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A New Model for Intergenerational Discipleship

One of my favorite prayers in the Psalms says this:

So even to old age and gray hairs,
O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might to another generation,
your power to all those to come. (Psalm 71:18)

The Psalmist is aware of the fatigue that old age brings, so he prays for the strength to mentor and disciple the next generation. This kind of intergenerational discipleship is assumed throughout the Bible (Deuteronomy 32:7, Psalm 78:4-6, 1 Timothy 5:1-2, Titus 2:1-6, etc.). These relationships between older and younger members of Christ’s body are a reflection of the kind of unity which God has won for us in Christ (Acts 2:42-47, 1 Corinthians 12:12ff).

I have a special burden for intergenerational relationships and discipleship in the Church, not only because it has made such an impact on my life but also because I believe it is a biblical model that is often neglected in our churches. While there’s nothing wrong with affinity groups (where we explicitly gather with other saints from common demographics), we are missing out on necessary growth and sanctification when these groups are the only Christian relationships we have.

Over the years I’ve tried to pay attention to the latest in intergenerational research, whether that is in the broader culture or in the church explicitly (sadly, the former often impacts the latter much more than the latter impacts the former). I was delighted when I learned that David Kinnaman (with his friend Mark Matlock) at the Barna Research Group put out a new work for us to learn from. Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon has some really insightful research and applications for ministry today. In particular, this new research sheds light on how intergenerational relationships not only need to be a priority in our churches, but it also shows us how these relationships might need to adapt for the challenges of this new age.

The Research

The aim of this new research is to help us see what’s working to shape and form young disciples for faith that lasts. Based on their research of young adults in the U.S. (18- to 29-year-olds with a church background), Kinnaman and Matlock came up with four categories to describe where churched young adults are today:

  • 22% are Prodigals or Ex-Christians. These are individuals who do not currently identify as Christians despite having grown up as a Christian during their childhood or teen years.
  • 30% are Nomads or Unchurched. These young adults identify as Christian but have not attended a church in the last month. The majority of nomads have not been involved in a church for six months or more.
  • 38% are Habitual Churchgoers. They describe themselves as Christian, yet do not meet foundational core beliefs or behaviors associated with being engaged as a follower of Christ.
  • 10% are Resilient Disciples. These young men and women are those who 1) attend church at least monthly and engage their church outside of the worship service, 2) trust firmly in the authority of the Bible, 3) are committed to Jesus personally and affirm he was crucified and raised to conquer sin and death, and 4) express desire to transform society as an outcome of their faith.

By comparing and contrasting the practices, beliefs, perspectives, and attitudes of these four categories of young adults, Kinnaman and Matlock offer us five practices which lead to Resilient Faith:

  1. To form a resilient identity, experience intimacy with Jesus.
  2. In a complex and anxious age, develop the muscles of cultural discernment.
  3. When isolation and mistrust are the norms, forge meaningful, intergenerational relationships.
  4. To ground and motivate an ambitious generation, train for vocational discipleship.
  5. Curb entitlement and self-centered tendencies by engaging in countercultural mission.

Based on their research, Kinnaman and Matlock argue that biblical, intergenerational relationships must be in the top five of priorities for reaching and keeping young adults in the faith. Not only is this a biblical principle (as highlighted above), but there are sweeping practical implications of these intergenerational relationships. Their research indicates that while 77% of resilient disciples grew up with close relationships with non-family adults, only 53% of habitual churchgoers can say the same (these number decrease significantly for nomads and prodigals, at 31% and 27% respectively). 65% of resilient disciples agree that they are currently connected with adults older than them in their church, while only 31% of habitual churchgoers agree.

If our churches want to reach the next generation and see them prosper in ministry, then intergenerational discipleship must become a top priority for us.

But this will not be without its challenges.

The Challenges

In a lonely, “Ok, boomer” culture, there are plenty of obstacles to discourage us from pursuing the hard work of intergenerational relationships. Faith for Exiles highlights several of these challenges.

