How far do you pull away from an old friend?
In pursuit of election to political office, politicians sometimes need to distance themselves from former allies who could potentially steer their campaigns off course.
After a candidate’s customary re-posturing statement, media pundits love to measure and debate the distance of the distancing. He or she didn’t go far enough, went too far, or got it just right.
Bus metaphors are plentiful in this distancing dialog. On the polite end of distancing etiquette, moving symbolically to another seat on the same bus doesn't quell the public outcry. At the other extreme, throwing a former friend under the proverbial bus represents the ultimate in distancing jargon---but also the ultimate betrayal.
A Visit to Your Neighborhood
Let’s quickly drive the bus away from the tired streets of politics to seemingly calmer neighborhoods where multiple generations from your church family reside.
In many families within your church, a very real and active faith in Christ has been passed down from generation to generation. Ask younger members of your church about persons of greatest spiritual influence, and chances are good that many will place a grandparent first on that list.
To be fair, others from both inside and outside your church share in the impact, but grandkids will still often point to their grandparents as having the most significant impact on their spiritual journey.
So how’s the bus ride for those in your church on the second half of their trip?
How’s church life for these graying sojourners who carry a biblical mandate to give testimony of God’s power, wonder, and faithfulness to the next generations?
As you look at these saints who often have top-seed influence rankings in their families . . .
- Does your church family recognize and celebrate the current value of these elder travelers?
- Or do your older adults feel they’re always being forced to take a back seat?
- How’s your MPG, Miles Per Generation?
- Are you secretly praying for Tom Brokaw to personally adopt the group he hailed as the Greatest Generation?
- Are you convinced this traveling band of hymn-lovers is conspiring to throw your church into reverse gear?
- Have you thrown them off the bus or, heaven forbid, under the bus?
In a recent review of over 800 posted church leader positions on churchstaffing.com, just one position was listed that specifically targeted the second half or older adult population. And that lone position was unfunded, requiring the candidate raise his or her own support!
In an era when the Baby Boomer fleet has already pulled into your community in record numbers, this detour away from opportunity is surprising to those already working with this strategic fifty-plus population.
Churches invest readily and heavily in energetic children’s/youth pastors and programs because they are ministering to our future.
Forward-thinking church leaders rightfully see potential for positive ripple effects. Get these spiritually ripe kids involved, impact them for a lifetime, and hopefully influence their parents and friends to be an active part of your church family as well.
And let’s face it…kids will not sprint to catch your bus if only older adults are onboard!
But in what direction is your bus moving to reach all generations?
The youth in Asia show incredible respect and care for the eldest among them. In contrast, many youth in America display attitudes of indifference toward the elderly and support euthanasia.
Not only do Eastern cultures read from right to left, their generational perspective appears to be flipped 180 degrees. Most churches in the Western world appear to think strategically from youngest to oldest. Eastern cultures think oldest to youngest.
Scriptural teaching on discipleship suggests it’s our Western church culture that is directionally challenged. Unfortunately, churches with tunnel vision for the young will often stop far short of reaching and equipping every generation.
With strong pastoral leadership, the bus going from Elder Park to Youngstown is better equipped for long-distance travel, more likely to reach its destination than the reverse route. While seeming to move more quickly at first, the Youngstown to Elder Park bus tends to break down when facing uphill challenges, never quite making it to Elder Park.
Let’s view this topic briefly from a higher plane; say from an Airbus at a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet:
"In case of sudden loss of cabin pressure, please apply your mask first before helping your younger children."
Does this mean that the children on the Airbus are less important? No, it simply means that all of you will have a better chance of survival if you move sequentially from older to younger.
Be intentional about ministry through these midlife and older stalwarts of faith, and make sure their vision extends intergenerationally all the way to the nursery.
By keeping the right sequence, we avoid either/or scenarios. Whenever possible, it should be both/and. We don’t have to neglect or marginalize the older to reach the younger! We need the balance of elder wisdom and experience combined with youthful energy and innovation.
A church bus with multiple generations represents a more complete cross-section of the body of Christ. Those traveling on it have opportunity for an enriching, cross-cultural experience, as long as they make room for relationships outside their peer group.
No matter which direction your bus is heading, tough uphill challenges will surface. You will at times face an overheated engine and overheated passengers. Open your windows on both sides of the age spectrum and allow for a healthy cross breeze of the Spirit. Prop them wide open and make sure every generation is on your bus and is breathing fresh air. Gain some downhill momentum for those uphill climbs.
It shouldn’t take a Bible scholar to convince us that throwing grandparents under the church bus is not part of God’s plan.
But what about our changing culture and the need to create new buses for different kinds of patrons?
In these changing times, it’s not just the young needing to catch a vision for a new church bus or an overhaul of your old one. Older generations need new buses to replace worn-out, unbiblical attitudes toward retirement, ageism, and age segregation. They need to dream with you about completely new types of vehicles to help your church fulfill the Great Commission by reaching younger generations and other cultures.
Here are some tokens of advice as you shop for a new bus or overhaul your existing one:
Keep Grandma and Grandpa on the bus and involve them in the change process. Quoting I.W. Lynett, “The best way to cope with change is to help create it." Don’t assume that older generations are universally resistant to change. They have experienced and adapted to incredible changes throughout their lifetime. Welcome their input. If changes are biblically sound and God-directed, patiently cultivate and expect their support. Read Gordon MacDonald’s Who Stole My Church? for wonderful perspective on engaging your older generations in the change process.
If your church has retreated from venues where intergenerational influence used to occur---Sunday school, Sunday night services, prayer times at an altar and midweek children’s programs---be sure you have created new venues that encourage strong intergenerational connections on a spiritual level. Teach your kids to respect, cherish, and learn from these older friends. Teach them the value of engaging in conversation with peers of their grandparents and great-grandparents. Create prayer partnerships. Have your young people help capture their spiritual legacy on video or through creative writing.
Equip your older adults with fresh tools to help them communicate more frequently with their grandchildren. Teach them computer skills, email, text messaging, Facebook and even Web 2.0. Twitter? Well, let's not go too far!
Invest in second half or senior adult leaders who have the energy and drive to move your adults to new paradigms of ministry. Don’t perpetuate social clubs or fun, food, and fellowship paradigms that fail to capitalize on their broader potential for outreach. Balance your budget. Investing fifty times more on children and youth than on second half adults is not a balanced budget.
At your next board meeting, move the needs and potential of this fastest growing segment of our nation’s population to the front of your agenda. Talk about access for physically challenged adults, not just to “the service” but to valuable opportunities for serving and intergenerational influence.
Stop endorsing methods that drop older generations off the church bus prematurely.
Create new bus stops for both the old and young in your community to get on board. When you think about attracting new riders, resist the tendency to think only of young riders.
Start thinking strategically from oldest-to-youngest rather than youngest-to-oldest. Change your vocabulary. Make sure no generation is left behind!
We know it’s not about distancing ourselves, fighting over who deserves the best seats on the bus, or deciding which generation we can throw under the church bus. It’s about all of us drawing closer to God, one another, and the destinations He has mapped out for us.
Don’t do it just because millions of Boomers are entering their retirement years or because it’s your fast track to church growth.
Do it because it’s the right thing to do. Do it because God calls you to value every age group in your church, from the oldest to the youngest.
Do it because you really do love and value Grandma and Grandpa, their great-grandkids, and everyone in between.