennials who do not know Christ but are often interested in ministries that impact where they live. Missions can be a way “to connect them (unchurched Millennials) to the church and enable them to have contact with Christians,” Collier said.
“We haven’t capitalized on that as well as we should but we are working in that direction,” he added.
First Baptist, Watertown, offers a family missions trip each year, Mathis said. Entire families go as well as individuals in the church. “People of all ages work together,” he said, adding that this has been well received by members of all ages in the church.
Mathis said the blended generation approach works well at First Baptist “because we have people who have bought into the mission of the church. They believe in what we’re doing.” He added that as new people join the church “we assimilate them into the congregation under the umbrella of one church family regardless of age.”
That mixture of young and old is important, Chesser agreed.
“I do not personally believe that it is healthy for a church to be a church of only one demographic or generation,” he said.
“I think young adults need to be around mature adults. I think mature adults need to see young people and children. We need each other. We are family and families are made up of young and old.”