If our churches want to reach the next generation and see them prosper in ministry, then intergenerational discipleship must become a top priority for us. Click To Tweet

First, there is the challenge of individualism having infiltrated our understanding of contemporary Christianity. In another study conducted by Barna, they found that 41% of Christians across all ages agree with the following statement: “I believe my spiritual life is entirely private.” 37% agree they want to be discipled “on my own.” Yikes!

Second, there are the numerous stereotypes between generations which only seem to be intensifying. When I was still working in the marketplace six or seven years ago, regular intergenerational training was a requirement in my company. While it was pretty typical to hear stereotypes about Millennials from Gen-Xers, Boomers, and Traditionalists, at the time Millennials still had a fair amount of respect for the older generations. Yet today, many young Millennials and those in the rising Generation Z feel very strongly that the older generations simply aren’t listening or taking responsibility for their mistakes.

Third, the average age of pastors and other ministry leaders is increasing. In fact, the average age of Protestant pastors today is fifty-four years old, which is ten years older than the average age of pastors in 1992. While this is in part due to the rising cost of retirement, this is also an indictment that raising up younger leaders in the church has not been a priority for our church leadership. If it hasn’t been a priority for our leaders, it likely won’t be for the average church member either.

In order to overcome these challenges (and there are many more), Kinnaman and Matlock suggest that we need to adapt our model of discipleship for the 21st Century.

I agree.

A New Model for Discipleship?

Traditional models of mentoring and discipleship are typically viewed in a top-down, hierarchical, older-to-younger process. Those who are older will have more years of practical experience, and thus they will have more knowledge and wisdom to pass down. No doubt this is still true today. We need the older generations to pass down their wisdom to young adults, whether that is in the workplace, in our relationships and marriages, or simply in what it means to be a faithful Christian in day-to-day living.

We need the older generations to pass down their wisdom to young adults, whether that is in the workplace, in our relationships and marriages, or simply in what it means to be a faithful Christian in day-to-day living. Click To Tweet

But might older generations have something to learn from young adults? In our fast-paced and changing world, young adults are facing issues that older generations have not had to face before (or at least not in the same degree). Changing views in gender and sexuality, dating, marriage, justice, and technology have led to practices and perspectives becoming normal which older generations may have never faced. Young adults today are asking questions which older generations may have never thought to ask.

While young adults certainly need the wisdom gained by years of experience from older disciples, their elders likely need to be shaped by these younger disciples as well. Today’s young adults can help our older generations become energized and excited about engaging our culture and the many new challenges which it brings. Kinnaman and Matlock summarize the need this way:

Think about today’s young people. They are smart, connected, ambitious, creative, and much more. We are absolutely amazed at how quickly our kids learn things from YouTube and other sources. They are often more informed – and wiser – than we realize. They don’t know everything…But we’d better be ready to admit that we need the next generation of exiles just as much as we hope they sense the need for us.

Today’s young adults can help our older generations become energized and excited about engaging our culture and the many new challenges which it brings. Click To Tweet

What might this new model look like? Kinnaman and Matlock call it reciprocal discipleship, and they list several characteristics of what this form of discipleship will look like:

  • Reciprocal mentoring opens a free flow of wisdom from one generation to the next and back again.
  • It offers older adults the chance to learn new tools and frameworks.
  • It projects mentors into new situations that require new or adapted patterns.
  • It helps older generations develop empathy and new insights into the experiences of the young.
  • It gives us tools to map the contours of a social landscape that is no longer “Christian.”
  • It generates courage to have difficult conversations with people we disagree with.
  • It helps us to lead with love in our relationships with those inside and outside the church.
  • It offers a framework and a passion for engaging the world.
  • It shines a light on a mentor’s box so they can think outside of it.
  • It keeps the mentor humble so they can continue their own hero’s journey.

What do you think? Are intergenerational relationships a priority for you? Your church? Do you agree that our traditional models might need to adapt? How so?

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A New Model for Intergenerational Discipleship

by Ben Hein time to read: 7 min
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